When reading modern text, we generally identify whole words at a glance. Look at this sentence:
While this way of reading and comprehending whole words at a glance is very useful in the modern world, it can lead to incomprehension and mistakes when trying to read documents written in an old and unfamiliar style of handwriting.
Be prepared to tackle an old document letter by letter if necessary. If you cannot identify a letter, leave it out, or put in a suggestion of what you think it is, perhaps with a question mark by it. Do a few more lines and then go back to see if you can now identify the letter. Or see if you have already come across it and understood it somewhere else in the document.
Knowing the background to the document will help enormously with reading the handwriting. Many types of documents contain standard phrases or formulas. It is much harder to read a document if you do not know what kind of document it is. If you know the phrases which are likely to appear in a particular document, you will be able to read them easily when they appear. You can then use the phrases which you are certain about to help decipher other words.
When copying a document always transcribe: this is when you retain the original spellings. Do not translate, this is when the words are changed into modern spelling. When you expand a word which was abbreviated in the original text (see abbreviation section) put the letters that you have added in square brackets [ ]. This way, when you no longer have the original in front of you, you will know which letters appear in the original document and which ones you have added.
Spelling in English was not standardised until the 18th century. Before then, words were often spelt phonetically (as they sound) and in local dialects. Vowel sounds in particular could be written in a variety of different ways, depending on how the writer said the word. A writer would often spell the same word in different ways in one document.
Archaic words: You may find that you have transcribed a word perfectly, and yet still not know what it says. In this case it is important to look in a good dictionary, as the word may be one which has fallen out of modern use. Often however it is merely a matter of saying the word out loud - although you should take your regional dialect into consideration if you decide to try this! Look at this word:
Out of context, you might think this is a bell tower. However, it appeared in an inventory of someone's kitchen, so it had to be something which the average person would have in their kitchen. Try saying it out loud. The word in modern spelling is:
Also take into consideration the following:
One way to deal with this, if it is not clear what the letters are, is to count the minims and work out the combinations of letters they could represent. From the context of the rest of the sentence, you should be able to work out the word. Use your common sense - even if a word really does look like thmg, no such word exists, so it must be thing.
Readers of old documents will very quickly come across what look like very strange squiggles and dashes above or in between letters. These are actually abbreviation marks - they have been put in by the writer to show that he or she has deliberately omitted one or more letters. This was done for two reasons - for speed of writing, and to save space on the page, as parchment was very expensive.
Abbreviations were standard across Europe, and any educated person would have understood them at a glance. A modern equivalent would be this abbreviation sign:
@ which means 'at', and is recognised by everyone today.
Forms of abbreviation in common use 1500 - 1800.
.M. for majesty
Lo. for Lord
This type of abbreviation is commonly used today, for example, BBC - British Broadcasting Corporation.
demād - demand
commissōn - Commission
It is worth noting that the location of the dash or wavy line may not always follow this rule. The author of the document may choose instead, to put the dash at the end of the word on the final 'n'.
When you come across a new abbreviation sign, you may wish to make a note of it for future reference. The main reference book for abbreviations is C.T. Martin, 'The Record Interpreter' (republished Kohler and Coombes, 1976), which you should be able to find in most reference libraries.