Handwriting: interpreting the interpreters

June 29, 2007

On the eve of a conference on identities, we take a look at the evolving cuisine of British Asians, the rise of Scouse and handwriting analysis

Jane Caplan explores the history of script in Europe at the turn of the 19th century

Anyone who has ever puzzled over an exam script in an attempt to exhume whatever content is interred in the candidate's illegible scrawl will understand the importance of handwriting. But there is more to it than legibility, as any palaeographer or forensic scientist can tell you. In a culture dependent on handwriting - and this is still the case today, despite all things electronic - its recognition and verification assume great importance in everyday transactions. Today, the signature on a forged cheque or other legal document is probably the most common type of disputed handwriting. But in the past, when entire documents were handwritten, forgery lurked menacingly in the shadows of every legal system inthe increasingly documentary culture of modern Europe.

The detection of disputed handwriting has a long history in Europe, and the profession of handwriting expert - still with us - is several centuries old. The first organised corps of handwriting experts, distinct from the scribes and clerks who wrote the documents, emerged in 16th-century France, where laws regulating the use of official writing were becoming increasingly strict. Although practitioners achieved official recognition in the courts, the profession's claims to expert knowledge and legal standing were repeatedly contested by dubious scribes and lawyers.

Claims that individual handwriting could be reliably verified were re-engaged in the late 19th century on a pan-European scale, when - as my research so far suggests - the new sciences of criminalistics and psychology converged to foster renewed interest in handwriting interpretation. This had a dual face: handwriting expertise, the forensic examination of forged or fraudulent hands; and graphology, the interpretation of character from handwriting.

Although we might think of graphology as a typical 19th-century pseudo-science, and therefore might expect the handwriting experts to want to distinguish their forensic expertise from the more florid claims of graphologists, there was actually a good deal of overlap between the two.

True, in 1899, a sceptical French student of the subject declared dismissively that "there is no such thing as graphology, only graphologists". But Hans Schneickert, a big figure in the small world of forensic science, devoted considerable attention in a 1906 treatise to the "unconscious transference of the soul" enacted by handwriting: by which he meant that the act of writing out words, character by character, revealed an unintentional "graphic image" of the writer's individuality, if not exactly his psychology.

In fact, graphologists such as Ludwig Klages, the 19th-century founder of modern graphology, were probably more dismissive of the allegedly mechanistic vision of handwriting experts than vice versa.

Graphologists pointed out that writing is a cultural practice, and writing style indents itself through all kinds of processes that are subject to physical, social and psychological influences. This was what Schneickert and his colleagues recognised, if on rather different terms. But it helped to explain why the superficial comparison of morphological resemblances was incapable of revealing whether two specimens of writing came from the same hand - an issue handwriting experts had been arguing about since the 17th century. Deviations from the norm, whether cultural or personal, crept in unintentionally but inevitably.

Handwriting experts were well aware of the paradox that a reliable clue to a forged hand, especially a signature, was that it too closely resembled an exemplar from which it had been too painstakingly copied: in this case, identity would be evidence of falsity.

This is why I have been prompted to explore the history of handwriting in Europe at the turn of the 19th century. Just as the experts argued that handwriting was an accidental messenger of the unconscious, so I would also contend that the discourse of these experts, when probed carefully, will communicate unintended lessons about the social and cultural assumptions and practices of identity and identification.

Jane Caplan is a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford University. She is writing a history of individual identification as an official practice.

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