Paleography (how to deal with difficult handwriting)

If you are having difficulty in reading a name the first thing to do is look at other entries to get a guide to how the author writes various letters. It can take a while to “get your eye in” as to how a particular set of registers is written. First names are more readily recognised and so gives a basis as to what letter shapes are used.

When trying to interpret a line you should look at the line above and follow any descenders down and try to imagine the line without the clutter of other entries from the line above or below.

If a name is particularly difficult you will need to break it down into a range of names from the possible letters.

As a general guide the following rules apply:

  • Letters such as p, f and q normally have straight descenders going below the line.
  • Letters such as y, g, j are likely to have loops to the left where as letters that swing to the right could be f or q.
  • Look for the crosses on t and the dots on j and i.
  • Look for straight strokes of l.
  • Watch out for the letter e, as this is often written backwards!

Don’t forget: some material may show a different surname spelling to a later one; as literacy improved these variations reduced.