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LIMA: Handwriting Analysis

Why Analyse Handwriting?

The handwriting in a manuscript can provide considerable information about an individual manuscript, and how it relates to other manuscripts. It is possible, for example, to establish details about the writer at work, such as where he or she started a fresh session of writing or where the text has been corrected after being first written. Consider the following questions:

  • How many scribes were at work on a given document?
  • Were these two copies of the same text made by the same person?
  • Is this poem holograph (in the author's hand) or scribal?

In all cases the answer depends on the comparison of samples; on correctly determining whether two or more pieces of handwriting were written by the same person. These pages focus on the comparison and identification of handwriting. These pages are not concerned with calligraphy, that is the artistry of handwriting, nor with the dubious practice of reading character traits from handwriting (graphology).

Identifying a common writer is possible, of course, because no two people write exactly alike, and in many cases two samples are clearly the work of different people. Even in these straightforward cases, it is important to have a clear terminology for describing specific features of handwriting in order to explain the reasoning behind your conclusions.

The process of comparing handwriting is not always straightforward and unambiguous, and it is usually less easy to claim identity than to discount it. How similar do samples have to be before you can be sure that they were written by the same person? What features are most useful for comparison?

Most of the work on the analysis of handwriting has been done in the field of forensics. The reliability of handwriting has been subjected to much more rigorous analysis in that field than in humanities scholarship, although differences between the fields must also be acknowledged. Finally, no discussion of handwriting analysis would be complete without a few words on forgeries

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A Brief History of post-Medieval Handwriting in England

An additional issue that arises when dealing with older manuscripts is the changes that have taken taken place in how letters are formed. Modern western handwriting derives from a script that was developed by the humanists of Renaissance Italy - hence its name, italic. Clearly written italic is easily legible to the modern western eye, even if it is five hundred years old. Italic hand was intended as a return to the elegant simplicity of the Classical world but it was also heavily influenced by Carolingian scripts.

Italic was not, however, the dominant form of handwriting in Elizabethan and early Stuart England. It gradually made its way into England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it took a considerable time for italic to replace the older "native" hand (originally from France), a late gothic cursive known as secretary hand. Secretary is not easily legible to modern eyes, even when neatly written.

This means that the modern reader faces an additional problem when trying to read documents of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or earlier. Not only may the writer have been messy and barely legible even to contemporaries, but he or she may also be using letter forms that are entirely different from those we are used to. Teaching how to read secretary hand is a skill that is beyond the scope of this website, but a course may be found at English Handwriting: an Online Course.

For a considerable period, until second half of the seventeenth century, many people were fluent in both italic and secretary hands. So, for example, it was very common for writers to use italic for emphasis and proper nouns in a document mostly written in secretary, much as italic is still used with roman in printed documents. Over time italic forms invaded secretary hands more and more: most secretary hands of the seventeenth century use at least one or two italic letter forms. These hands are known as mixed hands. During the later seventeenth century italic hand gradually developed into round hand.

The development of italic provides some good examples of how a script can develop particular cultural associations. Italic was the script of humanism. Among the early patrons of italic in England were the Tudors, so it became associated with the royal court as well as with the cosmopolitan new humanist learning. As italic became more popular, it also came to be considered by writing masters to be easier than the alternatives, and thus more appropriate for women.

A much more detailed history of post-medieval English handwriting can be found in a freely available sample chapter from Handwriting: Everyone's Art, by Ewan Clayton.

Describing handwriting.

Handwriting links:

CEDAR's research site on the individuality of handwriting

Cynscribe, a major resource for all aspects of calligraphy.

Handwriting pages by Tom Davis, an academic and handwriting analyst.

English Handwriting: An Online Course. This includes an introduction to early modern manuscripts by Dr Elisabeth Leedham-Green.

Forensic-Evidence.com, which includes a number of reports on forensic handwriting analysis.

A History of Handwriting by Ewan Clayton.

Site teaching Medieval and Early Modern palaeography at the University of Leicester.

Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts by Stephen R. Reimer.

Further links to on-line resources for early modern palaeography by Michael Ullyot.