Higher Education Libraries in your PERsonal history reSearch

Interpreting documents in archives

The first thing to check, once you've established that a set of records contains information likely to be useful to you is that you can actually read them. This may be more difficult than expeccted.

Old handwriting and ancient languages

If you find you have difficulty reading the text, it may simply be because it's faded or carelessly written or it may be because it's in an old style of handwriting. It may be useful to take a magnifying glass along when you visit an archive, though some archives keep some at the service desk for readers to borrow. More information on reading old handwriting (palaeography) can be found on The National Archive's Palaeography Tutorial.

Most family historians will tell you that it should be possible to trace your family tree to around 1750. Earlier than that, and there is no real systematic way of tracing your relatives. Furthermore the earlier the documents you find the more difficult they become to decypher: they may be in 'documentary hands' (which are nearly illegible to modern eyes, see the examples below), they may be in Latin, French, or even if they are in English it may be very different to moden English. If you're lucky a good catalogue descriptions will specify the language if it's not English. If you thought the handwriting was bad on the census returns you'll be in for a shock when you see a 16th century indenture.

As an example have a look at the documents in figures 1, 2 and 3. All three are from the Fuller Collection held at Senate House Library, and are the sort of documents you would find invaluable in family and local history research.

Poll tax assessment for Wanlip, 1641. SHL Fuller V/4/24.
Figure 1. Poll tax assessment for Wanlip, 1641. SHL Fuller V/4/24. Partial scan. (Clicking on the image shows it at full size.)
The will of Henry Pilkington. 1619. SHL Fuller V/6/78.
Figure 2. The will of Henry Pilkington. 1619. SHL Fuller V/6/78. Partial scan.(Clicking on the image shows it at full size.)

Figure 1. is a poll tax assessment for the Constabulary of Wanlip from 1641. It lists the people in Wanlip down the left hand side and their tax liability in pounds, shillings and pence on the far left. Figure 2. is a 17th century will. Both documents are written in English, although to untrained modern eyes they are next to illegible. Most legal documents -- the ones most useful to local and family historians -- from this period are written in these documentary hands.

The first for items on the tax assessment on figure 1 transcribe as follows:

Imprimis Archdall [sic] Palmer Esqyre 10 0 0

Item Barbara Palmer vidua late wife of William Palmer Esqyre deceased 6 19 4

Item William Allsopp beinge possessed and seized of an estate of landes and leases of the full yeerly value of 18li 0 2 0

Item Richard Benskin senior beinge possessed and seized of certaine landes for tearme of life of the full yeerly value of 14li 0 2 0

The first four lines of figure 2 transcribe as:

In the name of God Amen etc I Henry Pilkington of Gadsby

in the County of Leic sick in body but of perfitt mind and remembrance

praise be given to god do ordeyne and make this my present testament

Conteyninge my last will in this maner and forme follollowinge

Grant by Symon Vitulus and Chistiana for a 32 acres moor in 'Kelflania'. Late 12th century. SHL Fuller V/8/105.
Figure 3. Grant by Symon Vitulus and Chistiana for a 32 acres moor in 'Kelflania'. Late 12th century. SHL Fuller V/8/105. (Clicking on the image shows it at full size.)

Figure 3 is a 13th century grant of land. Although it is written in a much more legible hand, it is in medieval Latin (which is subtly different to the classical Latin you may have learnt at school) and makes use of abbreviations. Also where is Kelflania? From the context of the document it may be Killam in Northumbria, but we can't be certain: it is a place name that is now lost. The first three lines for figure 3 transcribe as follows:

Symon Vitulus et Christiana uxor eius Omnibus vicinis et amicis suis Tam presentibus quam futuris Salutem.

Sciatis nos consensu et voluntate Ricardi de Ran filii Christiane dedisse et concessisse. et presenti carta

confirmasse Waltero de kent et heredibus suis in feudum et hereditatem xxx ii acras de mora in kelf -- lania.

(This translates as: "Simon Vitulus [literally, SimonBullcalf] and Christiana his wife to all their neighbours and friends both present and to come, greeting. Know that we, with the consent and at the wish of Richard de Ran, son of Christiana, have given and granted and by this present charter have confirmed to Walter de Kent and to his heirs in fee and in inheritance, 32 acres of moorland in Kelflania.")

The point of these examples is not to frighten you off researching your personal history, but to show that even if you find a document that's nominally relevant, there's still a lot of work to do to actually decypher it. This is part of the challenge and the fun, of course.

Getting help

Most archives will allow readers to request more than one item at a time. If you think you may have difficulty reading a particular source then try requesting a range of relevant materials so that you'll have something more manageable to turn to if your first choice proves illegible to you. Archive staff may be willing and able to help you read some parts of difficult sources, but do remember that they're employed to help you access records rather than to conduct your research for you.

When you're making notes, start off by recording the full archival catalogue reference for the source you're consulting at any particular time. Also note the source of the materials -- who produced them, when and where were they created and what was their original purpose. This will greatly aid your interpretation of them and help you to resolve the problems caused by conflicting evidence.

If you find that large chunks of a document are of particular interest, it may be worth your while to ask whether a copy can be made for you to take home with you. The cost of this service is likely to vary according to the physical condition of the record, e.g. is the document robust enough to be photocopied or would it have to be photographed by the archival staff.

This completes the Research tutorials.


The Helpers system is developed as part of the Accessing our Archival and Manuscript Heritage project, at Senate House Library, University of London, funded by the Laser Foundation and the EARL Consortium. Please see the project website for further details.