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Reading dates in old English records
Symptoms (Problems)

Deciphering and interpreting dates in English records before the mid-1800s can be difficult.

Causes
Answer (Resolution)

Numbers may be written using Roman numerals or Latin words.

Roman numerals use capital letters to represent numbers, as shown in the chart below.

I = 1

V = 5

X = 10

L = 50

C = 100

D = 500

M = 1000

The rules for reading Roman numerals are as follows:

  • Start at the left and read to the right.

  • Add the numbers as you read. (III = 3, XVI = 16, LXVII = 67)

  • When the number is smaller than the number that follows it, subtract it. (IV = 4, VL = 45, XD =490)

    • Example: MDCLXXIX = 1679

M +D +C +L +X +X +(X-I) = 1679
1000 +500 +100 +50 +10 +10 +(10-1) = 1679

Usually, in English documents, the numerals are written with small letters rather than capitals. When numerals were written with small letters, it is easy to confuse the small L(l) and the small I(i). Look for the dot above the small i. Usually, the small i at the end of a number was written with a long tail making it appear like a small j.

In regular Roman numerals, numbers such as four and nine are shortened by using subtraction. A smaller numeral precedes a larger one and is subracted from it. For example, instead of writing four as IIII, it is written as IV. Nine is written as IX or one subtracted from ten rather than VIIII. When small letters are used, the numbers are usually written without subtracting. For example, four is written as iiij. Nine is written as viiij.

In Latin, numbers have cardinal forms and ordinal forms just as they do in English. For example, in English the cardinal numbers are one, two, three, four, etc. The ordinal numbers are first, second, third, fourth, etc. In Latin, the cardinal numbers are unus, duo, tres, quattuor, etc. The ordinal numbers are primus, secundus, tertius, quartus, etc. Latin numbers may also have a masculine, feminine, or neuter form. For example, unus may also be written as una or unum.

The chart below shows some of the different ways numbers may be written.

1 unus, primo, primus, I i
2 duo, secundo, secundus II ij
3 tres, tertio, tertius III iij
4 quattuor, quarto, quartus IV iiij, iv
5 quinque, quinto, quintus V v
6 sex, sexto, sextus VI vi
7 septem, septimo, septimus VII vij
8 octo, octavo, octavus VIII viij
9 novem, nono, nonus IX viiij, ix
10 decem, decimo, decimus X x
11 undecim, undecimo, undecimus XI xi
12 duodecim, duodecimo, duodecimus XII xij
13 tredecim, tertio decimo, tertius decimus XIII xiij
14 quattuordecim, quarto decimo, quartus decimus XIV xiiij, xiv
15 quindecim, quinto decimo, quintus decimus XV xv
16 sedecim, sexto decimo, sextus decimus XVI xvi
17 septendecim, septimo decimo, septimus decimus XVII xvij
18 duodeviginti, octavo decimo, octavus decimus, duodevicesimo, duodevicesimus XVIII xviij
19 undeviginti, nono decimo, nonus decimus, undevicesimo, undevicesimus XIX xviiij, xix
20 viginti, vicesimo, vicesimus, viccesimo, vicessimo, viccessimo XX xx
21 viginti unus, vicesimo primo, vicesimus primus XXI xxi
22 viginti duo, vicesimo secundo, vicemus secundus XXII xxij
23 viginti tres, vicesimo tertio, vicesimus tertius XXIII xxiij
24 viginti quattuor, vicesimo quarto, vicesimus quartus XXIV xxiiij, xxiv
25 viginti quinque, vicesimo quinto, vicesimus quintus XXV xxv
26 viginti sex, vicesimo sexto, vicesimus sextus XXVI xxvi
27 viginti septem, vicesimo septimo, vicesimus septimus XXVII xxvij
28 duodetriginta, vicesimo octavo, vicesimus octavus, duodetricesimo, duodetricesimus XXVIII xxviij
29 undetriginta, vicesimo nono, vicesimus nonus, undetricesimo, undetricesimus XXVIV xxviiij, xxix
30 triginta, tricesimo, tricesimus XXX xxx
31 triginta unus, tricesimo primo, tricesimus primus XXXI xxxi

Numbers may also be written as scores. A score is twenty and is written as XX or xx. If XX is above another number, it would be multiplied by the number under it. Therefore, four score or eighty could be written as XX over IV or xx over iiij as shown below.

XX xx

IV iiij

Names of months may be written in Latin. Numerals may be included in the names of some months.

The Latin names of months may have slightly different endings.

The letters J and I may be used interchangeably.

September, October, November, and December may be written using numerals as part of the name. For example, September may be written as 7ber or VIIber. The numeral replaces Septem, which means seven in Latin. In October, 8 or VIII may replace Octo which is Latin for eight, and the name may be written as 8ber or VIIIber. The same principle is true for November and December.

When the British Empire changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, the names of September, October, November, and December did not change. However, their place in the calendar year was different. Thus, when numerals are used as part of the names of these months, the names of the months can be misinterpreted. For example, 7ber or VIIber, which is September, might be mistaken for July because July is the seventh month in the Gregorian calendar which we now use.

Following are some ways the names of the months may be written in old English records:

January Januarius Januarij Ianuarius
February Februarius Februarij Februarie
March Martius Martij Martii
April Aprilus Aprilis Aprill
May Maius Maii Maij
June Junius Junij Iunius
July Julius Julij Iulius
August Augustus Augusti
September Septembris 7ber VIIber
October Octobris 8ber VIIIber
November Novembris 9ber IXber
December Decembris 10ber Xber

Latin words other than numbers or names of months may be included as part of the date.

Following are some Latin words which may be included as part of the date.

Ultimo or Ultimus may be used for the last day in a month.

Die is Latin for day. It may also be written as dies.

Mensis or Mense means month or in the month of.

Example: If the record says "ultimo die mensis Januarius," it would mean the last day of the month of January or January 31.

Anno Domini means in the year of our Lord.

Eodum means same, as in "eodum die," which means the same day.

Words may be abbreviated.

Anno Domini may be abbreviated in several different ways, including A.D., with which we are familiar.

Eodum meaning same, as in "eodum die," which may be abbreviated to eod.
Secundo may be abbreviated to scdo, as in the example below. The wavy line above indicates that letters have been left out of the word.


Abbreviations may be indicated in various ways, including lines above or below, colons, or periods. Months may be abbreviated in a variety of ways. The illustration below shows some examples of abbreviated months.

Superscripts at the ends of numbers may be used differently than they are today.

Numbers may have superscripts, just as they do today, but they may use st or th for all numbers. This can be confusing because the superscript doesn't seem to fit the number. In the example below, the number 22 is written 22th.

Dates may be found in different places on the document.

The year may be in the heading at the top of the page. It may also be embedded in the body of the document, as in the example below. The year 1760 is written between the lines and is almost hidden by the entries.


It is common for the year to be written only once. All entries that follow are for that year until the next year is written on the record. The same is true for months. The example below shows the year recorded once. In this case, it is at the top of the page. All the months and days in this example are written at the ends of the records with the month being written only once. The top record is March 25. The second record is March 29. The third and fourth records are both April 1, as indicated by the bracket. The fifth record is April 5, and the bottom record is April 26.

Months and days may also be listed at the beginning of the records rather than at the end.

Sometimes the month and day may be written as part of the text of the record, as in the example below. The outlined record reads, "There was buryed the 20th day of December Jane Bickley the wife of John Bickley."

The calendar being used changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

In 1752, most of the British empire changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. The adoption of the Gregorian calendar changed the beginning of the legal year from March 25 to Janury 1. The illustration below is an example of the way dates were recorded prior to the calendar change. On the records in this example, the year and month were written only once. All the years or months which followed were for the same year or month until the next year or month was written. Thus, the entries for January and February were for the year 1703. The year 1704 began on March 25, and the first entry for that year was on March 28.

During the time they were changing calendars, the dates between January 1 and March 25 may have been written as dual dates. For example, using dual dating, a date may be written as March 23, 1703/4. When a date is written in this way during this time period, it does not mean that the year has been approximated. Rather, the date is very exact. For example, March 23, 1703/4 would mean that it was March 23, 1703 according to the Julian calendar and March 23, 1704 according to the Gregorian calendar.

For more information on when the calendar changed, click here.

Handwriting style, language usage, and spelling changed over the centuries.

There are helpful resources for reading old handwriting in the Indexing Resource Guide under the heading Reading English Handwriting.

There are also links to other helpful sites in the document titled Handwriting help with Indexing records earlier than 1800 A.D.


For a list of Latin words, click here.




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