Illegible?: when handwriting gets hard to read


In recent weeks my colleagues and I at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts here at Penn Libraries have been thinking even more than usual about the art of reading old handwriting as we prepare for a Transcribathon event this Thursday, Dec. 4th in collaboration with the Folger Shakespeare Library. The event will be an opportunity for everyone from those who have no prior experience reading scripts from centuries ago to those with lots of practice playing handwriting detective to come try out the Folger’s new digital transcription tool, developed for their Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) project. People will be learning how to read a range of Renaissance manuscripts, from fairly easy writing, not too different from modern hands, to more difficult scripts for those who want a challenge, and dropping in to transcribe from noon to midnight sustained by food and prizes. (I encourage anyone near Penn next Thursday to join the fun!) As I’ve been thinking about this upcoming event, I’ve also been thinking about the reasons we need to learn about and make transcriptions of the writing of the past, the reasons that once common ways of writing become foreign to us, and the ways the challenges of handwriting create challenges for the Provenance Online Project when the handwriting of the past becomes the only remaining evidence that a particular person once held a particular book in his or her hands or, sometimes, the only remaining evidence that a particular person ever existed at all. When, and for what reasons, does a name simply become illegible?

Many of us have memories from childhood of moving our pencils along pages marked by three horizontal parallel lines, the middle one dotted, designed to act as guides to our young hands as we began forming our first letters. At a certain point, when we had mastered the ability to form neatly printed (or, in cases like mine, rather wobbly looking) alphabets within these guidelines, forming each letter in its own separate space, the lessons would move on to a new form of writing: cursive. In recent years the teaching of cursive has all but disappeared from most elementary school curriculums, meaning that a new generation of digital age children will grow up knowing only one way to write. The art of forming looping, smoothly connected, quickly flowing cursive script has, within the space of a generation, become a thing of the past, an obscure form of writing that the next generation of adults will not only be unable to write, but also struggle to read, rendering a massive number of documents, letters, poems, and other material written in cursive across the 20th century increasingly illegible to those in coming generations who have not made an effort to study how, for example, to recognize an “f” as a letter with one high loop above the line, and another loop descending below, or a “K” as a letter that looks something like an “H” that’s been dented in the front, rather than the three straight lines that form the printed letter “k”.

The move to strike cursive writing from the curriculum, is clearly due to the increasing importance of being able to type and swipe our way through the world on various digital devices and a resulting decrease in the need to produce hand-written text. However, within the larger context of the history of handwriting, it is also nothing new. Various styles of writing have come in and out across the centuries. Sometimes, as in our current age, this is in reaction to a change in technology. The invention of the printing press, for example, certainly affected both the need for manuscripts, and the practice of writing in many complex ways. There are also, however, styles of writing that have come in and out because they are associated with particular regions—a German versus an Italian script, for example—or because there are different ways of writing for different types of writing—different hands for legal documents versus personal letters—or simply because a certain way of writing becomes “old fashioned” after a period of time and gets replaced by a new method. In the same way that future generations may find cursive increasingly difficult to read, the handwriting of the past, anyone who spends time with manuscript material from the past, is familiar with the challenges of learning to read past styles of writing. If the work of paleontology (from the Greek words “paleo” meaning “old or ancient” and “ont” meaning “being”) is to unearth and understand past creatures, the work of paleography (from the same stem, “paleo” or “old” and “graphein” meaning “writing”) is to unearth and understand past writing.

Learning the art of paleography, the ability to read handwriting from the past, can be essential for learning to read the legal documents, poems, essays, personal letters, and official correspondence that provide us with our understanding of history.   Researching the provenance of a book, trying to figure out who has owned that book and written in it, means applying paleographic skills, not to a full manuscript, but to short inscriptions, often just the name of an owner with the words “ex libris” (from the library of) in front of it, but sometimes slightly longer dedications from one person giving the book to another, or other brief quotes and sentiments a person included.   Currently the POP Flickr feed has 1,374 identified provenance inscriptions in an album that have been both transcribed and identified with an owner’s name.

POP also has an album of “unidentified inscriptions” with 3, 367 inscriptions that have yet to be either transcribed or associated with a person.

Some of these are not very difficult to read at all. They are just waiting for someone to come along and help transcribe and identify them:5963925808_cca6b9e90f_oView this image on Flickr


View this image on Flickr

Others are clearly written, but an older style of handwriting that modern readers who have not spent time with this kind of writing may find challenging (though not impossible to read with some learning and practice):



In some cases both an older style of writing and an increasingly rushed writer make things increasingly difficult:

5526756448_b45123b2f5_bView this image on Flickr


Or it would be helpful to know a little Latin:


View this image on Flickr

Or Greek ligatures:

5405606185_b4a7603700_oView this image on Flickr

Some of the great pleasures of looking at such inscriptions is seeing the personal touches people have added. Whether testing their pen and doodling:

 6777310033_7f42a2b818_bView this image on Flickr


View this image on Flickr

Or adding artwork:

6703023983_c2d4a5be61_bView this image on Flickr

6297991111_b5cb2a9c56_bView this image on Flickr

Or maybe a flourish:

6717380741_6381cea170_b-1View this image on Flickr

Or a heart:

5468222846_5e430486c0_bView this image on Flickr

In some cases the handwriting alone is not what makes the inscription difficult to read. Over time certain mixtures of highly acidic iron gall ink (a common kind of ink used in the past) can react badly with the writing surface eating right through the page (you can see right through parts of the large capital C and other letters in this image, for example):

5887574504_6354da502b_bView this image on Flickr

While at other times people have come along and purposely blotted out a past owner’s name:

6631090743_70cd5d3636_bView this image on Flickr

Or the name has been rubbed away, whether on purpose or by some accident of time or damp:


Sometimes the name is still clear, but it provides us with very little clue as to who the person who wrote it might have been:


In other cases we may never know what it once said:


View this image on Flickr

It’s easy when looking at all these unidentified inscriptions as a group to simply view them as a batch of messy old handwriting.  When looking at them individually, it is easy to get caught up in the challenge of trying to decipher the letters, playing at being the Sherlock of paleography unraveling what the letters say.  From time to time, however, I find that I am struck by the powerful fact that each one of the unidentified inscriptions on POP also represents an unidentified person.  When a person writes his or her name in a book, it may serve the practical purpose of ensuring that, if lost, that book will be returned to him or her, but it also often acts as a witness to that person’s presence in history, and the book that name is written in accts as evidence of at least one of the things that person read and thought about.  In cases like this, the act of transcribing old handwriting is not simply the act of solving a puzzle, but of bringing at least some small pieces–a name, a book once held, perhaps a doodle or a flourish at the end of a signature–of a past human being to light.

All the images used in this blog come from the “Unidentified Inscriptions” album on the POP Flickr feed.  If you want to try transcribing or identifying a particular image, click on the links below the images to view them on Flickr and comment.  Or, visit the “Unidentified Inscriptions” album on POP to browse through all the images of unidentified inscriptions. 

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3 Responses to Illegible?: when handwriting gets hard to read

  1. Pingback: Transcribathon!: Noon to Midnight Reading Old Handwriting and Making Digital Texts | Provenance Online Project

  2. Gregory S. GIrolami says:

    Dear Ms. Aydelotte:

    Very interesting post. I am certain that the last inscription (under the heading “In other cases we may never know what it once said”) reads “du Maitre cloitre Ste. / Opportune”. There was a church of Ste. Opportune in Paris until it was demolished shortly after 1792, and there was a cloister associated with it.


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