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STEP 1: Getting started

Tudor and Stuart handwriting can appear difficult at first, but it is a science with standardised forms, rules and conventions that can be learnt quite quickly.

This tutorial includes five manuscript examples you can work through, spanning c.1500 to c.1650.

The key starting point is understanding the common letter shapes and abbreviated forms of words. One of the difficulties of Secretary Hand is the heavy use of contractions and abbreviations. Secretary Hand was a script (style of handwriting) designed to save time and enable the scribe (writer) to write quickly and not to lift the pen from the paper where possible.

When transcribing the example manuscripts, it is important to take a steady and careful approach. At the beginning you will need to read words letter by letter. Do not be worried about making mistakes early on. If you get stuck look at the rest of the manuscript. It is often the case that a difficult word or letter can be found more clearly written elsewhere.

Be aware that Tudor and Stuart language and spelling were different from modern usage. There was no standard spelling or punctuation. However, when transcribing if your sentence doesn't make sense, always check again and don't assume that the scribe has made an error.

Even though the handwriting follows a standard form, scribes had their own individual styles and quirks. Look at the whole manuscript to get a feel for the handwriting. Ask yourself: does it lean to the right? does the scribe use long descenders (downward strokes on letters such as 'p', 'y' and 'g') and ascenders (upward strokes on letters such as 'l', 'b' and 'd')? These can interfere with words above or below and make reading more difficult. Does the scribe dot his 'i's? Minims (the simplest letter stroke - m has three minims for example) can be tricky when they occur in sequences. The best way of dealing with them is to simply count the number of minims to decipher the word (the word 'minim' has 10 minims in a row for example).

Numbers were often expressed using Roman numerals.

STEP 1: Getting started