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My Favorite Course: Palaeography

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series My Favorite Course

By Cheryl Levy, Student

The  Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents course is compulsory for almost all certificates, and with good reason. My initial expectation for this course, was that it would be mostly learning how to write various old scripts, using the pen and workbook provided. To my surprise, this aspect was only included in the first module. The detailed course notes and excellent companion workbook will stretch your knowledge and transcription skills. The extensive, customized exercises are a valuable component of this learning experience.

The course description states:

A number of topics linked to palaeography are covered to ensure participants have sufficient background to tackle unfamiliar documents that span the past five hundred years. The primary goal involves transcribing the unfamiliar writing in old documents to the modern day hand. A secondary objective is to provide the student with a feeling of success and achievement when new skills are learned. As Britain had a major influence on the cosmopolitan development of North America, examples will be taken from British and Canadian resources. Canadian resources will focus on The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, which are British in origin, and are now held at the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in Winnipeg. These materials reflect the profound influence of British language, culture and economics on the development of North America.
Module 1 featured practical handwriting exercises, and a brief introduction on the relevant materials required for experimenting with scripts. Website URLs  were given for a variety of specific scripts and alphabets, as well as tutorials and resources for further study. I have purchased one of the recommended books, Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry and Margaret C. Klein, and I have found it very applicable for my Colonial New England research. Personally, I love transcribing and the challenge to “solve the puzzle,” but this course explored so much more than merely deciphering the code for unfamiliar letters. As with all research, we need to understand the records we are examining. Analysis and evaluation involve more than simply recording the words of a sentence, we need to comprehend the context. As so many terms are no longer used, their original meaning may be lost to the one reading the text. Even after we have identified all of the letters, we must be familiar with the archaic terms to appreciate what has been recorded.

Module 2 investigated Early Forms of Speed Writing with a look at abbreviations and contractions. These were a challenge for me. I was familiar with some of them from my previous research, but many of those listed were new. It increases the difficulty of transcribing when the words are unfamiliar. The many examples provided, with the accompanying  images or the detailed lists, will be a ready reference used many times in my future research.

Module 3 presented Roman Numerals and Currency, along with their historical context, which was extremely helpful. I can now calculate in British currency and I understand references to terms such as, guineas and farthings. Learning the currency of the country you are researching is very important, and is essential to understanding economic status and conditions.

Module 4 explained Calendars, both ancient and modern, and provides explanations of the various dating systems. Understanding the reason for using double dates is crucial, especially for properly calculating an age and accurately identifying when an event took place. This will save future frustration and valuable time that could have been lost due to miscalculations.

Module Five explored the vast topic of Weights and Measures. The extent of the lists provided was a surprise. Many references very common to my ancestors, can now be a total mystery without these tables and explanations. Who knew there were specific terms for the measuring of wool or coal, or even rum? Very useful, invaluable in fact, for future reference.

Module 6 revealed aspects of The Church, the Manor and Social Life that were part of our ancestor’s daily lives. Feasts, Festivals and Fairs were definitely a vibrant part of the community they lived in. The Manorial records were a brand new topic for me, and it took some additional study to understand and consider the possible treasures hidden in these collections. Some of the Anglican (Church of England) terms were familiar, but not the Latin references. Holidays and feast days are interesting to research, however, many are no longer observed today. This material definitely helped to paint a picture of the social aspects of living in those communities.

Module 7 on Surnames and Occupations was extremely interesting and it could be the topic of a course on its own. Quite naturally, the two categories become intertwined as the origins of family surnames are investigated. This provides a great background for launching into a One Name Study project, or calculating possible naming patterns used in your family. Exploring this topic helps to understand the conditions in which our ancestors lived and worked. When visiting historical sites, be sure to watch the demonstrations of these skilled craftsmen as they display their craft. Sadly, many trades are becoming a lost art, even in our own lifetime. One interesting job: Knockerupper (London) – one who wakes you up in the morning. It was before alarm clocks and makes perfect sense that you would need someone to make sure you were awake in time to work your next shift.

Module 8 with the Latin Terminology was the most difficult module for me. I was totally unfamiliar with Latin terms, although a few of the medical terms were somewhat familiar. Identifying the religious and court terms, converting abbreviations, especially prescriptions, along with transcribing the scripts, is very challenging. A lot more practice is needed in this area to master these terms.

Overall, this course required a lot more work than I had anticipated, but wow, I learned so much. By completing the exercises in the workbook provided, I was able to apply what I was reading about and practice is essential to hone the skill of transcribing documents. Becoming familiar with the style of handwriting and the context of the documents that you discover in a specific time period will greatly enhance your research analysis skills. I can certainly understand why this is a compulsory course and the binder of course notes will be used as a reference resource for many future projects.

Every researcher will benefit from this advance course. I highly recommend including Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents in your portfolio of courses, whether you are working to complete  a specific certificate or not. You won’t be disappointed.

Cheryl Levy. Used with permission.

Cheryl Levy. Used with permission.

Cheryl Levy is a National Institute for Genealogical Studies student, who is currently working on the Advanced Level courses for her Canadian Records Certificate. She became interested in family history at the age of 17, when she asked her grandmother to identify distant family members she had never met. From this beginning in the 1970s, she began researching her family tree and soon discovered many fascinating stories about her ancestors and their place in history. Her passion for genealogy grew into a desire to help others discover their forgotten family connections as well. Her genealogy research interests include: Nova Scotia & Colonial New England roots, Loyalists & British Redcoats of the American Revolution, and the Quinte region of Ontario. After graduating, Cheryl plans to pursue courses in the Professional Development Certificate to further expand her research skills. She is currently a member of several genealogy societies, and holds the position of webmaster for the Quinte Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. She is also actively involved in genealogical groups on Facebook, where she monitors several groups and pages.

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