02/10/2012 10:19 BST | Updated 01/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Palaeography: A Crucial Specialty for Successful Genealogy

Palaeography. I'll admit it right off. The first time I came across this specialty I was not familiar with it. I'll also grant you that it is not a word that we tend to use all the time, nor one that trips easily off the tongue.

Palaeography. I'll admit it right off. The first time I came across this specialty I was not familiar with it. I'll also grant you that it is not a word that we tend to use all the time, nor one that trips easily off the tongue. However, if you are a family historian or genealogist, I would strongly suggest that you consider using an expert palaeographer from time to time in your efforts. A world-class palaeographer can make a world of difference in your genealogy, open amazing windows into the past, uncover leads, and add tremendous value to your family history.

(Photo used with permission of Cornwall County Council)

First, what exactly is Palaeography? The Oxford Dictionaries define palaeography (in the U.S. spelt paleography) as follows:

"Palaeography Noun (mass noun): The study of ancient writing systems and the deciphering and dating of historical manuscripts."

If you have worked with any manuscripts, wills, indentures, deeds, etc. from before the invention of the typewriter, then you know this isn't your father's handwriting we often find ourselves dealing with in our family history. This can be particularly true if you happen to be lucky enough to be working with items from medieval times. They can be chock-full of amazing detail and information and incredibly hard to read given our unfamiliarity with secretary script used in medieval times!

Until recently, whenever I was working with a Will, deed, or manuscript from the 17th Century I struggled through them, trying to transcribe them word-by-word, and then doing my best to extract what I felt were the most valuable pieces of information. I knew in my heart that this was not the 'best' or most accurate system. Then I came upon what I believed was a key will in our family history.

Back in 1642, one of my ancestors, Nicholas Phillipps, happened to pass away and before he died, thankfully for me, he wrote a will. Turns out this will has been preserved in the Cornwall Record Office and I purchased a copy from them. If you happen to have Cornish ancestors be sure to visit the Cornwall Record Office site and use their online catalog. It is a tremendous resource. On the same page you can also click over to the National Archives of the United Kingdom and look at what they have in their archives. A big plus with the UK National Archives is that they are putting more and more items online in digital form for instant downloads through their Discovery online search feature. When I ordered that 1642 will, I had no idea what exactly I was getting, but I was excited to find it. When it came, I was stunned!

The original document was written on large, over-sized parchment and as such the centuries had taken their toll. Add to that the use of unfamiliar, to me at least, medieval English and secretary script, which I had not read before, and I was flummoxed! I spent days trying to decipher what I thought might be a key document in my genealogy. Then I recalled some of my father's best advice to me: "Surround yourself with the best people you can find, then get out of their way, and let them do their work?" So that is what I did. I began a search for an expert to help me.

I quickly realized what I needed was someone with expertise in the field of palaeography. I was lucky to be directed to Peter Foden, an amazingly talented and impeccably trained palaeographer and the owner of Peter Foden Consultancy Ltd. The more I studied Peter's background, the more I realized I needed this jaw-dropping expert. Armed with a Masters in Archive Administration from University of Liverpool, Peter's CV reads like a genealogist's dream assistant! He works or has worked at places such as University of Dundee, Duke & Duchess of Rutland - Belvoir Castle Archives, University College London, University of Keele, and more.

Peter agreed to accept me as a client and we took off on an amazing series of discoveries! While these discoveries are still unveiling themselves as we continue our partnership, I can say that I would never be where I am in my genealogy and family history without the great help of a qualified palaeographer to help me along.

Peter was able to find surnames I did not see, given names I missed, place names, and best of all he is augmenting these discoveries with his incredible knowledge of the time period, local resources, and a network that is filled with amazing talent. It was an amazing moment when Peter informed me that one of my ancestral homes was now a Deserted Medieval Village site undergoing an archaeological dig! You can check it out at Slaughterbridge projects: Historical background.

As I have discovered on so many occasions, Dad's advice was right on.

Without this special expertise of a world-class palaeographer I'd still be in the Dark Ages!