Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The piety of early modern shorthand

I have been looking again recently at the religious poems of Donne and Herbert: in regard to the latter, I read for the first time The Arminian nunnery or, a briefe description and relation of the late erected monasticall place, called the Arminian nunnery at Little Gidding in Huntington-shire. Humbly recommended to the wise consideration of this present Parliament. The foundation is by a company of farrars at Gidding (1641), where a puritan reports on his snooping around at Little Gidding, and his disapproval of the practices (to his mind, ‘papist’) which he saw there.

Thinking about the spectacular piety of Herbert, and the 24 hour worshippers at Little Gidding, led me to early modern shorthand, and to Rich redivivus or Mr Jeremiah Richs short-hand improved in a more breife & easy method then hath been set forth by any heretofore. Now made publique for generall advantage by Nathaniell Stringer a quondam scholar to the said Mr Rich. [1675?].

You might loosely think that shorthand would be a secular accomplishment, useful for taking transcripts of business meetings or other important group deliberations. The book put out by Rich and his pupil Stringer brings you up short. As one of the commendatory verses says:

… Quicke as an Angell darting through the Air

When he conveys to Heaven a good man prayer

With equall pace Can this rare Art Expresse

Each quaint Oration in its native Dresse

The fluent sermons word for word wee Reach

Though utter’d faster then shee Quakers preach…

This was a system of shorthand aimed at taking exact notes in church. To the title page illustration (which shows the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments in the shorthand), I have added a composite image from the later, intricate images. It shows that, once you had absorbed the basic rules (and the promoters reckon that you would spend one hour memorizing a rule, and then another hour on the next day on the next precept, and so on), this shorthand system had a range of ‘simbolicall characters’ designed to help the user take down sermons verbatim. There are signs for each book of the Bible, for names in the Bible, and for the common phrases of pulpit oratory. Obviously, a name like 'Melchizedeck' needs a lot of writing: but how often did you hear it?!

I suppose that this was in the days when hearing a famous preacher was like going to a concert given by a major star, though to take along your recording device was allowed. Once you’d scratched away through the hour, back home to make your transcript.

Amazing, really.


mmendle said...

You may be interested in the website residue of a Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition on early modern writing technology. The shorthand section, under my supervision, addressed the same point. The most pertinent page is:

Michael Mendle

DrRoy said...

Many thanks, that is an elegant and informed series of web pages you have there ( - or we have there!). At least my hasty impressions were not wrong. Interesting that it's the Puritans who are mainly in the picture. I suppose that, for them, there was far less chance of the 'LXXX Sermons' in mighty folio, more of an underground impetus to the 'samizdat' copy.

mmendle said...

In most cases, it seems the impetus to lay use of shorthand in church was to grab the sermon for immediate, following-week home study, presumably in the family devotional setting.

Some printed sermons derived from shorthand; most did not. Of those that did, some were authorized, some rip-offs.

DrRoy said...

What a culture! I'd somehow always envisaged the sermon text being completely under the control of the preacher - John Donne 'cribating and post-cribating' his text being too strong in my mind.
Of course, these devout shorthand men were just the wrong people to be stenography men taking down a transcript of a play...
How they did any of it with a quill pen and an ink pot amazes me.
(And my thanks).

mmendle said...

Do you place credence in Adele Davidson's speculations about shorthand and the plays? Why?

As for inkpot and quill, see Frances Henderson, p. 45, in her piece on shorthand and the Putney debates in my book on the same. I disagree with her, somewhat, though, at least about the the facility of the best of the later 17c. practioners; for this see my "Prints of the Trials" in McElligott, Fear Exclusion and Revolution.

DrRoy said...

No, I was speaking lightly. There seem to me, as far as I have considered it, to be far easier ways for a 'bad quarto' to be put together - get a few of the actors to sling their written-out parts your way, etc. But I sense that I am getting way out of my depth in this area of the deployment of writing technologies... once clear of term I will chase up your kind references.

DrRoy said...

Dear Michael Mendle (if you look in again here) - I just had the thought to enter 'shorthand' as a title search term on EEBO. What a mass of interesting books that finds! I must pursue some of them. RJB.