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Palaeography is the study of old hand writing. Reading other people’s handwriting can be quite a challenge. This is even more the case if it’s old handwriting - words can often be spelled differently and sometimes letters of the alphabet are even written differently. Yet, by getting your students to take on the role of history detectives and teaching them some basic palaeography skills, deciphering old handwriting can be engaging, fun and rewarding.

Start by showing your students an old handwritten document (such as this one from Newcastle University Special Collections).

Ask the students what they think the document is (it is a hand-written extract from a seventeenth century recipe book).

Then break it down into manageable chunks and get them to take on the role of history detectives to work out what it says. For example, they could look through the document to find certain letters and certain words that you have selected beforehand (perhaps ones that are written or spelled differently to today). Then they could have a go at transcribing a couple of sentences from the document.

To give you an idea of how this might work, when we’ve used this document with school children, we have asked them the following.

Find and circle or highlight the following letters:

  • c
  • b
  • d
  • e (find two different types)
  • r (find two different types)

Find and circle or highlight the following words (N.B. they are spelled differently to today):

  • Flour
  • Together
  • Paste
  • Yeast
  • Spoonfuls
  • Currants

Have a go at transcribing (writing out) the first two lines of the recipe, then check if you are right! Next, try the next two lines, and then the next! What do you think the recipe is for? Can you think of the modern-day equivalent? What would we call it?

You might want to use this Palaeography sheet to do this exercise.

Image reference: MSS5, Newcastle University Special Collections

Did you know?

In one of our past projects, school students transcribed this recipe and baked seventeenth century 'Cake Bread'. They were even featured on BBC Look North.