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  • Karl von Loewe

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

As a graduate student of history I studied Russian and Cyrillic paleography, and I soon realized that widespread literacy unfairly handicapped historians seeking to read old documents. I loved twelfth-century documents. Fewer scribes meant fewer "hands" to recognize. But by the seventeenth century many more people wrote, often in needlessly flowery script. Aaargh! In my mind, cursive became curse-it.

Most of my transcription problems in my genealogy research stemmed from twentieth-century German handwriting. Letters and diaries can be a real challenge, even with helpful charts such as this one. An extremely useful guide with ten tips on deciphering German script can be found here.

When your research involves documents all written by one person with a difficult hand, create a cheat sheet like the one here:
“Hugo” had written several letters that I needed to translate. But first I had to transcribe them. Certain words were easy, others not so much. Occasionally, he used two or more variants of a single letter. As you can see, my cheat sheet was essentially the “Hugo alphabet.” But it wasn’t just useful for his correspondence. When encountering other private documents of the era that sheet comes in handy, since many individuals used similar script.
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