8 May 2013 by Sarah Starkey
Palaeography, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the science or art of deciphering and interpreting historical manuscripts. It normally refers to ancient manuscripts in long dead languages, but I will make a case for applying it on the many handwritten letters within our collections. The technique is more or less the same. You need to know a bit about the context (in this case the American Civil War) and a bit about word and letter forms (for example, initial lower case ‘p’s that go both above and below the line) and the right balance between thinking what is likely to be being said and putting your own words in the mouth of the author. Then the squiggles turn into prose before your eyes.
This page of a letter from Major Caleb Huse, arms procurement agent for the Confederate States Army, to Charles K. Prioleau of Fraser, Trenholm & Company, Liverpool merchants and bankers who acted for the Confederacy reads as follows-
‘six months armistice and meantime those life preservers at Birkenhead can be finished – so far as getting supplies in or cotton out is concerned, we shall be quite independent of the three great powers.
Col. Maine is I understand, in town, but I have not yet seen him. Wither he is to return’
More information on the letter can be found here and the original, along with some others from our fantastic American Civil War archive collections are on display outside the Maritime Archives & Library at the Merseyside Maritime Museum. I’m not convinced I’ve got the Colonel’s name right, any better suggestions?
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