The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Shorthand and snark: An unexpected journey through Virgil

I joined the Folger just over two months ago, and one of the most delightful things about my new job as the Reference and Outreach Specialist (aside from the fact that I get to work at the Folger!) is that I have time and resources to start digging into my own research again.

I am particularly interested in how classical texts have come forward to us through time. I was inspired by Sarah’s recent post on the Stanhope marginalia, in conjunction with the availability of early printed books in Latin in the Folger’s holdings, to start taking a closer look at the annotations made on such works. I somewhat arbitrarily picked the works of Virgil to investigate first and have been slowly making my way through the various editions in our collection.

When the 1701 Publii Virgilii Maronis Bucolica, Georgica, et Æneis, ad optimorum exemplarium fidem recensita (216– 984f) came up on my list, I didn’t make particular note of it. It was the largest book I’d looked at and the most recent, but I was casting my net as wide as possible, so I didn’t remark on it. 

Even the title page, while aesthetically pleasing, did not hold anything particularly note-worthy, save for what is presumably an ownership signature, which I will return to shortly:

Title Page reading Publii Virgilii Maronis Buolica, Georgica, et Aenis, Ad optimorum Exemplarium fidem recensia.
title page of Publii Virgilii

So it was without any great expectations that I turned the page to look at the text-block. I was expecting something visually appealing, given the inclusion of an engraved frontispiece and the type face on the title page. I was hoping for perhaps some annotations or marginalia by the same hand that signed the title page.

I was not, however, expecting this:

Page 1, opening of Eclogues, with notes
opening page of the Eclogues, with notes in two hands

My first thought, of course, was “Greek?” But no. A second look showed that even to my less-than-trained eye, it was certainly not Greek, but some kind of shorthand.

Fortunately, the note at the very top of the page helpfully informs readers through the centuries just what is going on here:

Trapp-Weston Note
“Dr Trapps Translation of Virgils Works into Blank Verse in Mr Westons method of Shorthand.”

The “Dr Trapp” in question is almost certainly Joseph Trapp, a Church of England clergyman and writer. He was a fellow of Wadham College, Oxford and became the University’s first professor of poetry. However, while apparently his lectures were very successful and well attended, his blank verse translation of Virgil’s works, published in 1731, “was less successful.” 1

So that suggests this shorthand annotation might have been at some point in the 1730s, after Trapp published his translation but before it faded from view.

The “Mr Westons method of Shorthand” refers to James Weston, who published Stenography Completed in 1727 as part of his publicity blitz to promote his style of shorthand, which had been adapted from Theophilus Metcalfe’s 1630s alphabet. 2

Even after frantically reading through Heather’s fantastic post about shorthand, I still find myself utterly mystified by shorthand. I would love it if someone could confirm that the shorthand is, in fact, Trapp’s translation of the works.

Eclogue 1, lines 1-8, in Weston shorthand
shorthand accompanying Eclogue 1, lines 1-8
Aeneid Book 1, lines 1-4, in Weston Shorthand
shorthand accompanying Aeneid Book 1, lines 1-4

The entirety of this volume has the shorthand translation running in the margins: all of the Eclogues, the Georgics, and all twelve books of the Aeneid. If, as the DNB entry says, manuscripts in the Weston shorthand are relatively rare, this could be a useful source for comparison purposes.

The note at the top of the page, explaining the shorthand, seems to be in the same hand that wrote the actual shorthand. However, there is clearly a second hand/ink on the page:

Snarky note condemning the shorthand annotations
“[Zachary Gray (who wrote notes on His Libras Hudribras) is said to have been the person who disfigured this elegant book with these vile pot-hooks and Trapp’s viler version.]”
Once I finished giggling at the sheer level of snark in this note, I thought to flip back to the title page and look more closely at what I presume is the ownership signature in the middle of the page:

Signature on title page: J Beattie
J Beattie: possible owner of the book?

While it is certainly suffering from SSS 3, it does seem plausible that J Beattie is the one who is objecting so vociferously to the shorthand translation in the volume.

The next obvious question, then, is “Who is J Beattie?” I always like to shoot for the moon in these situations, and a quick search in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography turned up four possible “J Beattie”s, the earliest of whom was the Scottish poet James Beattie, who lived from 1735-1803. 4 Those dates certainly fit with the rest of the contextual information I’ve pieced together about the annotations in this book, and it seems plausible that he would own a volume of Virgil’s poetry.

I did a little more digging and once again, the Folger’s collection came through for me. I discovered that we have a letter from James Beattie to David Garrick (Y.c.115(1)). Let the handwriting comparison commence!

First, the signatures, since if they don’t match, my chances of identifying the handwriting plummet. Fortunately, I think they do:

Beattie signatures side by side
J Beattie signatures, side-by-side. Left: letter from Beattie to Garrick; right: signature on title page of Virgil’s Works

Next, I tried to find similar letters and words in the Beattie letter as are found in the note on the Virgil:

Comparison of the phrase "have been"
The phrase “have been” appears in both writing samples.
Comparison of capital Ts
The formation of the T is quite similar.

And here is a wider view of the two writing samples:

Writing samples side by side
Making allowances for the size and space of the writing, these seem plausibly by the same hand.

I am certainly no expert in 18th-century handwriting, but I think I can safely give this hypothesis a good Mythbusters’ “Plausible.” 5 However, even with a tentative identification of J Beattie, I am still left with more questions than I have answers about this peculiar volume:

  • Is this really Weston’s shorthand?
  • Is it really Trapp’s blank verse translation of Virgil?
  • Who was Zachary Gray and did he scribe the shorthand? If so, why?
  • Is J Beattie really the Scottish poet, did he pen that lovely bit of snark, and if so, what spurred such a violent reaction?

I suspect the first two questions are far more answerable than the latter two—one of the joys (and sources of frustration!) of doing research!

  1. Richard Sharp, ‘Trapp, Joseph (1679–1747)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27666]
  2. Timothy Underhill, ‘Weston, James (1688?–1748?)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/40523]
  3. Small Sample Size
  4. Roger J. Robinson, ‘Beattie, James (1735–1803)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1831]
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MythBusters#Outcomes_of_the_experiments

8 Comments


  • I enjoyed this. However, there’s an error in the transcription of Beattie’s snarky comment: it’s not “notes on His Libras” but “notes on Hudibras.”

  • What a great snarky comment! I wish such comments would pop up more often..
    Small mistranscription in the snark: it’s “notes on Hudibras” – and google sayth that the writer is the clergyman and editor Zachary Grey. ..but I suspect you found him already.

  • A most interesting item. I sympathize with the “vile pot-hooks” sentiment at the bottom of the page. In your transcription of this note, “His Libras” is surely “Hudibras”, Samuel Butler’s mock-heroic poem.

  • Whoops! Thanks, everyone, for catching my transcription error! That’ll teach me do try to do English paleography… Amazing how one word can explain so much. Of course this leaves me with even more questions, such as what Grey’s connection with the Weston shorthand is. Ah, research!

  • It is definitely James Weston’s shorthand.

    Trapp’s translation starts:
    Beneath the Covert of the spreading Beech
    Thou, Tityrus, repos’d, art warbling o’er,
    Upon a slender Reed, the Silvan Lays:
    We leave our Country, and sweet native Fields;
    We fly our Country: Careless in the Shade,
    ….

    Lines 4 and 5 are easily found in the shorthand:
    they both look like “1 w ε C”.
    In Weston’s shorthand, this reads “We […] our country”.
    Capital C is used as a mnemonic for “country”.
    See for example James Weston, Stenography compleated, or The art of short-hand, 1738,
    http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433034360127,
    plate VII (country), plate XIV (we), plate XVIII (our).


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