Reading Handwritten Documents

A large number of documents held in the Priory collection are hand-written – either bound collections of records (Such as the Church Services records, which you can see in Section C of the Collection) or private letters. The Church Services records tend to be far easier to read, as they are written on lined parchment. This keeps the word ordering and writing style consistent, compared to other hand-written documents, such as private letters.

However, both can prove to be challenging documents to read and comprehend for the novice, as you can see:


LAC/99/H16f, Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University.

As we are nowadays more used to reading uniform, computer-generated text, it may seem a daunting task to read a handwritten document – especially one written over a century ago – and this was one of the challenges we faced in first studying the collection. Many words written by hand were un-readable! However, there is a good technique for understanding words which may at first seem indecipherable.

Take the example below, taken from another handwritten document found in the collection :

word circled

LAC/99/H16g, Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University.

How can we find out what the word circled in red is? After all, if we misread the word it may change the entire context and meaning of the sentence.

We found that the best way to understand a challenging word is to separate out the individual components of the word, and then attempt to match them to similar-looking symbols elsewhere in the document – see below:

Word arrow 1

As you can see, when we break the word down and match the components with similar symbols, we can already tell that the first four letters of the word are “u”, “n”, “i” and “m”. The letter that follows dips below the line on the parchment – called a “descender”.

So, thinking about letters with “descenders”, compare the “q” in the word “questions”, and the “y” in the word “you” on the line below, or the “y” in years, “f” in “of” or the “g” in  “living” on the line above, with the letter following the “m” in the circled word – they don’t quite match! Therefore the next letter must be “p”.

Following on from this, we can work out that what the word is by comparing the symbols following the “p” with other words in this document. For instance, look at the “a” in “almost”, the “r” in “interval” (on the top line) and the “e” in “the” underneath:

word underlined arrow2

Having done so, we can see that the word is clearly “unimpaired”. Even without looking for a similar-looking symbol for the last letter, we can make an educated guess that the final letter is a “d” by putting together all the previous letters together, and by looking at the preceding word to see if it makes sense (“almost unimpaired”).

As throughout the collection we found that handwritten text tended to remain consistent throughout a document, you may find it handy to note down the ways letters are written on a “crib-sheet”, so that you can save time if you encounter other words or phrases that are difficult to read.

Although this technique is the best means to work out seemingly-incomprehensible words, you may sometimes decipher a word without it making sense to you. Always remember to examine the context in which it appears, which should assist you with discovering its meaning – for instance, it may be the name of a person, business or town/locality, in which case the first letter should be capitalised.

Specifically regarding the Priory Collection, it may be a particular piece of terminology relating to the church itself, some of which may be unfamiliar to the lay person. For instance, when we first researched the Church Services records, there was a mention of the Priory purchasing a “Ciborium” – on researching this word we found it referred to the small container in which Communion bread was held.[3]

To help with this issue, we’ve included a handy guide for terminology related to the church, which you can access here and may find useful for researching the St. David’s collection. And remember, if in doubt, ask the archivist – they’ll always be happy to help!


[1] RBA LAC/99/H16f

[2] RBA LAC/99/H16g

[3] RBA LAC/99/C4 February 27th.

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