I happened to be going through some files recently that I’d looked at before very early on in my PhD research. Little new student me had left quite a few blanks and question marks in my original transcriptions, and now they nearly all just seem sooo obvious.
It’s not just because of more experience in transcribing the handwriting. It’s often about greater familiarity with context. Some of the gaps were place names; now I can not only recognize quite a lot of the places straight off, I also understand much better how Welsh place names are constructed, what’s possible and what isn’t. (Even with the irregular and inconsistent spellings that you get in these documents.) The same thing goes for the legal terms, abbreviations and contractions, bastardised Latin and archaic vocabulary.
(There were, more worryingly, also a) a few words I’d got hopelessly wrong but didn’t question mark at all and b) occasional unnerving gaps. I’d missed out a whole paragraph in one document. Which is the sort of thing that has me worrying about everything I’ve transcribed or recorded, ever. Ah, well.)
So if you are an early modernist (or medievalist) grad student who has just started archival research for the first time and you’re having real trouble deciphering the handwriting, I promise it will get easier as you go on. Just keep at it, leave the gaps first time around and come back to them.
But that leads to one other piece of advice, for students planning your first big and expensive research trip somewhere: you don’t want to be using up precious time there working out how to decipher the documents. (I was lucky: I lived a 10-minute walk away from my main archives.)
Especially if you will need to read handwriting in a foreign language: one of my biggest early stumbling blocks was that I’d learnt Latin (and Welsh too) from modern printed texts whilst my palaeography training had been done quite separately, and exclusively in English-language examples. Some of my biggest early difficulties came from trying to integrate the palaeography skills (at which I was pretty good) with the language skills (at which I was pretty useless… well, I still am). Especially as in court records, quite a bit of the Latin was often written in a rather archaic and formal hand at which I’d had less practice. (Not to mention all the horrible abbreviations and contractions.)
So, before you go away on that first all-important trip, try to get beyond the usual palaeography tutorials and manuals. The best thing is to get some real practice with a range of documents similar (in form, content, language etc) to the ones you’ll encounter on the research trip, either in a local archive or on microfilm (or online at archives’ websites, like 17th-century witchcraft case documents or parish lists or medieval charters). There’s nothing quite like the real thing…
But you can also start by getting a clearer sense of the documents you’re likely to encounter – just what sorts of physical objects do those neat lists under the ‘Archival sources’ heading in bibliographies really represent? Where you can get it, read information about the records that has been prepared by the archivists (such as the excellent TNA guides; TNA’s online catalogue also contains a lot of useful information about record classes, like this), and ask people who have some experience with researching those types of records what they’re like. Once you’ve done that, too, you can talk to your palaeography teachers about your specific needs; they might be able to provide you with extra practice material. It will be worth the effort.
(By the way, if you’re going to work with 17th-century English (or Welsh) court records and you want practice examples, I have plenty of jpeg images of documents…)