Module 2 - How to read an eighteenth-century manuscript letter


In this module we’ll look at how to read an eighteenth-century letter. Handwritten correspondence was a vital means of communication during this period. Through their letters, people kept in touch with family, exchanged news, sought patronage from powerful acquaintance, and did business. By reading historic letters attentively, we can identify social relationships and networks, and gain insight into how people claimed and maintained their social status.   

By mid-century most people in the middling as well as the upper ranks of society could write their own letters, although the popularity of letter-writing manuals suggests many lacked confidence in their ability to compose their letters effectively. Some overcame this difficulty by copying closely from the manuals; others honed their skill by writing practice letters to friends. So manuscript letters aren’t always as personally revealing as they might seem to be on first reading. The great commentator Samuel Johnson observed that a letter was ‘a calm and deliberate performance’. 

Before we can consider the content of a letter, we have to interpret the writing. Good quality paper and ink remained expensive luxuries throughout the century, and uneven paper or faded ink can make surviving letters hard to read. This is true whether we’re looking at an online scan, or an actual letter in an archive. Superscript abbreviations were common, because writers tried to save paper as well as time by using short forms of frequently used words and forms of address. In addition, spelling was often phonetic, especially for regional words, local place names and personal names. Most writers never consulted a dictionary—they assumed their readers would know what they meant. Reading a letter aloud may give us a clue to the writer’s spoken accent.

By analysing the structure and style as well as the content of a letter, we can gain a better understanding of the importance of correspondence in the eighteenth-century world. 


Module aims and objectives

This module will teach you how to read and interpret eighteenth-century manuscript letters. First, you’ll learn how to identify abbreviations, and how to make informed judgements when reading uncertain passages. Then you’ll learn how to interpret a letter in its historical context by paying attention to details like greetings, farewells, and other epistolary formulae. Most importantly, you’ll learn the skills to make accurate and consistent readings or transcriptions of your primary research documents.  


Our thanks to the Bodleian Library for the use of the image in our banner: "William Green Jr. (fl. 1732–1752), Scene at an Oxford Book Auction, oil on canvas, 1747; Bodleian Library. Portrait LP.701, 1F.”