“Griffonage” literally means hard-to-read handwriting, and it usually refers to a careless, hasty scrawl. But even the tidiest handwriting from the past can be hard to read today if it’s in an unfamiliar script, a point I’d like to underscore here by working through three documents in the secretary hand that was routinely used for writing English during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Below is a plate showing many of its typical letter forms (from the Folger Shakespeare Library):
In addition to recognizing these letter forms, reading old documents in secretary hand also involves contending with archaic spellings—witness the title “The secretarie Alphabete” above—and antiquated conventions of abbreviation, punctuation, and capitalization. It can feel something like solving a crossword puzzle or Sudoku, but the rewards are arguably more consequential: if we succeed, we’re unriddling some real trace of the historical past, no matter how minor it may be. There are several tutorials available online to help people learn the art of deciphering secretary hand, including these:
The three sources I’ll be examining here—one on vellum and two on paper—were part of a small lot of English legal documents I picked up recently on eBay. They involve agreements and transactions between the same three people who lived in and near Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, and they were all drawn up within half a year of each other in what today’s Gregorian calendar would call 1656. Each is written in secretary hand, but each is also in a different hand, so that together they present a variety of styles and conventions while still forming a nicely coherent little group. This post is the first of a number I hope to write about handwritten documents and manuscripts I’ve found for sale on eBay and elsewhere in English and other languages (Latin, Middle Scots, Middle French, Middle Occitan, etc.), in various writing systems (including shorthand and obsolete Indic scripts), and from different periods (stretching back to at least the fifteenth century). Each of these will involve material I find interesting in its own right, but I’d also like to start exploring analogies between such traditional paleographic pursuits and the decipherment of sound recordings and other media types—that is, what’s involved in “reading” them, as opposed to merely educing them—and I’ll close this first post with a few remarks in that direction.
The challenge of reading secretary hand is closely linked to the challenge of transcribing secretary hand. Many guidelines I’ve seen for transcribers, such as this one, assume there will be only one transcription per document, which means striking an all-purpose balance between accuracy or fidelity, on the one hand, and ease of reading on the other. But I’m more interested here in the process than in the end result, so I’ll instead be providing three different levels of transcription: (1) one that aims to identify the specific marks on the page, including abbreviations, superscripts, overlines, and characters such as u and v written contrary to modern practice; (2) one that fills out abbreviations and modernizes distinctions such as the one between u and v, but leaves spelling, punctuation, and capitalization untouched; and (3) one that preserves wording but modernizes spelling, punctuation, and capitalization for ease of reading.
So let’s get started, beginning with the document on vellum.
The miniscule b, i, m, n, o, and t should look reasonably familiar as long as you’re no stranger to cursive writing in general, but take note—for a start—of the forms of the majuscule B and the miniscule e, h, k, w, and y. At this point, u and v were still treated as variants of the same letter, which in print usually takes the form v initially and u elsewhere (thus, vnto rather than unto, euen rather than even). In handwriting, the form of this letter likewise varies depending mainly on position, and the version seen here is its usual initial form (though occasionally also found elsewhere); we’ll see its usual medial form later. We also see two forms of s: the “long s” in these, and a special form at the end of presentes—a loop up, backwards, and down (ꝭ)—used as an abbreviation for es. The horizontal stroke above or through the double l in al̅l̅ is an overline (a.k.a. vinculum) and indicates an abbreviation. True, it might seem as though nothing is being abbreviated here, but we’re not necessarily seeing all; the omitted letter, I infer, is a final e in the archaic spelling alle. Another abbreviation is the p with an up-and-backwards curl that represents pre, which I’ve transcribed here with an overline for want of a closer Unicode-compliant match (per or par, by contrast, tends instead to be abbreviated by a horizontal line drawn through the descender: ꝑ). The long starting upstrokes on the m and v are found only in initial position. The long downwards stroke seen at the start of the a is also associated with initial position but can turn up elsewhere as well, whenever the pen has lifted just before writing it.
Note the majuscule T, P, and W, the miniscule f, g, and x, and the alternative form of h. We also see another overline to mark the omission of the ia in William. The r in uttoxetor is written as a superscript, which we’ll be seeing from time to time—I’ll have more to say about this convention later. The upward stroke that begins the w in wee only appears initially, like the ones we saw earlier on m and v.
Note the majuscule C and S, as well as the forward curve at the top of the t in the, which is often found with this letter and might lead to it be mistaken for an f. The miniscule f instead descends below the base line as seen here in Stafford. We now see the handwritten equivalent of the printed u, in Countie, which—as you’ll notice—is visually indistinguishable from the following n. The difference between n and u can often only be worked out from context; in this case, we know the word should be read Countie only because Conntie, Conutie, and Couutie (or Covutie, Couvtie, etc.) aren’t words. The p in Cowper (“cooper” or barrel-maker) is distinguishable from the x seen above in uttoxeter mainly in the shape of its tail: the p has a sharp angle where the x has a rounded curve. But those letters can become indistinguishable too, especially when written next to each other, causing xp to look just like pp. We also encounter the non-superscript version of r—a kind of squarish downward-jutting tooth—in Stafford, Cowper, and Sara. We see another form of s in his, which is the handwritten equivalent of the “short s,” and typically found in final position: a curl downward, back, and up (as opposed to the curl upward, back, and down, ꝭ, used as an abbreviation for es). And we see a distinctive final variant of d in Stafford that ends with an extra downward stroke.
Except for the majuscule H, these are all letters we’ve seen before. And yes, we do get the spellings wife and wiffe right next to each other—what were you expecting, consistency?
Here we have two specimens of the letter y: an initial form with slightly longer downward stroke in yeom̅ and a medial form in deceysed. We also see the initial version of d in deceysed. More importantly, take note of the miniscule c in deceysed, which consists of both a tight down-and-back jag (somewhat like a later cursive r) and a diagonal mark above it that resembles an acute accent (´). As we’ll see below, the two strokes of c are usually connected rather than separated as they are here, but this first specimen does a nice job of illustrating the characteristic structure of the letter.
What’s new here is the ampersand, drawn as a tight counterclockwise circle continuing into a larger oval loop. Now let’s start taking the text in larger chunks.
apparant of the ſaid Wil̅l̅m Heaton; are holden & ſurelie bounden vnto Alexader
Howe of Woodhouſes in the Pariſhe of Stoake vppon Trente in the Countie aforeſ̅d̅
gentleman in Two Hundred Powndꝭ of Lawful̅l̅ money of England To bee payd
(apparant of the said William Heaton; are holden and surelie bounden unto Alexa[n]der
Howe of Woodhouses in the Parishe of Stoake uppon Trente in the Countie aforesaid
gentleman in Two Hundred Powndes of Lawfulle money of England To bee payd)
There’s no n written in the name Alexander, and no mark of abbreviation either—I believe its omission here can be regarded according to the convention of its times as a sloppy mistake. On the other hand, there are two marks of abbreviation found in this passage: aforeſ̅d̅ = aforesaid, and Lawful̅l̅ = Lawfulle. Note also the capital form of A, the unusually long upward stroke at the start of in (in line 3), and the alternative medial form of d seen in holden, bounden, and Hundred.
to the ſaid Alexander his Certayne Attorney his executors adminiſtrators & aſſignes
To the wch payment wel̅l̅ and truelie to bee made and done; wee bynde vs & eúye
of vs Ioyntlie & ſeúallie, or heyres executors and adminiſtrators Firmely by theſe
(to the said Alexander his Certayne Attorney his executors administrators and assignes
To the which payment welle and truelie to bee made and done; wee bynde us and everye
of us Joyntlie and severallie, our heyres executors and administrators Firmely by these)
The superscript r turns up again here, but in a couple new and interesting ways. In executors and administrators, it’s attached to a “short s.” And in or=our, it serves to abbreviate ur rather than just r. Granted, it could arguably abbreviate ur in the other cases too: after all, executors and administrators would typically have been written executours and administratours in earlier times, when the convention of using a superscript r in such circumstances first emerged. But when these words are written out in full elsewhere in this particular document, they don’t contain the u, so the writer doesn’t seem to have felt it was supposed to have one. Meanwhile, another abbreviation turns up twice here, which I’ve transcribed ú: an upward stroke over u followed by a down-and-leftward diagonal stroke that represents ver in everye and severallie. If you had any doubts about that line in al̅l̅, wel̅l̅, and Lawful̅l̅ being an overline representing final e rather than a meaningless decoration routinely added to the letters ll, observe that the line is missing from the ll in severallie, where it wouldn’t mark an abbreviation. We find which abbreviated with superscript letters as wch. Note also the form of capital J in Joyntlie, which could also be a capital I; as with u and v, i and j were considered variants of the same letter in this period. And then there’s the majuscule F in Firmely, which looks just like ff and is often found transcribed that way, e.g. as ffirmely. My own sense is that this form of F was originally perceived as a single character with two ascenders, much like the blackletter F found in the first English printed books, so I’ll leave initial ff to the likes of Sir Jasper ffinch-ffarrowmere (see P. G. Wodehouse, Meet Mr Mulliner).
p̅ſentꝭ Sealed wth our Seales Dated the Foureteenth day of June in the yeere
of or Lord god according to the Computaco̅n̅ of the Church of England; One
Thouſand Six hundred Fyftie and ſix—
(presentes Sealed with our Seales Dated the Foureteenth day of June in the yeere
of our Lord god according to the Computacion of the Church of England; One
Thousand Six hundred Fyftie and six—)
We encounter two new abbreviations here. First, there’s wth = with; I can only really make out the superscript h, but I assume the little curl before it is supposed to be a t, judging from the way this same abbreviation ordinarily appeared in print. And then there’s Computaco̅n̅ = Computacion, which illustrates a common approach to abbreviating words ending in cion (now tion). Note also the capital forms of D and O and the c without its upper stroke in according, which is unusual for this particular document and probably akin to an inadvertently undotted i.
We’ve now covered the whole first half of the document, and I think I’ve introduced virtually every paleographic clue you’d need to decipher the second half by yourself. Here’s a link to a scan of the whole document, if you’d like to give it a try. I’ll provide my own transcription of the second half below.
In the meantime, here’s the opening of a second document from the same group, in a different hand:
Receaued by vs Sarah Heaton Widdow and Willia̅ Heaton
ſonne & heire of the foreſd Sarah, both of vttoxeter
wthin ye County of Stafforde of Alexander Howe of
ye Woodhouſes wthin ye ſd County gent: ye ſum̅e of….
(Receaved by us Sarah Heaton Widdow and William Heaton
sonne and heire of the foresaid Sarah, both of uttoxeter
within the County of Stafforde of Alexander Howe of
the Woodhouses within the said County gentleman the summe of….)
There are some forms of abbreviation here we hadn’t seen in the other document, most notably ye for “the,” in which y is really a vestige of the archaic letter thorn (þ); ſd for “said”; and the colon after gent, which functions much like an overline. The elaborately crosshatched overline in sum̅e also bears notice, as does the majuscule R, which we hadn’t encountered yet. Here’s a link to a scan of the whole of the second document, which I’ll transcribe below as well—but why not see if you can read it on your own first?
And here’s a third document from the same set in yet another hand which is somewhat more challenging to read than the others:
Articles of Agreemt. Bearinge date this Nyntienth day of
Ianuary 1655. Between William Heaton & Sarah Heaton
of. vttoxett´. wthin the Countye of Stafford widdowe on theone
parte & Allexander Howe of woodhouſſes, wthin the
ſayd Countye of Stafford gentleman on theother ꝑte as
(Articles of Agreement, Bearinge date this Nyntienth day of
January 1655, Between William Heaton and Sarah Heaton
of Uttoxetter, within the Countye of Stafford widdowe on theone
parte and Allexander Howe of woodhousses, within the
sayd Countye of Stafford gentleman on theother parte as
Here we see an example of the p with a horizontal line through its descender (ꝑ) which I mentioned earlier—an abbreviation for per or par—in ꝑte for parte. The acute accent at the end of vttoxett´ represents an abbreviation for er equivalent to the one seen earlier in eúye for everye and ſeúallie for severallie, except that in this case it crosses over into a terminal flourish. Theone and theother are each written as a single word with no space between them, so I interpret these as variants of thone and thother. I’m unsure of my reading of the punctuation marks as full stops or commas, but they appear to function consistently as commas, the main mystery to me being the mark between of and vttoxett´, which has another mark drawn in above it. Was that second mark a convention for “crossing out” an incorrectly inserted punctuation mark, since scribbling out a full stop would only have resulted in a larger full stop? That’s the hypothesis I’ve run with here. In any case, here’s a scan of that whole document, with a transcription of the rest to follow below.
ATTENTION: this is your last chance to try your own hand at decipherment before you hit some spoilers!
OK, then, here’s the rest of the first document:
The Condico̅n̅ of this p̅ſent obligaco̅n̅ is ſuch That if they thaboue bounden Wil̅l̅m Page
Sara his Wiffe and Wil̅l̅m Heaton, their heyres executors adminiſtrators & aſſignes
ſhal̅l̅ and doe wel̅l̅ & truelie obſerue performe accompliſhe Fulfil̅l̅ and keepe; Al̅l̅ and
Singl̅er Articles Coven̅ntꝭ grauntꝭ & agreemtꝭ wch vppon their & every of their partꝭ
are to bee obſerved ꝑformed accompliſhed Fulfilled and kept ſpecified mencoed exp̅ſſed
and declared in One payre of Indentures of Bargayne and Sale, bearing date wth
these p̅ſentꝭ; And made betweene them the ſaid Wil̅l̅m Page Sara his wife & Wil̅l̅m Heaton
vppon the one ꝑte and the abouenaned Alexander Howe vppon the other parte, That then
this p̅ſent obligaco̅n̅ to bee Fruſtrate & voyd or els to ſtand Remayne and bee in Ful̅l̅ force
ſtrength effect and vertue.
Sealed & deliúed in the pn̅ce
Raphe Browne Iunior
(The Condicion of this present obligacion is such That if they thabove bounden William Page
Sara his Wiffe and William Heaton, their heyres executors administrators and assignes
shalle and doe welle and truelie observe performe accomplishe Fulfille and keepe; Alle and
Singuler Articles Covenantes grauntes and agreementes which uppon their and every of their partes
are to bee observed performed accomplished Fulfilled and kept specified menc[i]o[n]ed expressed
and declared in One payre of Indentures of Bargayne and Sale, bearing date with
these presentes; And made betweene them the said William Page Sara his wife and William Heaton
uppon the one parte and the abovenaned [sic] Alexander Howe uppon the other parte, That then
this present obligacion to bee Frustrate & voyd or els to stand Remayne and bee in Fulle force
strength effect and vertue.
Sealed and delivered in the presence
Raphe Browne Junior
A few comments:
- Here we see both readings of ꝑ, per and par, in the words performed (line 5) and parte (line 8).
- In Covenantes (line 4)—written Coven̅ntꝭ—the overline takes a distinctive form with the letter a added underneath to specify that the missing letter is an a. This form of abbreviation doesn’t seem very efficient in terms of ink or time, but I suppose it helps conserve horizontal space on the vellum.
- The capital R seen in Remayne hadn’t turned up in the first half of this document, although we’ve since seen it in another document.
- I believe there are two actual mistakes in the text: mencoed (=mencioned) should be written menco̅e̅d, with an overline; and abovenaned should surely be abovenamed. The vertical strokes used to draw letters such as n and m are called minims, and when the minim count gets off, this can play havoc with decipherment. For what it’s worth, in my experience it’s much more common for a minim that belongs in a word to be missing than for an extraneous one to have been added. But the real rule is that there are no absolutely certain rules.
- In the body of the text we encounter two punctuation marks—the comma (,) and semicolon (;)—with the comma often positioned so far below the line that it seems to belong to the line underneath, while the two continuous blocks of text end respectively with a kind of extended dash and a period.
The rest of the second document:
Thirty Fiue pounds of Currant Engliſh money
beinge ye reſidue of ye firſt payment, for an houſe
& certaine Lands lyinge & beinge wthin ye Lord-
ſhipp of dilhorne, & ſould by ye ſd Sarah and
Willia̅ Heaton, vnto mee ye foreſd Alexander
Howe & my heires for euer Wee ſay receaued
ye foreſd ſum̅e of Thirty & fiue pounds by vs
the foreſd Sarah Heaton & Willia̅ Heaton, ye
15th day of May 1656:
(Thirty Five pounds of Currant English money
beinge the residue of the first payment, for an house
and certaine Lands lyinge and beinge within the Lord-
shipp of dilhorne, and sould by the said Sarah and
William Heaton, unto mee the foresaid Alexander
Howe and my heires for ever Wee say receaved
the foresaid summe of Thirty and five pounds by us
the foresaid Sarah Heaton and William Heaton, the
15th day of May 1656:
And the rest of the third document:
Firſt ^ it ys agreed and Concluded on vpon by the abouenamed
ꝑties That the whearas vpon Treatie had Between the ſayd
ꝑties them they the ſayd william Heaton & Sarah Heaton
haue abſolutely Bargayned and Sould one dwellinge houſe
in Lady Flattꝭ—wthin the dillorne ꝑiſhe of dillorne & Count*
of Stafford whearein one Anne Hill doeth nowe Inhabitt
wthall ſuch Landꝭ and premyſſes wth the Appurtenancꝭ to the ſame
Belonginge for eu̅ vnto the ſoyd Allexander Howe hee
yealdeinge & payeinge thoirefore the Full & Iuſte Sum̅e
of One Hundred powndes Currantt Engliſhe monie as
Item that ys to ſay to pay in hand the Summe of Ten
powndes in ꝑte of paymt of the ſayd Purchaſe monie And alſoe
the Summe of Fortie powndes in and vpon the Fifteenth day
of May next Enſueinge And alſoe the ſayd Allexander Howe
shall pay vnto the ſayd William Heaton ^ or his Aſſignes in or vpon the 29th
day of September next Enſueinge in Full Sattiſfac̅i̅o̅n of all the
abouemenco̅n̅e̅d houſe & Landes: yf Councell vpon viewes of
the deed & writteinge theirto belongeinge ſhall ſoe allowe
of they the ſayd William and Sarah paſſeinge ſuch Further
Aſsuranc* as by Councell shalbe adviſed &c In witneſſe
wheareof the x ꝑties abouenamed haue put their handes & ſeales
the day & yeare abouewritten
(First it ys agreed and Concluded upon by the abovenamed
parties That whereas upon Treatie had Between the sayd
parties they the sayd william Heaton and Sarah Heaton
have absolutely Bargayned and Sould one dwellinge house
in Lady Flattes—within the parishe of dillorne and Countye
of Stafford whearein one Anne Hill doeth nowe Inhabitt
withall such Landes and premysses with the Appurtenances to the same
Belonginge for ever unto the soyd [sic] Allexander Howe hee
yealdeinge and payeinge thoirefore [sic] the Full and Juste Summe
of One Hundred powndes Currantt Englishe monie as
Item that ys to say to pay in hand the Summe of Ten
powndes in parte of payment of the sayd Purchase monie And alsoe
the Summe of Fortie powndes in and upon the Fifteenth day
of May next Ensueinge And alsoe the sayd Allexander Howe
shall pay unto the sayd William Heaton or his Assignes in or upon the 29th
day of September next Ensueinge in Full Sattisfaction of all the
abovemencioned house and Landes: yf Councell upon viewes of
the deed and writteing theirto belongeinge shall soe allowe
of they the sayd William and Sarah passeinge such Further
Assurance[s?] as by Councell shalbe advised et cetera In witnesse
wheareof the parties abovenamed have put their handes and seales
the day and yeare abovewritten
The first vowel in soid and thoirefore is unambiguously written as an o, as much as I want to read it as an a, and I’m interpreting this as a mistake on the writer’s part. The asterisks in Count* and Aſsuranc* represent an upward stroke that seems to mark an abbreviation in which final letter(s) have been omitted. I’ve inferred Countye for Count* based on the only other appearance of this word in the same document, but I’m unsure whether Aſsuranc* should be Assurance singular or Assurances plural. There’s a seemingly redundant minim between the m̅ and e in Sum̅e, and other bits of sloppiness throughout.
A few words about capitalization and punctuation. During this period, capitalization was associated largely with emphasis in reading aloud rather than with fixed rules about capitalizing proper nouns and the first words of sentences, although proper nouns and the first words of sentences were often emphasized. For that reason, we shouldn’t expect seventeenth-century practice to conform to our own ingrained twenty-first-century expectations. Many words that wouldn’t be capitalized today were capitalized then, while proper nouns were sometimes not capitalized, including forenames and place names. This doesn’t mean that capitalization was random; try reading one of the above texts aloud with the capitalized words emphasized, and you’ll sense a certain pattern or logic to it. But the distinction can’t be reliably inferred from the rules now familiar to us, so it has instead to be determined from the forms of the written characters themselves. In my own transcriptions at levels one and two, I’ve made an earnest effort to distinguish consistent forms of majuscules (“capital letters”) from consistent forms of initial miniscules (“lower-case letters”), but this can be tricky. Punctuation too was “rhetorical” rather than “syntactic” in the seventeenth century; that is, it was intended to govern pauses in reading aloud rather than to make grammatical distinctions, although pauses in speaking often happen to reflect grammatical distinctions, especially when they’re consciously imposed. In short, the original capitalization and punctuation, like the original spelling, can be interesting and meaningful, although not necessarily in the ways to which we’re accustomed.
On the other hand, these features can be distracting if we’re interested mainly in the content, so here, finally, are my third-level transcriptions of all three documents, with modernized spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, starting with the first in chronological order:
Articles of Agreement bearing date this nineteenth day of January 1655 between William Heaton and Sarah Heaton of Uttoxetter within the County of Stafford, widow, on the one part, and Alexander Howe of Woodhouses within the said County of Stafford, gentleman, on the other part, as followeth.
First, it is agreed and concluded upon by the abovenamed parties that, whereas upon treaty had between the said parties, they the said William Heaton and Sarah Heaton have absolutely bargained and sold one dwelling house in Lady Flats within the parish of Dilhorne and County of Stafford wherein one Anne Hill doth now inhabit, with all such lands and premises with the appurtenances to the same belonging, forever unto the said Alexander Howe, he yielding and paying therefore the full and just sum of one hundred pounds current English money as followeth.
Item, that is to say to pay in hand the sum of ten pounds in part of payment of the said purchase money, and also the sum of forty pounds in and upon the fifteenth day of May next ensuing, and also the said Alexander Howe shall pay unto the said William Heaton or his assigns in or upon the 29th day of September next ensuing in full satisfaction of all the abovementioned house and lands, if counsel upon views of the deed and writing thereto belonging shall so allow of they the said William and Sarah passing such further assurance[s] as by counsel shall be advised, et cetera, in witness whereof the parties abovenamed have put their hands and seals the day and year above written.
Sarah Heaton, widow, and her son William Heaton, both of Uttoxeter, have agreed to sell a house and property in Lady Flats occupied by Anne Hill to Alexander Howe of Woodhouses for £100, with £10 to be paid up front, £40 on the next 15 May, and the remaining £50 on the next 29 September. Despite the reference to the parties’ “seals,” all three wax impressions look like they were made from the same seal, which would have been perfectly in order: according to legal precedent, the definitive point was that the impression was physically made by the hand of the contracting party, regardless of which specific seal was used. The agreement was dated 19 January 1655, but at this point the new year still began on 25 March (“Lady Day”), so according to that convention the next 15 May and 29 September would have fallen in 1656 rather than 1655, and “19 January 1655” itself corresponds to the modern Gregorian calendar date 29 January 1656.
The next document dates from when the follow-up payment became due:
Received by us Sarah Heaton, widow, and William Heaton, son and heir of the foresaid Sarah, both of Uttoxeter within the County of Stafford, of Alexander Howe of the Woodhouses within the said county, gentleman, the sum of thirty five pounds of current English money being the residue of the first payment for an house and certain lands lying and being within the lordship of Dilhorne, and sold by the said Sarah and William Heaton unto me the foresaid Alexander Howe and my heirs forever, we say received the foresaid sum of thirty and five pounds by us the foresaid Sarah Heaton and William Heaton, the 15th day of May 1656.
According to the agreement, £40 was to be paid “in and upon” 15 May 1656, but this receipt of that date is for only £35, so Alexander Howe must have paid the difference of £5 at some earlier time. I haven’t been able to find any other case of the phrase “in and upon” or “in or upon” used in this way, but perhaps it was understood here as meaning something like “on or before.” What I find most interesting about this document, though, is its shifts in first-person reference. Let’s format them as though we were dealing with lines being spoken by different characters in a play:
[Sarah and William Heaton:] Received by us Sarah Heaton, widow, and William Heaton, son and heir of the foresaid Sarah, both of Uttoxeter within the County of Stafford, of Alexander Howe of the Woodhouses within the said county, gentleman, the sum of thirty five pounds of current English money being the residue of the first payment for an house and certain lands lying and being within the lordship of Dilhorne….
[Alexander Howe:] …and sold by the said Sarah and William Heaton unto me the foresaid Alexander Howe and my heirs forever….
[Sarah and William Heaton:] …we say received the foresaid sum of thirty and five pounds by us the foresaid Sarah Heaton and William Heaton, the 15th day of May 1656.
I doubt that whoever wrote the text thought of it in quite these terms, but the inconsistency in deixis reflects the real complexity of the receipt’s social function: first to record an acknowledgment by Sarah and William Heaton (=”us”) of their receipt of the £35, and later to enable Alexander Howe (=”me”) to show that he had paid. At this point, Alexander Howe should still have owed Sarah and William Heaton £50 of the purchase price for the house and property in Lady Flats, due on 29 September (=Gregorian 6 October) 1656. But something else also happened on 15 May (=Gregorian 25 May) 1656: according to a local church record, Sarah Heaton married William Page, one of the witnesses who had signed the receipt. On 14 June (=Gregorian 24 June) they, together with Sarah’s son, entered into a new agreement with Alexander Howe. The main agreement, it seems, was a sale documented in a pair of indentures: two documents traditionally cut from the same piece of vellum along a zig-zag or wavy line and retained by both parties so that their authenticity could later be proven by matching the two halves of the cut. Unfortunately, the documents I have don’t include either copy of the indenture itself. What I have instead is a bond that spells out a penalty in case the agreement spelled out in the pair of indentures was violated.
Be it known unto all men by these presents that we, William Page of Uttoxeter in the County of Stafford, cooper, Sarah his wife, late wife of William Heaton of Uttoxeter in the said county, yeoman, deceased, and William Heaton, son and heir apparent of the said William Heaton, are holden and surely bounden unto Alexander Howe of Woodhouses in the Parish of Stoke-upon-Trent in the county aforesaid, gentleman, in two hundred pounds of lawful money of England to be paid to the said Alexander, his certain attorney, his executors, administrators, and assigns, to the which payment well and truly to be made and done we bind us and every of us jointly and severally, our heirs, executors, and administrators, firmly by these presents, sealed with our seals, dated the fourteenth day of June in the year of our Lord God according to the computation of the Church of England one thousand six hundred fifty and six—
The condition of this present obligation is such that if they the above bounden William Page,
Sarah his wife, and William Heaton, their heirs, executors, administrators, and assigns shall and do well and truly observe, perform, accomplish, fulfill, and keep all and singular articles, covenants, grants, and agreements which upon their and every of their parts are to be observed, performed, accomplished, fulfilled, and kept, specified, mentioned, expressed, and declared in one pair of indentures of bargain and sale bearing date with these presents and made between them the said William Page, Sarah his wife, and William Heaton upon the one part, and the above named Alexander Howe upon the other part, that then this present obligation to be frustrate and void or else to stand, remain, and be in full force, strength, effect, and virtue.
Sealed and delivered in the presence of
Raphe Browne, Junior
Here William and Sarah Page and William Heaton committed themselves to pay £200 to Alexander Howe if they failed to satisfy the terms of the sale. My guess is that Howe had bought some more property, and that the penalty was to be due if some obstacle arose with its transfer to him.
Now for that analogy I mentioned earlier. When people run into recordings of speech they find difficult to understand, they often assume the solution lies in some kind of audio restoration: just attenuate the hiss and the pops, clicks, and crackle, and adjust the equalization, and everything should become as clear as it’s going to be. But that approach is only analogous to “cleaning up” written documents in Photoshop, as illustrated on the right. In my experience, it rarely helps make recorded speech more intelligible, although it can have a significant aesthetic impact. Patterns that were unclear before are likely to remain unclear, and we will really have done nothing of substance to resolve them.
Meanwhile, those of us who’ve spent a lot of time and effort deciphering old sound recordings have developed an “ear” for them, much as a paleographer develops an “eye” for older scripts. In both cases, this is largely a matter of practice: it might be hard at first, but you gradually get used to it, and over time feats of decipherment that seemed impossible at first can finally become possible, or even easy. Having now done both, I can say that they feel remarkably similar. What I do with my ears while working on a difficult speech recording feels just like what I do with my eyes while working on a difficult handwritten manuscript.
One difference is that paleography is a recognized area of study with a tradition and a set of well-established principles behind it. If you want to learn to read secretary hand, there are resources that will help you to do it, not to mention an understanding that this is something that can be learned with sufficient effort. Not so with the decipherment of older recorded speech. Developing an “ear” for that instead comes off, I’m afraid, as a quasi-magical knack one picks up through means that can’t be meaningfully shared or discussed.
But couldn’t we make that skill set more transparent and teachable, more like the skill set of paleography? I’d like to think so. Consider, for a start:
- Much as some of the letters of secretary hand take unfamiliar forms which we need to learn to recognize, early recording equipment picked up phonemes with some of their high and low frequencies shorn away, giving them unfamiliar forms which we need to learn to recognize.
- Much as secretary hand didn’t distinguish between certain characters (e.g., u versus v), so early recording equipment rendered some speech sounds indistinguishable by failing to capture the phonological features that differentiate them, such that we need to learn to expect and compensate for the ambiguity.
- Much as secretary hand often left certain letters out, so early recording equipment failed to pick up speech sounds that fell outside the range of frequencies to which it was sensitive—such as s in certain positions—so that we need to be aware that these sounds might or might not be present regardless of whether or not we actually hear them, simultaneously factoring in the surface noise which establishes a threshold above which recorded frequencies need to rise.
- Much as older documents employ older vocabularies and spellings, which we need to know if we’re to recognize such words as Cowper, summe, and shalbe, so older speech recordings employ older vocabularies and pronunciations which have to be learned and researched.
- Much as older documents, and especially legal documents, often employ standardized formulae (e.g., the condition of this present obligation is such that), so older recordings have comparable formulae of their own (e.g., for Columbia Phonograph Company of New York and Paris). Recognizing these formulae and the structures to which they belong can be half the battle.
The “ear” which specialists develop for deciphering early sound recordings must rest largely on factors such as these, and I wonder whether it would be possible to put them on a more scientific footing.