Note From Andrea: Today we have another special post by Stephanie Pettigrew! Enjoy!
When I first started doing my research, the biggest problem I encountered was simply deciphering my texts. As many of you already know, I work on documents from sixteenth and seventeenth New France. In North America, there are far more resources available specifically for English etymology and paleography, the study of historic handwriting and handwritten texts. Christopher Moore contends in a recent blog post that paleography is dying a slow and painful death, and I don’t completely disagree with him; the growing dependence on crowd-sourcing transcription projects is a huge concern. But even when sources are transcribed for you, as a historian you are still expected to consult the original source. Several universities offer undergraduate courses in medieval English and middle English. One school that I attended even had a course on reading medieval Scottish handwriting (complete with its own textbook!). Leah Grandy also has already done some fantastic blog posts introducing the issue of paleography, which I highly recommend (“What Does That Say?!”: Getting Started with Paleography is particularly helpful!) While all of these are valuable resources, they aren’t really helpful when it comes to dealing with my documents. So in today’s blog post, I’m going to talk about some of the main challenges of working with early modern French written texts and provide you with some tips and tricks that will hopefully make this work a little bit easier!
Speak French To Me
The first thing you need to know going into this type of work is that early modern French is very different than contemporary French (whether we are talking about French French or Canadian French). As with English, the standardization of words and spellings in French didn’t start until the eighteenth century. For example, many words that today would have accents didn’t have them in the seventeenth century. Words that today would contain a circonflex are simply spelled with an extra “s” in the documents (like “nostre” instead of “notre” or “estre” instead of “être”). And, sometimes, writers would use the letter “z” instead of “s,” though where we would use “z” today, they would often use “s.”
As a result, you will encounter a number of obscure words that can be very hard to decipher and understand. If you are dealing with old and/or obscure words in English, it is relatively simple to use Google to figure out what your word means. Open up the Oxford English Dictionary (or look at an online entry!), and you’ll see plenty of information about the origins and historical uses for each word. Merriam-Webster even has a neat new tool called “Time Traveler” which organizes the dictionary chronologically. However, French dictionaries don’t generally track the etymology of French words. And while there are some historical French dictionaries available online, in order to use them effectively, you have to know exactly what you are looking for. If you are dealing with partial words, or words that you have slightly wrong, you’re basically out of luck. Existing published guides to French paleography do exist, and they are useful when you are just beginning, but the prevalence of inconsistencies makes these works unreliable as your sole guides to French paleography.
Keep in mind that sometimes, what you find may or may not actually be helpful. For example, two words that I’ve come across in the trials I’ve worked on are “sottises” and “vrille.” If you look these words up on Google (using quotation marks!), you’ll find entries defining “sottises” as a lack of judgement, or something thoughtless, while “vrille” is variously defined as a support for a climbing plant, a gymnastics book, an aerial maneuver, a metal tool for woodworking, or the tail of a wild boar!  But in seventeenth century Montreal, “sottises” meant impertinent gossip and “vrille” meant a tool used to pierce leather. Not exactly the same thing.
Further, the language that most of us now refer to as French is actually a Parisian dialect known as the Francien dialect. There were (and still are) numerous other dialects in the area we currently refer to as France, such as Norman, Lorrain, and Occitane. While the Francien dialect started becoming culturally dominant in the medieval era, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that it would replace local dialects.
However, if you are Acadian, you may be in luck! Some of the older characters, words, and spellings are preserved today in Acadian French largely because of geographic isolation. Generally speaking, while the Quebecois created new words, Acadians just kept old words for old things, and adopted English words for new things. Which is why I found it so funny when I found a couple of words that we use in my home town of Chéticamp in my seventeenth century court documents! The example I remember best is the word “échine,” which we use for “back” rather than the most standard “dos.” This came up in a court case where two soldiers were charged with blasphemy after they destroyed a crucifix while trying to find (and beat up) André Demers, who was hiding in a closet. Other words that we use in Chéticamp, but which can also be found in seventeenth century judicial documents include “butin” for “vêtements” (clothing) and “besson” for “jumeau” (twin).
But, keep in mind, in some cases, there just aren’t any answers. For example, there is one phrase that I have been trying to figure out for years. You may remember Anne Lamarque from a previous blog post as the cabaretière who was accused of witchcraft, adultery, and debauchery in 1682. In her court case, the justices questioned witnsses about whether or not she had tried to procure an abortion. Here’s what the text said:
Enquise sy elle na pas cognoissance qu’elle avoit voulu persuader a quelque chirugien de luy [donné?] quelque remedes et seigner depuis sa grossesse capables de luy faire perdre son (louis?) qu’il est le chirugien et ce qu’elle en a ouy dire.
This translates to:
Inquired if she has any knowledge that (Lamarque) sought to persuade a surgeon to give her remedies or a bleeding since the beginning of her pregnancy which would have been capable of “faire perdre son louis” who was the surgeon and what did (the witness) hear about it?
That phrase — “faire perdre son Louis” — appears in other pages, always in the same context. But I can’t find it anywhere else. I’ve looked in seventeenth century books on maternity and medicine, I’ve asked around, I’ve googled until my eyes were ready to fall out of my head, and I’ve even looked at other comparable court cases. Nothing. This is the only place I’ve seen it. While I can guess it means something along the lines of “losing her baby/fetus,” there is no way to know for sure. (NOTE: if any reader has an answer to this riddle, please contact me!)
Finally, there is the issue of handwriting. The script changes, sometimes dramatically, from person to person. Every single judiciary, notary, and so on have their special quirks, and I have to re-accustom myself to their script each time. I once transcribed an entire trial only to reach the final page and have no idea what any of the text said. I couldn’t even tell if it was associated with my trial or not. So I sent it to my supervisor, Greg Kennedy, who emailed me back a few hours later informing me that it was a receipt for the sale of a hat. Adding to the fun (or frustration) is the fact that sometimes writers used symbols or abbreviations in their writing (though to their credit, they generally do not abbreviate the text of the accusations of testimony). While these are generally standardized from writer to writer, they can be difficult to decipher.
For example, this word is “”Premièrement” with the “ent” abbreviated at the end:
This is the abbreviation for “déposition”:
And finally, this very common word is “le dit”:
It can be found in phrases like “ensuite par le nommé Pothyer et le dit Folleville a déclaré,” which is transated as “next, the named Pothyer and the said Folleville declared.” It may also appear as “la ditte,” “dudit,” and “desdites” — all variations on the same abbreviation.
You may also encounter symbols that you have never seen before, like this strange one that looks like an “s” or an “8” with two dots on top:
That symbol is used to represent what is generally considered a sound from an Indigenous language, and is transcribed today as “ou.” This word, for example, is properly transcribed as “outaouats,” which I think refers to Outaouais, but I’m not completely sure. (Also note the “z” at the end, rather than an “s.”) However, there are some books that just straight-up transcribe it as an 8, where it would appear as “8ta8as.” It’s not clear where this mysterious symbol comes from. (UPDATE: Mairi Cowan, Historian at the University of Toronto who studies Demonology in New France, clarified the origin of the “8” symbol; it’s a combination of the Greek letters upsilon and omicron. You can find more information in the footnote 31 here. Thanks Mairi!) I learned it from reading a large number of French period texts which had already been transcribed, and wondering why the heck there was an 8 in the middle of what looked like a place name, before switching over to another transcription of the same text and seeing it transcribed as “ou.” Learning from transcribed texts is an important tool, but not one you can depend on due to, again, the inconsistency of the handwriting of the period.
Tips, Tricks, and Recommendations
The most important advice I can give you is to go over your document over and over and over again. Because it does get easier, and as you go along you will pick up characters, words, and phrases. The second and third time you go through a document, you will pick up words you didn’t get the first time. Patience is key! And once you’ve unlocked the characters, you can start to search for what the word actually means if you’re unfamiliar with it.
Second, create your own mini-dictionary of obscure words, spellings, abbreviations, and symbols. If you come across an unfamiliar word, save yourself the time of having to look it up over and over again by making a note of its spelling, definition, and context. Because if you come across a word once, you will likely come across it again. Future you will thank Past you.
Third, recognize that in some cases, the text itself is generic. For example, every single deposition starts with the same preamble. The only thing that changes is the name of the person being deposed. (It took me way longer than I want to admit to figure that out. Basically one day I finally realized that there were a lot of similar looking words in the first paragraphs and then I was like, “WAIT A SECOND….”)
Fourth, group your documents together by whoever is writing them, rather than going by date. Get your brain accustomed to that person’s handwriting, and get through that collection, as it were, before moving on.
Expert Tip: There is nothing more depressing than opening a file, seeing a beautifully written document, finding that the first document is actually a complaint written by a priest, and the rest is written by a drunken greffier
Fifth, the University of Chicago’s “Dictionnaires d’autrefois” can be very helpful.
Finally, ask for help! One brain is good, but more is better. I would particularly draw your attention to Joseph Gagné’s blog post on French paleography (“Ressources utiles pour déchiffrer la paléographie). He, along with Leah Grandy, have been extremely generous with their help and support!
All in all, while French paleography can be time-consuming and frustrating, it is only a prelude to the fun part, which is going through your documents and finding all kinds of cool information! The trials I deal with are particularly dishy in nature, and the people of seventeenth century seem to be very fond of telling judicial officials what their neighbours were up to. But while I can help with the transcription, the analysis is up to you!
We hope you enjoyed this blog post! We’re planning future additions on finding French archival sources and on creating digital transcriptions, so you can consider this Part 1! If you did enjoy this post, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. And don’t forget to check back on Friday for our regular list of upcoming publications for February 2018! See you then!