The interactive parts of this resource no longer work, but it has been archived so you can continue using the rest of it.

The National Archives
Search our website
  • Search our website
  • Search our records
Latin Palaeography

Deciphering text

The first hurdle researchers face when consulting old documents in Latin is the handwriting. Old handwriting can vary enormously according to the period, the handwriting style, and, of course, the scribe. There are many handwriting styles, or hands. These range from the most clear, familiarly formed letters which make up a hand such as Caroline Minuscule, through to hands where the letters can seem initially impossible to decipher, such as Chancery or Court hand.

Caroline Minuscule

Caroline Miniscule - burgenses



Chancery - burgenses



However simple or tricky a new document may appear, try not to give in to hasty guesswork. The best place to start is to put together an alphabet, as we have done for you.


An alphabet will allow you to distinguish between letters that look similar to each other, which is one of the most difficult problems you will encounter with a hand you are not familiar with.


For example:

Look carefully at the s and f. This pair of letters can cause confusion if the exact form isn’t noted properly.


de lesefelde 
      Oval Callout: s    Oval Callout: f

de lesefelde


Another notoriously difficult set of letters to decide upon is n, m, i and u.




These letters always need special attention, and the best method is to count the downward strokes (or minims).  In this example, after the ‘e’, you will see that there are five.


The National Archives Newsletter Icon

Send me The National Archives’ newsletter

A monthly round-up of news, blogs, offers and events.