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Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print
Shorthand's Impact

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Shorthand's Impact

From its earliest days, English shorthand was promoted as a way to capture speech verbatim. Initially the focus was on sermons; virtually all the manuals show how heavily the repetitive and formulaic diction of sermons shaped shorthand systems. During the civil war and in the later seventeenth century, however, the reading public came to expect stenographically-derived news reporting, especially of trials and scaffold speeches, occasionally of debates and public meetings.


(top right) In 1589, the first sermon to be recorded in shorthand was published. "Characterie" in the title (An ordinary lecture ... taken as it was uttered by Characterie ) refers to the first system of shorthand since antiquity, Timothy Bright’s Characterie. An arte of shorte, swifte, and secrete writing (1588). Bright’s system was unworkable but fascinating. It supposedly was used to capture several sermons, of which Egerton’s was the first. The taker claimed he had "not missed one word." It may be that Egerton was chosen because a breathing disorder made him speak very slowly.  


(bottom right) The radical John Lilburne’s trial and acquittal for treason in October 1649 was the second great trial in a revolutionary year (after the trial of Charles I). While the name of the stenographer is unknown (and there may have been more than one), the publisher was a sympathetic near-royalist, Clement Walker. The extraordinary vividness of the exchanges of Lilburne and the judges made the trial a model of the state trial genre for decades to come. It is described on the title page as "Being as exactly pen'd and taken in shorthand, as it was possible to be done in such a croud and noyes, and transcribed with an indifferent and even hand."


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Stephen Egerton. An ordinary lecture. London, 1589

John Lilburne. The triall, of Lieut. Collonell John Lilburne, by an extraordinary or special commission. London, 1649

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