Palaeography – the history of handwriting

Until the end of the nineteenth century, all documents were handwritten, whether they were official or simply private letters.  By the late 1800s, typewriters were becoming increasingly popular which of course has had a huge impact on the way in which writing has developed.

Over the centuries, as the history of handwriting shows, styles of the handwritten word have changed.

Copperplate Script

Copperplate developed from about 1700.  It got its name from its use to illustrate books which were printed using a process in which the image was engraved onto copper plates.   Copperplate script has a thin up stroke and a thick downstroke.

Many private letters survive from 19th century and were typically written in a copperplate style.  Letters were often omitted where they were difficult to write with a quill, so for example, the word ‘enclosed’ may well be written ‘inclos’d’.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, copperplate developed into cursive script.  This was the style of handwriting taught to all children in this country until about the 1950s.

Italic Script

Italic script was originally introduced into England in the sixteenth century.  It fell out of favour in the late 1700s but came back into fashion in the 20th century.

Italic was easier to write than the court hand of the time and therefore particularly suitable for women.  Elizabeth 1 was taught italic as a child and so, when she became queen, it became fashionable amongst the aristocracy and gradually with lower social orders.

Most parish records were written in italic script.  It was not used by clerks or for official documents who continued to use secretary of chancery hand until the 18th century.

Secretary Hand

This developed from the legal or chancery hand that originates from the 15th century.  This is the script that is most likely to be encountered by family historians when researching legal documents.  Most letters are similar but there are variations and it can be quite difficult to read.

Capital letters present more problems especially as scribes often used very decorative flourishes.  It is worth noting that a capital F was written as two lower case f’s.  This means that a surname which appears in a document as ffinch, is simply an old way of writing the name Finch.

Abbreviations were often included in text.  These were indicated either by a horizontal line above the next letter or by a full stop.  We still use this convention – or at least we did until quite recently – when writing Mr. and Mrs. with full stops to indicate that letters were omitted.  Mrs is of course an abbreviation for mistress.

Spelling could be extremely variable and was largely a matter of preference until the 19th century.  It could also reflect regional accents.

Latin Script

Until 1733, most legal documents were written in Latin, except for the Commonwealth period from 1649-1660.  Latin was, even more than secretary hand, often highly abbreviated.