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The first English term for shorthand was charactery (writing by brief characters). It was coined by Timothie Bright (1551-1615) to describe a system first presented by him in 1586 for the approval of Robert Cecil, a future secretary of Queen Elizabeth.

stenography-Sténo

Did Cecil approve? No idea, but in 1588 Bright brought out the first printed work on shorthand, An arte of shorte, swifte, and secrete writing by Character, which elaborated on his system with the use of 500 arbitrary symbols.

The term charactery didn’t stick, as others soon developed their own systems: in 1590 brachygraphy came into use, and in 1602 stenography. Sometime in the 17th century the term shorthand became the settled usage.

The practice itself is ancient, and Bright recognised this in the book’s dedication to the queen, noting that Cicero and Seneca had used some form of rapid writing. Of course the ancient Greeks and the Chinese had their own systems, but in a true Renaissance gesture Bright gave praise to the Romans, with reference to Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger (probably from North’s translation of 1579).*

The first known application of charactery was in 1589, when the queen was presented with a manuscript translation from Latin of the Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibills, a book of poems published in Italy in 1481. The manuscript was lavishly bound in multi-coloured velvet – mostly crimson – and decorated with gold lace and gilt, with clasps of silver and gold, and a sprinkling of pearls and precious stones.

From Seager’s Sibills (1589) – click to enlarge

Jane Seager was the translator, and the English text (only ten of the poems were included) was written in her italic hand – an exercise she repeated in the second half of the book, but this time using Bright’s new system. However true the translations, it seems the system proved inadequate, even though Seager must have taken great pains in her work. This is shown by a literal rendering into standard orthography (from a Memoir of Timothe Bright, p.97):

“In such circumstances transcription must have been largely a matter of guess-work, and imagination reels at thought of the confusion that would arise if the proceedings in our Houses of Parliament and Courts of Law had to be reported by such a system as Timothy Bright’s.”

It seems the real utility of Bright’s system, and of other early English shorthand systems, was in the recording of sermons. You can get a sense of the earnest devotion to this task from the publication of a sermon by Master Stephen Egerton at Blackfriar’s in 1589, recorded in charactery by the unknown A.S. – the following is from the latter’s preface (memoir of Bright, p.103):

It hath been (Christian reader) till of late, much wished, that there were an ordinarie way of swift writing, whereby Sermons and lectures of godly Preachers might be preserued for the vse of the absent and posteritie hereafter: That whereas no more remaineth after the hower passed, than so much as the frailtie of memory carrieth away: by the benefite of speedy writing, the whole body of the Lecture, and sermon might be registered. This desire of many, some haue lately endevoured to satisfie, by an Art called Characterie: which I hauing learned, haue put in practise, in writing sermons thereby to preserue (as it were) the life of much memorable doctrine, that would otherwise be buried in forgetfulnesse, wherof I here giue thee a taste, (Christian reader) in publishing this godly Sermon so taken. I haue not willingly missed one word; whereby, either the truth of doctrine might be peruerted, or the meaning of the Preacher altered. Such is the vse of the Art, whith [sic] I have learned. And as at this daie, God is plentifull in varietie of giftes, so if some occasion had not hindered; I would haue made thee partaker, (and may heereafter) of other godly mens labour; in this kinde, that although one cannot heare all: yet by Characterie, the diverse giftes of God may be communicated to many. Farewell in the Lord. Thy well-willer, A.S.

In a later edition Egerton himself corrected certain mistakes, observing that, “the swiftest hand commeth often short of the slowest tongue”. He welcomed the practice of charactery, but advised that it be used only for private purposes, and not “for gain or glory”.

Shorthand was probably an important contribution to Tudor writing, and Bright was granted a kind of copyright over his system for fifteen years. But charactery was clumsy and never dominated the practice. The best of the early systems was in the Art of Stenographie (1602) by John Willis, which established a geometrical principle. Thomas Shelton adapted that system in his Short-writing (1626), and that adaptation was used by Samuel Pepys and Isaac Newton to write up their notes and diaries.

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About a hundred years ago there was speculation that Shakespeare’s plays had been recorded in shorthand from their live performances, thus accounting for the inaccuracies in subsequent published folios of the plays. Shakespeare did mention charactery twice – in The Merry Wives of Windsor (l.2637) and Julius Caesar (l.308) – but nobody now seems to believe the shorthand explanation. The theory that Shakespeare knew Bright is quite interesting, but again just speculation.

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*The passage from Plutarch (Loeb Classics 23.3 – can’t find North’s):

“This is the only speech of Cato which has been preserved, we are told, and its preservation was due to Cicero the consul, who had previously given to those clerks who excelled in rapid writing instruction in the use of signs, which, in small and short figures, comprised the force of many letters; these clerks he had then distributed in various parts of the senate-house. For up to that time the Romans did not employ or even possess what are called shorthand writers, but then for the first time, we are told, the first steps toward the practice were taken. Be that as it may, Cato carried the day and changed the opinions of the senators, so that they condemned the men to death.”

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