Before 1733 Latin was regarded as an official language of record. The further back you go from this date, the more records you will find that are written in Latin.
Fortunately this does not mean you need to speak Latin to understand what is written. With a little practice and a book or two you will be able to get the information you need from many documents, and learn to find the most important words and phrases. The guide on this page is a brief introduction to reading Latin for the purpose of family history research. If you’re interested in learning more then two useful reads are Latin for Local History by E. A. Gooder and A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon.
The first thing to be aware of when translating, is that Latin used in British documents is medieval Latin, which differs substantially from traditional Latin. A classical Latin dictionary is therefore of limited use. English documents written in Latin were also heavily abbreviated, to save the scribe time and space. Nearly all of the punctuation used has long since gone out of fashion, resulting in numerous strange squiggles that most of us will not understand (explained further on in this guide).
Useful Reading Tips
- Photocopy any documents you are translating, then take them home to translate in your own time. Remember to abide by copyright rules – it’s usually fine to reproduce up to 10% of someone’s work for research purposes.
- The document may already have been transcribed or published – try and find out as this could save hours of reading time.
- Learn how your ancestors name is written in Latin – then read the sentences around it. There is no point reading an entire document if they are just mentioned once!
- If a document hasn’t been transcribed, find out what type of document it is e.g. manorial record, title deed etc… Staff may be able to help you here. Then get yourself a transcription of the same type of document from the same era. Most documents are laid out in the same manner, so reading the transcribed one will give you clues, helping you understand the gist of it and whereabouts you should start translating.
Dealing with Names
Christian names, surnames, and place-names will often have been written in Latin. Sometimes there may be two or more ways to spell the Latin first name, for example Willelmus and Guillelmus both mean William. As well as this, surname endings can differ slightly within the same family. This is because the rules of Latin specify that the surname should indicate whether that person is a parent or child. If the surnames both start the same, and you think the people in question are related, then they most probably are.
To further increase the complexity of your research, many names would also be abbreviated, such as Ed’us for Edmundus and Ed’r’us for Edwardus. Although Ed’us could in theory also be short for Edwardus, in practise it was only used for Edmundus. The key is to find out what the abbreviation for a particular name is, as there will almost always only be a single abbreviation for it. Be careful though, because a handful of names, such as Rogerus and Reginaldus, occasionally have the same abbreviation.
Dealing with Minims
Minims are short vertical strokes comprised of the letters i, j, m, n, u & v. These letters look almost identical when they are next to each other, something which happens frequently in Latin: common examples being nimium, annuum, immunis and innumeri. Before the early 18th century j and i on the one hand, and v and u on the other would be treated as variants of the same letter. The i and the j are also often left undotted. Unfortunately there is little you can do other than read the sentence around the word and try to guess what it may be.
Methods of Abbreviation
The abbreviation used in Latin documents served two main purposes:
- suspension – where the end of the word is left off, sometimes even just leaving the initial letter.
- contraction – letters from the middle of the word would be removed.
1) Sign to signify some unspecified letters have been removed
This sign is placed above each word and signifies that the word has either been suspended or contracted, unfortunately giving little clue to which letters have been removed. The sign can be as simple as a horizontal line, or as complicated as a ‘papal knot’, as in episcopus in figure 1 below. It can pass through the ascender of a letter, making an l look like a t, as in ecclesie below. It can also often be found as an extension of the last letter in a word, to signify a suspension, as in libertatem below. Finally, when placed above a vowel it signifies the omission of one or more nasal consonants (m and n), as in omnino below.
2) Er / re / ir / ri & or
This is a thin, wavy backwards s, popular in 12th century documents to signify that the sequence er or re has been removed from the word. By the 13th century it had become similar in form to an exaggerated comma, connected to a letter and hanging down over it, as with littere in figure 2 below. On rare occasions it can be used to replace ir, ri or to replace or in the word uxor. When above the letter p it always substitutes for re and never for er, as with presumat below.
3) Ur / ru
This is a superior mark which can look similar to a lowercase a or the number 2. It is equivalent to ur or very rarely, ru. Teneretur in figure 3 below makes use of both this abbreviation and abbrevation mark 2 above.
4) Us / os / ost / con & com
This mark, which can look like a 9, g or q can be both superior, where it is used to replace us or os, or in line with a word, to replace con or com. Ipsius in figure 4 below makes use of this mark, as well as a horizontal mark to replace an s. Notice how easily controversie looks like it starts with a g. When above the letter p it means ost then follows.
5) Us / que & compounds of libet and licet
This sign looks like either the modern semicolon, the letter z or the number 3. It is always in the line of writing. It is used to shorten bus by replacing us, as with omnibus in figure 5, and to shorten que by replacing ue. You will also find some words reduced to an initial letter followed by the sign, for example s3 representing set. One word that derives from the use of this sign still survives today – viz, which is an abbreviation of videlicet.
6) Sign to signify a word has been suspended
Words that end with certain letters, usually k and r, can be written with a curving stroke passing through the last letter to signify suspension, as in both examples in figure 6 below. The r may also be written with a horizontal line coming out from its base-line, again visible in both examples. The mark does not specify what letters have been removed, but it will often be um.