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Thursday, 30 July 2020

New Tricks with Old Docs?

Over a series of blog posts we will be sharing with you what we have been doing whilst working from home, and giving you an insight into some of the interesting collections and items we have come across whilst the Record Office has been closed.

My normal role as an archivist involves collecting and processing collections and helping people to use them. This spreads from our public searchroom into rather more formal sessions, working with the academic world (undergraduates and postgraduates from the University History, English and Education faculties); interest groups for family and local history and school groups looking at the history of their local area.


Archivist Caroline with a group of student visitors.

‘Horrible Handwriting’ (or ‘Palaeography’) is one of our most popular sessions. The youngest group I’ve tried this with was a class of 8 year olds, who used a Tudor alphabet to write their signature like King Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I. Back at school and armed with their new alphabet, they were, to their teacher’s delight (and mine!), writing to each other in their very own class ‘code’ – 16th century Secretary Hand!

Faced with the prospect of ‘lockdown’, a number of us started to look at online courses and one that caught my eye (and fellow archivist, Kate) was one on Scottish Palaeography 1550-1750. A lot of the content was familiar, but, like anything you think you know, there are always bits here and there that are either new or explain something you ‘half know’ (like the use of : as an indicator of an abbreviation or = as a hyphen).

The structure of the course was interesting – text lessons, video tutorials (with the delightful Lionel!), quizzes, transcript exercises and (a lot of) Scottish history to give the context to the church court records you are aiming to read at the end. Our preliminary palaeography sessions at the Record Office have usually consisted of a rather swift canter through the main points and then ‘dive-in’ with the documents. This course certainly gave us food for thought to consider a rather gentler approach! It also introduced a useful tool by using the same document to demonstrate a number of different points (unfamiliar spelling, letter forms, abbreviations and contractions) so your audience can pick up new lessons using a familiar document.

Kate and I pooled our thoughts to create a new, full length, set of palaeography sessions and I set about putting together a set of ‘Horrible Handwriting for Beginners’ tutorials to access via our website. First, I used the 1580s Nantwich parish register with its account of the ‘Great Fire’ and entries of 17th century baptisms and marriages to look at different letter forms, abbreviation marks and other hints and tips to look out for. Next, the first Chester Assembly Book (16th century) provides an interesting look backwards to ‘the time of Edward the thridde’ to look at the layout of Chester streets.


The Great Fire (P 120/4525/2/1)


Finally, I used one of our favourites – Lady Stanley’s ‘recipe and receipt book’ which starts around 1650 (and includes ‘a good drink for the Pestilence!)


Lady Stanley's recipe book (DDX 361)


Archivist Becky then put my rather dry notes onto a very attractive digital story platform and our new ‘Horrible Handwriting’ course was born! The tutorials take you through around seven different hands covering the 15th to 17th centuries and a lot of the basics of the full length course (and even a little bit of Latin...) There are seven documents with guidance notes throughout and the last three you can try on your own. There are no tests and a full transcript at the end of each document, so you can take your time.

Take a look and see what you think. It’s a whole new skill just waiting for you!

You can access the Horrible Handwriting tutorials here or with our other activities via our homepage.




 


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