The National Institute for Genealogical Studies


The National Institute for Genealogical Studies - LEADERS IN ONLINE GENEALOGY EDUCATION

Starting Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

Paleography (or palaeography) is an odd word isn’t it?  I mean, we all know what paleontology is (well, if you have kids you do since dinosaurs are awesome) and some of you may know a few other disciplines that begin with pale.  But what exactly is paleography?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary it is:

1        the study of ancient writings and inscriptions

2      a :  an ancient manner of writing  b :  ancient writings

So, for genealogists having a firm grasp in this discipline sounds like a must.  Do you agree?  Thankfully, The National  Institute offers such a course and I am diving into it full steam ahead.

However, and many of you may be figuring this out about me, I have had exposure to paleography in the past. In fact, I have studied various forms of medieval calligraphy for the past decade. I simply love old handwriting and calligraphy. Some of it is amazingly beautiful. Some of it, well, is amazingly undecipherable! I bet you have seen some words, symbols, shorthand or other things that made you want to scream!

Which is why I was excited to see that   Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents covers more than just how things were written. I am particularly interested to learn more about weights and measurements plus Latin terminology. In school I took German, not Latin, and even though I am slowly picking up some words as I read old manuscripts, knowing more Latin would be helpful.

I was intrigued to see that there is a workbook included with this course. There are exercises (hey, you get a dip pen too!) for each module that appear to put you through your paces. I love a good practical application, so I think this will be fun. Plus, it is unique as it is the first course I have taken with a workbook included. It is making me a little excited to see what is in store!

So, I hope you enjoy reading the blog the next few weeks. I am sure that you will stay entertained as I slog my way through  Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents.

See you online!


On Old Handwriting, Shorthand, and Vellum

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents
Patent located at the National Archives in D.C. made from vellum. (c) 2016 Shannon Combs-Bennett Used with permission.

Patent located at the National Archives in D.C. made from vellum. (c) 2016 Shannon Combs-Bennett. Used with permission.

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

Ah, the stuff I LOVE. Calligraphy and old handwriting. Many people might find reading and deciphering (let alone attempting to write) old handwriting a daunting task. I was very excited that our instructor in  Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents jumped right in with the  basics straight away.

She even goes through the various types of writing materials, instruments, and even covers watermarks in the first few pages. These are all important things to consider and observe when you are researching.  Recently I have pulled military land bounty warrants from the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  Most of the time I see a variety of types of paper in the files. Then, on occasion, I get to see a document that was created on vellum.

For those of you who don’t know about vellum, it is animal skin that is prepared in a specific way for writing on. It can be fragile if not cared for correctly, but it is superior in many ways to paper made from wood pulp in its longevity. Holding original documents made from vellum is an amazing thing.

Of course, more important than identifying paper and styles of handwriting, our instructor also covered common shorthand used over the years. Hopefully, you didn’t think modern writers were the only ones with a set of shorthand abbreviations to make writing quicker. If you did, well, then you need to pay attention to this section, and take  Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents !

There are so many abbreviations, contractions,  and simple symbols used in various “hands” (aka types of handwriting) that there was an extensive list given. I was particularly appreciative of the example images that were shown so you could see what she was describing. Sometimes seeing it makes it easier to identify in the future. I know it does for me.

So the first two modules are done and I am rearing and ready to go for the next ones. If they are anything like these I will learn a lot.

See you online!

Math and Palaeography

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents

By Shannon-Combs-Bennett, Student

Oh dear… math. I am not a math person, and the next three modules of Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents proved it. That being said, please understand that numbers, money, and measurements are very important to reading and analyzing manuscripts. So, I muddled through the best I could. Even if it meant I consulted with my husband who has a math degree (and tutored me in several math classes in school) to get me through it.

Now, don’t freak out on me. This is important information, I can just be a bit thick when it comes to numbers. You may have an easier time than me.  Especially when making change in the old English way.  You know, before they went to the current decimal system. I bow down to those of you who made change the old fashioned way!

This skill, unfortunately, is one that I need to nail down. I read quite a bit of colonial Virginia documents. Guess what? They use the pound / shilling / pence model for taxes and inventories up through the first decade of the 19th century. Now, after the Revolution you can find both the English system and the American dollar and cents shown next to each other in many cases. Fascinating as that may be, I admit that I will be going back to figure out conversion rates and check the math now that I really know how.

I particularly enjoyed Module 5 which covered weights and measurements. There were some unique terms I had never heard of before and others that I have read in books but didn’t understand what they meant. Happy to say, I do now!

Of particular interest was the difference in miles. Yes, a mile in one place did not equal a mile in another. As an example, look at these historic numbers:

5,280 feet            1 English Mile

5,920 feet            1 Scottish Mile

6,720 feet            1 Irish Mile

Can you see how it would be important to know this information if you are researching in the archives of each respective country?  Knowing how these numbers changed and evolved over time could also affect your research if you are trying to plat family areas on a map or determining how far someone traveled.

As a biologist, and daughter of a doctor, I have an interest in apothecary history.  As such I have come across different measurements for ingredients and medicines. Over the years I have looked them up to understand what they meant, but at times I struggled to put them into modern equivalents to really grasp the ideas. I was very excited to see table after table of information showing what the modern equivalent of historical measurements are.  There may have even been a “eureka!” screamed at the ceiling of my office.

I keep thinking of all the ways this information will help me in my research. From reading court records to letters you never know when this information will come in handy. Can’t wait to see what I will learn in the next modules.

See you online!

Latin and Palaeography

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents
The Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. (c) 2016 Shannon Combs-Bennett. Used with permission.

The Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. (c) 2016 Shannon Combs-Bennett. Used with permission.

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

The next few modules (6, 7, and 8) confused me at first. I wondered why they would be covered in a course about paleography. I mean, how does learning about the church, social life, surnames, or Latin have anything to do with the study of writing? Well, maybe Latin, but the rest I was a bit skeptical of.

I did had to think about the meaning of paleography though. Remember my first blog post where I included the definition, as the study of ancient writings and inscriptions? It seems that paleography  covers a lot more than what I originally thought it did.

More importantly I appreciate that our instructor went through the various documents we would find with each associated section, common words we should know, as well as basic history for a better understanding and appreciation of the bigger picture. I don’t know about you, but I love getting background information on what it was like during the times my ancestors lived. Those aspects of social history, and being able to place them in a bigger historical context, really helps with my research.  As well as making it very easy to relate to them as a real person.

For instance, there is an extensive list of occupations listed which you may come across in historical records. I know I have read manuscripts before and was left totally flummoxed when I would see a word with no idea what it meant. For instance, have you ever heard a butcher called a carnifex?  I sure had not!

The last module of the Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents covered all the nuances and intricacies that come with the Latin language.  As I never took Latin in school (just a course in college for medical terminology) there was a lot I didn’t know. If you are dealing with Catholic Church records, or especially old court documents, then this is the module you should pay close attention to.

We learned about verbs, nouns, names, occupations, calendars, festivals… well, let’s say if you should know it in Latin, we covered it.  I am half tempted to put this section in a binder with plastic sleeves and set it next to my computer for future use in reading documents. I know I have not digested all of the information taught, but I am sure the more I put it into practice the better it will be!

See you online!

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