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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
Next, I tried to find similar letters and words in the Beattie letter as are found in the note on the Virgil:
And here is a wider view of the two writing samples:
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!
- Richard Sharp, ‘Trapp, Joseph (1679–1747)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27666]
- Timothy Underhill, ‘Weston, James (1688?–1748?)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/40523]
- Small Sample Size
- 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]