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Early Modern Palaeography - HIS00149M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Danna Messer
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

Reading, understanding and interpreting the records of the past is a core skill for anyone working in History. This module provides the technical foundation for developing fluent reading of handwritten records at all periods, and the knowledge and practice required to work with Early Modern handwriting. We will learn letter shapes, combination patterns, abbreviations and numbers, using original records in the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

We will use court records, probate records, title deeds, petitions and accounts, concentrating our attention on the period 1500-1720. Class sessions are collaborative and iterative; we will learn from each other in relaxed sessions, with access to the original records in the study space. Our records will be in English, and each session will use an original record and an edited version of at least part of the record.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2023-24

Module aims

The aims of this module are to:

  • Introduce students to palaeography
  • Show students how to interpret early modern manuscripts and their significance
  • Develop familiarity with early modern manuscripts and how to safely handle them
  • Facilitate students’ ability to use early modern manuscripts in their own research

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Be able to read handwritten sources in English from the period 1500-1720
  • Recognize abbreviations, contractions and marks from this period
  • Know how to safely handle early-modern records in an archive
  • Be able to identify different forms of handwriting across the early-modern period

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1. Students will then attend a 2-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing (RAW) weeks during which there are no seminars, and during which students research and write a formative assignment, consulting with the module tutor. Students attend eight seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Learning to read and handle archival records (1450s)
  2. Learning to read (1500)
  3. Learning to read, introduction to editing (1530s)
  4. Learning to read, introduction to numbers and accounts (1540s)
  5. Learning to read: secretary hand (1590s)
  6. Learning to read carefully, and editing in practice (1590s)
  7. Reading with understanding (1620s)
  8. Reading with understanding, editing (1690s)
  9. Reading with fluency and accuracy, for meaning (1720s)


Task Length % of module mark
Edited Transcript and Commentary
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

In week 9, students will submit a 1000-word formative project portfolio, with a transcription also appended. For summative assessment, students will produce an accurate, edited transcription of a passage taken from a Borthwick record, and a 2,000-word commentary: 50% of the mark will be based on the accuracy and editing of the transcription and 50% on the commentary.


Task Length % of module mark
Edited Transcript and Commentary
N/A 100

Module feedback

Students will typically receive written feedback on their formative project portfolio within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative essay during their tutor’s student hours—especially during week 11, before, that is, they finalise their plans for the Summative Essay.

For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For reading during the module, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

  • Hoskin, PM and SL Slinn & CC Webb. Reading the Past: Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century English Handwriting. (York: University of York, Borthwick Publications 2001.)
  • Harvey, PDA. Editing Historical Records. (London: British Library, 2001.)
  • Hunter, Michael. Editing Early Modern Texts. An introduction to Principles and Practice. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.