HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Entering the Archive: How to Read Early Modern Books and Manuscripts

This Week's Big Question

How do we decipher, transcribe, and make sense of archival manuscripts and Early Modern printed texts?
This Week's Big Challenge

This week we begin to practice some of the less celebrated, but ultimately very rewarding skills that historians possess.  We are entering the "archives" to examine a manuscript and compare it to its published version. We will be rejoining Sonja Boon as she enters the archives for her own research, and use her as a guide for our own explorations.

In order answer this week's big question, you will need to be able to read manuscripts and early modern texts in their original form. So this week, we will practice transcribing them in the forums.

To "transcribe" means to reproduce someone else's writing in modern form.

Video Introduction

Learning Outcomes


This week, we enter the archives with you! Since we are not meeting in person, our exercises this week are designed first to help you think about what archives are, why they matter, and how historians use them; and second to give you the opportunity to slow down and work with a few specific documents as you might encounter them while visiting an archive. Before you begin the learning activities, however, pause and listen to the podcast on How Archives work, and read Sonja Boon's description of her archival experiences in Chapters 4 and 8 of What the Oceans Remember. Let her description of the sites, sounds, and textures guide you as you digitally engage with your primary sources!

Our primary material this week involves a small section from  2 versions of a memoir by John Stedman. The title of the text that you will read is " Narrative of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam" (it is part of a larger book -- and that book is the subject of your first assignment). In these pages Stedman writes about his observations in the newly acquired English colony of Surinam. It is important that you read the version text provided by links on this page and not others, because one of the most important learning outcomes for this week is that you should learn how to read early modern books in the format that they were printed in originally. As the course progresses, we will be providing you with lots of sources that are only available in this form, so if you do not learn the basic skills of reading these texts now, you will be at a real disadvantage later in the course!

But, wait, you may ask, why does transcribing even matter??

In many cases, when you visit an archive, photography may not be permitted!! This is gradually changing, but not universally. So, how do you remember what you read in the archives? You transcribe it. This ensures you have an accurate record for future use. One of my first archival adventures as an undergraduate led me to the private archives of Haddo House in Aberdeenshire, where I was ushered into a tiny, unheated room in the basement, the muniment room, which was piled with documents and papers. My visit required arranging several weeks ahead of time, and I was granted access to the room for only a few hours.  Cameras were not permitted in the room, but I needed to glean as much information from what I could read in as short a time as possible. Note-taking skills were definitely important then, but in order to have useful tidbits of information to bring my research alive, transcribing the letters I found was critical to advancing my research!  While a strict adherence to the no camera rule is no longer thanks to the advent of digital photography, it does remain very prevalent. So, what do you with box full of historical treasures in the archives?  You transcribe them, so that you can refer back to them when you write up your research!

But, this is not the only reason historians transcribe documents. Increasingly, historians are engaging with digital tools to help them approach documents in new ways. Many of these tools use OCR (optical character recognition) software to identify key words and phrases. This software was designed to read contemporary text, however, which means that many of the documents that historians encounter remain either illegible, or mistranslated by these tools. We want to introduce you to TWO types of documents that you may need to transcribe, manuscripts, and early modern printed texts. Both offer their unique challenges, and in today's world, when many of you may not have been introduced to cursive writing, this week may prove to be very challenging!

There are several links in the Toolbox section of the lesson to helpful resources for deciphering both. Take some time to explore them all!  The Library from the University of Hull, UK provides samples of several styles of Early Modern handwriting, and I might suggest that Stedman's manuscript is later italic with some remnants of secretary hand.


A Practical (and Humorous) Introduction to Reading Early Modern Books

Take a look at this  excerpt with the help of Devon Eastland's helpful introduction from last year (2020) to reading older English books. (It's on your list of supplementary materials for this week). The title of Eastland's essay is "Why do old books use F's instead of S's?" Eastland's answer is that they don't. The confusion is a mistake on the inexperienced reader's part.

If you’re not familiar with older fonts, you might wonder why everyone spoke with a "lifp". They didn’t.  Some of the older versions of the letter "s" look more like what we would call an "f". Look closely. Can you see that that there is a horizontal bar that goes all the way through both sides of the "f", but if there's any horizontal bar on an old-fashioned "s" it's only to the left-hand side of the letter. In other words, the two letters are NOT the same. This (to us) strange version of "s" is called a "long s". It is NOT an "f".

So, why do we care? As historians increasingly employ digital tools to read texts, they have discovered that the "long s" is a BIG problem for OCR  computer programs. You will be introduced to one of these programs in our later assignments, Voyant Tools.  By contrast, our minds are pliable enough to learn these very subtle distinctions, largely because we can usually figure out what these words should be (our minds do a kind of auto-correction, anticipating what should come next, how the words should look). While there are new versions of OCR programs emerging -- some even that work with handwritten manuscripts (Transkribus) -- at this point it’s very difficult for a computer to read these old fonts as well as we can.

When the OCR program used by archive.org, the world’s largest online archival database, tried to "read" the Whitefield passage we include above, it rendered it as this: As you can see, the computer program added a significant number of mistakes -- so many that it's really not useful for us to use this text. It’s the information age, but the machines that read this older information can’t help us here.

You can do a much better job yourself. Your first step toward this goal is to recognize that we have all kinds of confusing letters and numbers that we do not confuse when we read. Look at these combinations:
When you read early modern books in English (and in many other languages that use a Latin alphabet, too), the letters that readers often mix up (but you should not) are:
The biggest confusions come with f's and s's. Remember that fonts have histories. They have changed over the generations, sometimes significantly. Don't let these changes give you a "fhit sit!" These two non-words in quotation marks would be an incorrect way of reading and transcribing an imaginary text. We won't correct the mistake, but you should not make this kind of mistake in your reading of early modern texts! Don't panic! Read the words that are actually on the page. Don't let the older fonts confuse you. You should not change the spelling that the original writers used (even if that spelling is not correct by modern standards), but you should also not introduce mistakes that the original writers never meant to make!

Let's practice with that 1745 passage from George Whitefield. Read it slowly, word-by-word, and correct the mistakes that the computer made.  The corrected version and proper transcription of the passage from 1745 is:
YOUR last sweet Letter was very savoury
to my Taste. It brought God to my
Soul. I feel much Heart-Union with
you. I thank you for all the kind Expressions
of your increasing Love. May the Lord re-
ward you an Hundred-fold in this World, and in
that to come
! Oh what a blessed Instrument of
much Good, has the Lord made you to my
poor Soul!
This kind of work is a great exercise for the historian-in-training.  It requires you to slow down and read carefully.  Yes, this passage is strange, but making sense of this strangeness is the kind of challenge that historians try to grapple with.  We know that confronting this challenge takes time and is not easy. We sympathize: Most of you have full schedules, with jobs, domestic responsibilities, and university courses.  You’re always needing to be in a hurry, to read quickly -- you just need to get through as much of the material as possible. We professors do that, too; sometimes we even recommend "strategic reading" as an effective way to cut through the detail to get at the essentials.  But in research we often need to slow down, to read carefully, to think about what we’re reading, to sometimes stop on a word or a phrase to ponder exactly what’s going on. 

Pondering what's going on is especially important these days. After all, we're living in the middle of pandemic, which makes life more uncertain! Learning to read slooooooowly, and carefully, and thoughtfully are what we are practising often in this course, and certainly this week, too.

Learning Activities (This lesson is VERY "hands on", so plan your time carefully, and start EARLY!!!)

So yes, you read that correctly...you will be required to post at least three times in this lesson, so plan your time wisely!


Here are some useful websites to help you read Early Modern handwriting. Use them to help you read through Stedman. They are not intended to be mini-courses for you, rather resources to help you when you get stuck.  Choose the one that helps you the best, they are all good!For an introduction to transcribing Early Modern Texts, visit:

Primary Sources

John Stedman Narrative of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam Manuscript
John Stedman Narrative of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam Printed Version

Secondary Sources


Supplemental Materials

This page references: