Go to Script Tutorials to learn more about paleography. The key to reading modern cursive handwriting is to become familiar with the penmanship of each particular scribe. Check your first impression of what the difficult letter or word might be with what you have already been successful in reading. It might even be necessary to construct separate alphabets of lower and upper case letters of that scribe to make comparisons.
When dealing with the census or church records of a specific place, first determine if the parish registers of that place have been printed. If not, move forward in time on the microfilm of the parish to a more readable portion in order to determine the surnames and any unique given names common to that locality, as well as names of smaller places associated with it. (See Locations) Knowing some of the common religious and legal terms to be found in church and probate records will assist in their decipherment.
Half of the battle for the family historian is being able to decipher names of persons correctly. For further help try Script Tutorials and go through the entire tutorial.
Parish registers and other public documents may be recorded in Latin before 1733. Wills are usually in English after the medieval period. Useful websites for those working with a parish register in Latin include:
- FamilySearch Wiki: A good introduction to Latin plus an extensive word list for terms likely to be encountered by the researcher.
- Latin Primer: This site is a shorter version of the one below but has the advantage of offering an exercise in reading a parish register written in Latin.
- Rootsweb: This site gives the nominative case (that is the subject followed by the verbs baptized, married or buried) for the name in Latin, the sex of persons so named, and the English equivalents.
If the researcher, who is not familiar with Latin, is faced with extensive research that goes beyond the few simple phrases used in a Latin entry in a parish register, it would be wise to take the tutorial designed by The National Archives for beginners.
From 1500-1700 (even up until 1750) the dominant script in England was called Secretary Hand. While some letter forms resemble the modern English hand, the majority of letter forms look more archaic. It takes practice to become proficient in reading this handwriting. The tutorials on script.byu.edu focus on Secretary Hand.
During medieval England the common hand in legal documents was Court Hand. The letter forms in Court Hand look very different compared to the modern English hand. Look online for Court Hand alphabets and tutorials to help decipher medieval legal documents.