Bk 1.xxii.2 The Notary’s shorthand

(detail) Royal MS 6 C I f. 9v (4th quarter of the 11thC).


John of Tilbury

John of Tilbury is variously described as a monk, as a member of the household of Thomas Becket, and as a teacher at Oxford University. Late in the nineteenth century, Valentin Rose ascribed a certain shorthand system  to him. It is preserved in three English manuscripts, namely:

  • Brit.Lib. Royal MS 12 C VI (c.1300)
  • Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 233 (13thC)
  • Brit.Lib. MS Arundel 165 (14thC – copied from the Oxford text)

(At present none of the three appears to have been digitised).

Valentin’s ascription passed into ‘received wisdom’ among the wider public, and so it’s usual to read such sentences as: “In 1180, a monk named John of Tilbury created the first shorthand system for English speakers, but it wasn’t used widely”.

Whether the inventor of the system in question was really John of Tilbury is quite uncertain and the best discussion is found in a *must-read” book by David King.

  • David A. King, The ciphers of the monks: a forgotten number-notation of the Middle Ages. Chapter 2, Section 4 pp.64ff.
  • see also G.R. Evans, The University of Cambridge: A New History, (Chapter 2: How it all began – section: ‘taking notes in Lectures’).

Timothie Bright

In 1588, a small handbook was published with the title  Characterie: An Arte of Shorte, Swifte, and Secrete Writing by Character. Its author was Timothie Bright, a physician attached to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London from 1585-91.

He had court connections and his system for writing English in brief ‘characters’ came eventually to the attention of the Queen. However, Bright is better known for his work on ‘melancholy’ – a subject which then held great interest and was more deeply explored by Thomas Browne.  Bright later took orders as a minister for the national church of England, and although it has become a custom, in recent years, to refer to ordained ministers as priests, that was not the custom in sixteenth or seventeenth-century England and one expects that Bright would have protested vehemently if described so.



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