Palaeography – Understanding Old Handwriting

Wills and Some Useful Information They Can Contain

Always keep in mind that Wills can be a useful place to look for information when researching family history. To look at the original wills you need to visit a Record Office, and you usually [at least you do in the UK] have to order them to be brought out of storage. Always do your homework before you go, have your list sorted out so that you can fill out the request slips straight away and you will not waste your time. By that I am talking about the time that you have booked to be in the Record Office, with the use of a fiche or film reader.

Because of the fragility of the old wills, you will only be allowed to write in pencil, and you must always, always be very careful in your handling of the wills – they are irreplaceable.

old handwriting

In the UK you will find that all the old wills come bound between two hard covers with fabric ties. They can be about a foot thick sometimes and very heavy, but the contents are numbered so its easy to find the one you want.

I mentioned wills being useful and they can be because of the people who are mentioned there. Sometimes family members are mentioned, perhaps by their married names, and also you could learn the names of children who you didn’t know about. You also learn by the bequests just how much property your ancestor owned. The wills can be a big help when trying to locate ancestors.

palaeography

A good part of my research was connected with farming families in a rural area of Lincolnshire in the UK. When there is land involved, it is usually divided up between family members, plus they usually bequeathed the animals, the hay, dairy equipment and all sorts of farming equipment.

I was always pleased to see an inventory attached to the will because this showed me what the person had in his house. You would find one person inheriting the pewter from the parlour say, somebody else would be getting the beds, bedding and bed furniture [yes, they even left their bedding!!]. Another person would inherit all that was in the hall [what we would probably describe as a dining room now], the table and chairs, or sometimes benches. Then somebody else would be getting all that was in the dairy. Plus of course there is always the family home and any money.

Usually debts and monies owed to the deceased are mentioned in the will, with directions as to how they should be handled.

Men especially seemed to leave their clothing, one of my ancestors left one son his best hat and whip, another got his boots, somebody else got his clothing.

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Women did leave wills sometimes, but most often you would find that it was the men.

One difficulty with the wills from the 1500’s and 1600’s would be the writing style. Elizabethan English and what was known as ‘Secretary Hand’ were the styles usually found. At first sight you think to yourself that you will never be able to decipher any of it, but don’t panic, take it slowly. The beginning of the wills usually follow a set format, you will get the persons name, where they lived and the date and they would talk about committing their body to God etc.etc. Most often they specify the place they want to be buried, and then come the bequests.

There are books available which will help you to understand the old English writing, some of the letters were formed differently in the ‘good old days’. When you have looked at a number of the old wills in your bid to trace your family history, you become more able to make out words. Almost always family names seem to jump out and hit you in the eye!

Some of course could even be in Latin, and this can be a bit daunting. You soon learn the word for son [filius] and daughter [fillia] etc. It’s all a matter of learning as you go.

Even the names of the executors can be useful, they may be members of the deceased’s family, or in-laws. Another thing to keep in mind is that you can often find that a son-in-law is called ‘son’. This can throw you off a little, but when you see the surname you realize that it means in-law.

Apart from the information to be gleaned from the will, you get a rather odd sensation when you realize that your ancestor from all that time ago, actually handled the document and signed their name to it. very strange but a good feeling, a sort of contact with the deceased.

There will be two workshops on palaeography at the forthcoming Open the Door International Family History Conference. One will be part of the Society of Genealogists sponsored workshops and the otehr a more advanced skills workshop. Whatever your level of expertise, you will beneift from attending at least one of tehse workshops. So much choice at the genealogy conference.

By Jean Carrick

Jean is passionate about family history and genealogy and has a blog related to these topics. If you would like to take a look at her blog and maybe ask a question, she will do her utmost to give you a solution to any problem you may have. Click here http://familytreetrace.com

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One Response to “Palaeography – Understanding Old Handwriting”

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