Cracking the Code: Source Number One? Check

Portrait of Peter Heylyn.

In this series we track the progress of the group of Brown undergraduates working to decipher, translate, and contextualize the “Roger Williams Mystery Book” at the JCB.

The group has achieved a major breakthrough, identifying the source text for the first section of shorthand.  It is Peter Heylyn’s Cosmographie in Four Books: Containing the Chorographie and Historie of the Whole World, and All the Principal Kingdoms, Provinces, Seas and Illes thereof, published in London in 1652 (full text available to Brown University users here).

Team member Lucas Mason-Brown looked into Heylyn, the foremost cosmographer of his time, on a tip from Brown Professor of European History, Tim Harris. He was able to access a digitized version of the book online, though physical copies reside at both the John Carter Brown and John Hay libraries.

The table of contents of Cosmographie in Four Books, an expanded and revised edition of 1621’s hit Microcosmus: A Little Description of the Great World, matches the list of longhand terms in the first section of shorthand “almost perfectly” said Mason-Brown.

Additionally, the shorthand in this section features an idiosyncratic format for section titles: a longhand ancient place name followed by the shorthand “TO” and the vernacular place name. As in, “Mutina TO Modena.” The same heading format appears in Heylyn’s cosmography.

Mason-Brown located the section in Heylyn’s cosmography that appeared to be the source for the 24-word paragraph he had tentatively translated from Williams’ shorthand. Sure enough, sentences from that section matched the shorthand almost verbatim.

This text is also historically plausible as a source. Williams returned to England for the second and final time from 1651-54, placing him in the country at the time the cosmography was published.

Identifying the source text makes deciphering the shorthand much easier, though Williams’ annotations are still highly abbreviated. He distilled the contents of a 1,000-page book into notes covering the margins of a 200-page book.

Now that the source text has been identified, translating this section of the shorthand is no longer so vital in itself. Instead, the group, armed with Heylyn’s Cosmographie, will use this section to build its dictionary of shorthand terms. This will allow them to gain a greater understanding of Williams’ shorthand and help them to translate the 20 pages of (possibly) original shorthand notes found in the middle of “An Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences Among Christians.”

Benjamin Schreckinger, Brown University 2012