Lost in Transcription, Found in Translation:
Histories of Inheritance in 17th Century Legal Documents

Before historians can study written documents, they need to be able to read and understand them.  It’s not always easy, but even the driest legal documents can unlock stories of place, class, family and more.   

In Fall 2022 and Spring 2023, ten intrepid history students set out to solve the mystery of the hard-to-read legal documents in the Patricia-Ann Lee Collection of English and Scottish manuscripts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries held by Special Collections in Scribner Library at Skidmore College.

First, they learned to read a seventeenth-century handwriting style called secretary hand, which used an alphabet similar but not identical to today’s ABCs, to transcribe the texts, copying letter by letter. They then got lost in transcription — those letters and words did not always make sense. To make sense of expressions, they sounded out odd spellings and looked up legal terms, abbreviations, and Scots, French and Latin expressions. After a lot of back and forth, they found meaning by creating ‘translations’ that made sense of what was definitely not ‘plain English.’

Having transcribed and translated, they could then interpret and research. What were these documents? Where are they from? Who made them? What do they tell us about the English and Scottish communities that produced them? About people and places, land and labor, family relations, legal procedures, social hierarchies, living arrangements, material culture? As it turns out, these 20-40 line documents have quite a lot to teach about history.



Where did the documents come from? Do they have a shared history? How did they get to Skidmore College ? How do archivists care for the manuscripts and make them available?

What is on the page? What does it mean? How was it made?

Transcription and Translation

Interpreting the Evidence

What do individual documents and the collection as a whole have to tell us about people, places, legal procedures, land and labor, inheritance, gender and family relations and more?

About the Project

The who and the how of this Archival Storytelling project, created by students, faculty, and staff at Skidmore College in Fall 2022 and Spring 2023.