Unlocking the secrets of Roger Williams's idiosyncratic shorthand script
Doing history is not always like solving a puzzle. Sometimes it's about looking for something you're not sure exists or putting on a show, or simply reading and thinking. But for a group of Brown undergrads, doing history is literally about deciphering a 17th-century mystery.
The university's John Carter Brown Library has long held the "Roger Williams Mystery Book," a book that purportedly belonged to Roger Williams, the radical religious thinker and founder of Rhode Island. The book is missing its title page and thus has little identifying information (besides a subtitle, "An Essay Concerning the Reconciling of Differences among Christians") -- but it's covered with extensive shorthand marginalia suspected to have been written by Williams himself sometime in the mid 1600s. The students, who include history and math majors, are using this semester to decipher the writing and to determine whether or not the shorthand handwriting was Williams's hand.
Shorthand has quite a long history, but it gained popularity in early modern Europe (Samuel Pepys wrote most of his diary in shorthand) and grew even more popular through the 19th century as office culture took off and sped up. Most shorthand systems use symbols for sounds, words, syllables, and phrases -- but there were many competing systems. Roger Williams had served as a law clerk as a teenager in England in the 1620s and was thus familiar with a number of shorthand systems. But shorthand could also be idiosyncratic. "At the end of the day, this is a proprietary, improvised scheme that wasn't meant to communicate anything to anybody else," said Lucas Mason-Brown, one of the students, in a library blog post in February.