Of Old Documents and Handwriting


Recently my old battered debit card finally ran out and Barclays sent me a replacement. I picked up a pen, attempted to sign the strip at the back, slipped and produced a hopeless scrawl that I’m going to have to live with for the next four years.

With smartphones and computers everywhere, perhaps handwriting is a dying art. It’s not one that I’ve ever been very good at. I remember being back at school and my English teaching calling me up to the desk, informing me that what I’d produced resembled the last march of a dying spider.

I’m currently doing a little bit of this analysis in my research, using a person’s handwriting as a way to unpick their personality. The picture above is of a snippet of handwriting from a 30 (ish) year-old stonemason who lived in rural England in 1806. Trying to decode the lettering is one thing, but using it as a window into their personality where no picture or written description exists is quite another.

How a different person writes is an interesting thing. I’m not quite so sure how far that you can take the analysis and how revealing it is to divide those who pen big looping letters, from those who slant to the left and those with crush theirs to a tiny size. But when you are missing pictures, photographs and written descriptions of people, it’s a useful way to speculate and fill the gaps.

This analysis would be much more difficult in today’s world where you could probably split most office workers up into Times New Roman, Calibri and Ariel. I’m sure that these fonts do say a little about people in their own way (think Comic Sans) – but they are stripped of all the individualism of a person’s own style. Maybe that’s something to miss.

Still, when you’re two cups of tea into trying to decipher a faded word on some grizzled parchment, holding it up desperately to the window or the light, then ask me about the romance of handwriting and I’ll tell you what I think.

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