Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Handwriting Challenge

For many years I was a partner with my father as we practiced law. My father preferred to write out all of his legal briefs by hand. This would not have been a problem except that his handwriting was indecipherable much of the time. It was common for his secretary to come to me for an attempt at the translation of something he had written. In later years we tried to get him to use a computer, but he was never comfortable with composing legal briefs on the computer and even then the print-outs would be covered with his handwritten revisions.

When I became interested in genealogy, I soon encountered my Great-grandmother's handwriting. Mary Ann Linton Morgan (b. 1865, d. 1951) had very good handwriting and I soon got extremely good at reading everything she wrote. Here is a sample:

Just like with my father, if I wanted to know what my Great-grandmother had to say, I had to learn to read her handwriting. I was wondering what the attitude of my new state of Utah was towards implementing teaching cursive in the schools. I found the current policy on the website for the Utah State Office of Education. Here is what they had to say:
Utah studied cursive writing during the 2012-2013 school year. A committee of classroom teachers, university faculty, and literacy specialists met to look at the relevant research and data. This committee created language for the Utah Core Standards that was presented to the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) in April, 2013. Public comment was requested during April and May, 2013, and a summary of the comments was presented to the Board on June 7, 2013. 
The State School Board voted to approve the additions to the Utah Core Standards that include teaching manuscript and cursive writing and also include building fluency in reading cursive writing. 
Handwriting (both manuscript and cursive) is an important skill for students to learn. Teaching and practicing writing allows students to write letters correctly and efficiently. Fluent writers are able to focus on generating idea, producing grammatically correct text, and considering audience. Even when a student moves to a computer or other device, that writing fluency is important to the composing process.
Compared to the attitude towards teaching cursive in many other areas, this shows a very positive position. It is very obvious to anyone beginning research in genealogical sources that one of the real challenges is deciphering handwriting. The further we go back in time, the more difficult the challenge in reading the handwriting.
Assuming that you can read cursive at all, this example from the 19th Century is fairly easy. As we step back in time, we begin to see some changes. This is evident with handwriting from the 18th Century. Here is an example:

George Bickham's Round Hand script, from The Universal Penman, c. 1740–1741.

Of course, my examples are from English-based writing. There are a whole different set of challenges if the manuscript is in a non-English language. Quoting from Wikipedia:George Bickham the Elder:
George Bickham the Elder (1684–1758) was an English writing master and engraver. He is best known for his engraving work in The Universal Penman, a collection of writing exemplars which helped to popularise the English Round Hand script in the 18th century.
Bickham and others popularized a style of writing called Roundhand. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, this form of writing spread across Europe and into America. A good example of the influence of Roundhand in America is the U.S. Declaration of Independence which is believed to have been written by Timothy Matlack. See History of penmanship.

As we move back into the 16th Century, we find that handwriting is becoming less and less recognizable from our "modern" perspective. Here is an example:

Script type based on the hand of its cutter, Robert Granjon
Of course, these examples are done by professionals. Here is an example from the will of William Shakespeare written in 1616 in secretary hand, a very difficult script for modern eyes.

William Shakespeare and unknown scribe
This particular example dating from 1557, from the French punch-cutter (type maker) Robert Granjon reflects the everyday handwriting of Europe at the time. As we go back another 100 years to the 15th Century, the handwriting becomes more and more difficult to read without intense concentration and study. Here is an example from 1412:

Geoffrey Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve (1412)

We could keep going back in time indefinitely. When we get back into the 14th Century and even further, we find "Blackletter" which is also known as Gothic script. Here is an example from 15th Century:

Calligraphy in a Latin Bible of AD 1407 on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England.
When you get back to the 13th Century, you encounter Carolingian minuscule,  a script developed as a calligraphic standard in Europe so that the Latin alphabet could be easily recognized by the literate class from one region to another. It was used in the Holy Roman Empire between approximately 800 and 1200.

Carolingian minuscule
By this early date, we have left all of the modern languages behind. We have even left Middle English behind. Just in case you forgot your Middle English, here is a sample from the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
 And if you are still not convinced, here is an example of an Old English text with a transliteration:

[I thank the almighty Creator with all my heart that he has granted to me, a sinful one, that I have, in praise and worship of him, revealed these two books to the unlearned English nation; the learned have no need of these books because their own learning can suffice for them.]

Of course I have an ulterior motive for giving all these examples. In the last two related posts and with this one, I am illustrating the effort that is needed for a genealogist to do research before 1500 A.D. I am reasonably certain that most of those genealogists who brag about how far their pedigrees extend into the past have never dreamed about reading any of these old scripts. Copying an old pedigree out of a book or from a website is not doing genealogy. It is nothing more or less than fiction writ bold in an online family tree. If you had the knowledge to read these old documents, you wouldn't be stupid enough to believe them as a basis for a pedigree.


  1. The ability to decipher handwriting is definitely the starting point. However, not far behind is the ability to analyze the handwriting in order to learn significant new aspects about our ancestors. The science of handwriting analysis has been around for hundreds of years, but the world of family history research has been somewhat slow to adopt this science. At, we are working hard to leverage the skills and expertise of our handwriting analysts to help learn fascinating information and discover new clues. If you have documents written by your ancestors, we encourage you to contact us to open new doors of discovery for learning about your ancestors.

  2. I've enjoyed your articles on pre-1500 lines and this post on handwriting. I've featured it in my "Recommended Reads" today at

  3. Replies
    1. Because no one makes them write legibly.