A few weeks ago now I enjoyed another fascinating weekend at Madingley Hall. On the agenda this time was palaeography, or the study of old writing. This is a skill I have been wanting to improve for many years. As a family historian for over 20 years I have become quite familiar with census records (nineteenth century), parish records (going back to the sixteenth century) and other original documents such as wills. The information in wills can be extremely useful, not only for identifying family members but also for the additional information about how people lived and what kind of things they had in their houses. Seventeenth century writing and earlier is quite difficult to read and I found there were many things I was unsure about. That is why this course was so useful. I am now far more confident about reading handwriting of this period.
Occasionally, as a translator I have had to work with photocopies of handwritten historical documents in French. Photocopies bring additional problems, rather as microfilm documents can, because marks or blemishes in the paper can sometimes look like part of a letter or an accent, or they may obscure parts of a word. Sometimes the photocopy has cut off part of each line and you have to make an educated guess at what is missing. In these cases you have to not only have a good understanding of the language but you also need to be familiar with the subject matter of the document in question. The most difficult aspects are proper names, especially surnames. Christian names and names of towns and well-known geographical features are not usually a problem but small settlements, farmsteads, field names and the more unusual first names can be problematic. Another problem with historical documents is names of agricultural tools and household items. We may not use these things anymore or we may call them by another name. Dialect words were also far more common in earlier times. Access to a good dictionary is therefore vital.
It was a beautiful weekend and I was able to take the opportunity to walk to the nearby, 800 Wood, planted last year to celebrate the University’s 800th anniversary.
When I was a student in Cambridge in the 70s I always wanted to visit the Gogs (Gog Magog Hills) but they were just too far. This weekend I finally got there. It was a beautiful day and many families were enjoying the open space. This is the site of Wandlebury Ring, an rion age hill fort. There are 3 marked walks taking in the hill fort, a Roman road and a fine view over the Cambridgeshire countryside.