Formularies – what are they and how can they help genealogists?

Everyday my mother spends an hour or two with her puzzle book. Puzzles keep her occupied, stimulated and challenged – she felt the same when she was researching her family tree.

One of the skills she never harnessed fully was that of palaeography – reading old handwriting – which is a shame because the process of reading and transcribing a document is similar to undertaking a puzzle.

When we start with a document, we may not have all the pieces, i.e. we will have gaps in our understanding perhaps in regards to terminology and certainly with legibility. We may not recognise the handwriting style or the type of document we’re looking at because we’ve entered a new area on our genealogical journey. It is at this point and while we are transcribing the document that we may turn to a formulary.

I say to my beginner students think of genealogy as an academic subject because that is the level at which you sometimes have to operate: historians have to investigate, critically analyse without bias, and piece together hidden narratives all the time. Develop expertise to navigate these difficulties and most importantly, discover the tools that will help make the puzzle easier to crack.

As a keen palaeographer with intermediate skills and knowledge, I am always seeking tools to facilitate improvement and certainly a faster way to arrive at full understanding of the document in front of me. By the way, when referring to documents my meaning is those rather nebulous indentures, conveyancing, tax, probate and manorial papers one finds in archives generally and also the more ancient parish registers and parish chest material. Maybe I can also throw in there some charters and non-standard records found commonly at the National Archives.

In reference to the subject of this article and the idea of Formularies as tools, then it is necessary to think more along the lines of indentures, land transfer, and probate. For other material, I will suggest creating your own set of ‘Formulary’ bookmarks.

So what is a Formulary?

Mid 16th century the noun from French formulaire or medieval Latin formularius (liber) ‘(book) of formulae’, from Latin formula (see formula); the adjective (early 18th century) is directly from formula.’

Well, many of the documents we regularly consult will be in a prescribed layout that may have changed gradually over time (e.g. the census), but will contain elements consistent throughout its history. After persistent use we are familiar with the address column, the marital status column, the age column, the place of birth, and the civil parish box etc. We know where to find that information every time we look at the census.

Another good example is a will, we know a good proportion of them will start with the words ‘This is the last Will and Testament of’ and may contain predictable phrases such as ‘being sick of body but of sound and perfect mind and memory’, and ‘in manner and form following’, and ‘set my hand and seal’, and so on. In fact there are many examples within this one document type of phrases the clerk followed in case of any legal comebacks both in canon law and civil law. And of course the clerks were lavish with the verbiage too given that they were paid by how much they wrote.

How did they know what to write? Yes from learning, but surely someone had written down examples somewhere? Well, indeed:

Jenkins, John S. (1847) The new clerk’s assistant, or, Book of practical forms : containing numerous precedents and forms for ordinary business transactions : with references to the various statutes, and latest judicial decision. Auburn : J. C. Derby & Co.

The example shown is from The New Clerk’s Assistant: Or, Book of Practical Forms by John Stilwell Jenkins. Though an American publication, because of sharing a basis in law, it contains word for word templates of language also used in British legal documents.

How does something like this assist us when we are trying to understand and transcribe a document?

If we come across an unfamiliar word in our document and we are unsure about what it says, we might be able to consult a formulary for help with the word. The question you may ask though, is where can I find a formulary or a contemporary clerk’s template to help with the word or words I am trying to decipher?

If you searched a library or archive catalogue for formulary you may come up short, chances are you would be directed to pharmaceutical formularies. Instead, go to Google and type a phrase from the document that you can understand.

Here are some examples:


While trying to locate specific wording in an apprenticeship indenture I type a legible phrase from the document into Google:

Google results apprentices

I get several results on Google books, all of which might be useful to me, but I choose this one in particular:

Google apprentice book
Open in new tab for larger view.

McCulloch, J. R. (1849) A dictionary, practical, theoretical, and historical, of commerce and commercial navigation : a new ed., corrected enlarged, and improved : with a supplementLondon : Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.

And I bookmark it in case it is needed again. I suggest you do this for each one you find. Create a bookmark folder called Formularies and add any online books or transcriptions you may find, alternatively if they are Ebooks download them to a local drive.

Example Two: Wills

I am reading a will and I am curious about a phrase which appears to be ‘impeachment of waste’, I turn to Google:

Google books for probate

Jacob, Giles (1750) The accomplish’d conveyancer : Containing the nature and kinds of deeds and instruments used in conveyancing; and an abridgment of the law relating to all sorts of conveyances of estates …and also all manner of precedents made use of in conveyancing … [London] : Henry Lintot for Dan. Browne and John Shuckburgh.

This is from the The Accomplish’d Conveyancer which has some very useful examples of language used in land transfer records.

Example Three: Indictment

I discover that my 7x great grandfather was mentioned in a 17th century indictment, but it’s in Latin with some abbreviations! This is trickier. To be able to pick out a couple of words to enter into Google requires fairly decent transcription skills to begin with!

Quarter session indictment

Here is the original document and the words ‘injuste freger’ I entered into Google.

Google results for latin phrases

Here are the Google results – again several sources and choices.

Google books for help with Latin

Bolton, Richard. (1683) A Justice of Peace for Ireland: Consisting of Two Books: the First Declaring the Exercise of that Office by One Or More Justices of Peace Out of Sessions. The Second Setting Forth the Form of Proceeding in Sessions, and the Matter to be Enquired Of, and Handled Therein. Dublin : Printed by Benjamin Tooke and John Crooke …,

One of the results I consulted gave me some idea as to the nature of the indictment. I did look at many of them because each covered different words in the indictment! So it is advisable to consult more than one source.

It cannot be overstated however, that it is important to fully transcribe a document even if the Latin seems a huge hurdle. It is never wise to presume the context without all of the information.

Using transcribed documents to help with difficult words

Finally, tap into the knowledge of other skilled genealogists (and institutions) who have been kind enough to provide transcriptions of documents. You can use these transcriptions to identify the key phrases common to the document you’re consulting.

For instance checkout the brilliant resources at Brigham Young and the University of Nottingham, the latter of whom provide a wonderful overview, with examples, of the complexity and the language of land documents.


Brigham Young Script Tutorial Transcriptions: Land Records

University of Nottingham. Manuscripts and Special Collections. Research Guidance. Deeds in Depth:

Wright, Andrew. (1879) Court-hand Restored Or, The Student’s Assistant in Reading Old Deeds … London : Reeves & Turner.

Hendry, John. (1862) Styles of Deeds and Instruments: In Accordance with the Titles to Land (Scotland) Acts, 1858 and … Edinburgh : Bell & Bradfute.

Balfour, James. (1754) Practicks: Or, A System of the More Ancient Law of Scotland. Edinburgh : Thomas and Walter Ruddimans.

Davidson, Charles & Martin, Thomas. (1844) Martin’s Practice of conveyancing : with forms of assurances. London : A. Maxwell & Son.

Shaw, Joseph. (1748) Parish law: or, A guide to justices of the peace, ministers, churchwardens, overseers of the poor, constables, surveyors of the highways, vestry-clerks, and all others concern’d in parish business… [London] In the Savoy, Printed by H. Lintot for R. Ware [etc.]

This is an excellent, but now out of print resource. It is very difficult to find a copy, however very worthwhile due to its thorough guidance on the subject of Scottish legal documents:

Gouldesbrough, Peter. (1985) Formulary of old Scots legal documents. Edinburgh: Stair Society, 36.

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