The excitement of starting the project wore off a little when I received the images and was able to examine them more closely. I had been reading the parish baptism, marriage and burial records from Garganta la Olla for a couple of years by then, but I had never read any records from the 1500s. I originally thought that the handwriting wouldn't be too different from what I was accustomed to reading, but I quickly realized that was a bad assumption. The records had been preserved well and were quite readable which helped immensely. However, the difficulty came in recognizing the different types of handwriting and then deciphering the words. In the 1500s there were 3 different types of handwriting styles used. They were italica, cortesana, and procesal. In the membership lists, all three of these handwriting styles can be found depending on who was writing the list at that moment.
As you can see from the above images the handwriting varied from list to list and sometimes from page to page. In Spanish handwriting there are several letters that are interchangeable, such as i-y, b-v, j-x-g, and c-s-z-ss-ç. The letter "h" is not pronounced in the Spanish language, much like the "k" in the English language in the word know. The month of January in Spanish is "Enero". However, in earlier records you might find "Enero" spelled with an h on the front of the word as in "Henero." Both of these spellings were deemed correct and there was no rhyme or reason as to when they included the "h" or left the "h" off. The letters c-q or f- ph are also interchangeable. All of these differences have to be taken into consideration when reading the documents.
Learning the Handwriting Styles
Another challenge in reading older documents is deciphering the letters. Each handwriting style may have a little different way to form the same letters. At first, I worked with Peggy Ryskamp who helped me begin to recognize the letters that I had difficulty with. Peggy and I would worked side by side in the beginning. After I gained a little experience and became more confident in my abilities, I started working alone. I would save my questions all for one session with Peggy and work on only the questionable words and names. Sometimes there were words or letters that baffled both Peggy and I. When this happened, George Ryskamp would look at the word or letters and help us decipher them. It was through this process that I learned to read these records.
Abbreviations are used frequently in older documents. This is a practice that is used widely in Spanish documents. Sometimes there seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to when the writer used an abbreviation or when he spelled the word out. The best practice for deciphering abbreviations is to keep an open mind and realize that any word may be abbreviated. Some of the common abbreviations occur with names, such as Franco for Francisco, Res for Rodriques, Xpobal for Cristobal, Ma for Maria, Po for Pedro and Jo for Juan.
The best advice to improve your reading skills with older documents is practice, practice, practice. This might sound like advice from your piano teacher, but it applies the same to reading handwriting. The more exposure you have with the handwriting, the easier it will become over time. I found this to be true. Now after 3 1/2 years of working with these records, I have become quite proficient in deciphering the handwriting. This was not an overnight process as you can imagine, it took many hours of work. In the end, the hard work was well worth the effort and the journey has been quite enjoyable for me.
The book- Finding Your Hispanic Roots by George Ryskamp, has more helps in deciphering handwriting in Spanish documents. Also BYU has a website devoted to reading old Spanish documents.