Posted on by & filed under annotations, mobile, talks.

On November 2, 2012 I attended Take Note, a conference on note-taking and annotations, held at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. There was a lot I found interesting, but this one topic spawned enough digression that it became a post in its own right. [Edit: See also my overview of the online exhibition.]

My tables, my tables

Draw your tables, and write what wise I speak. (a 1592) R. Greene Sc. Hist. James IV in Wks., 1861  – OED

Tiffany Stern, Professor of Early Modern Drama at Oxford University, presented on the intersection of note-taking, transcription, and English dramatic performance. She didn’t use this phrase, but to me, the talk was about the origin of mobile writing.

The challenge of writing on-the-go in a quill-pen-slow-drying-ink world hadn’t really occurred to me before, but it was a real problem that required technological innovation. Writing tables (or table-books) were the literal notebooks of the 16th and 17th centuries, providing a hard writing surface and a custom stylus. Unlike ink-based home writing desks, table books were portable and, more importantly, erasable. A user would transcribe in the field and then write up the notes more formally with pen, ink, and powder at home. The table-book could then be wiped clean and available for re-use on the next outing.

The ability to erase a table-book was its signature feature to users of that time. References to its inherent mutability can be found through writings of the period, particularly in Shakespeare. It’s interesting that this quote is less metaphorical than it seems to modern readers — Shakespeare is pretty much describing a literal Renaissance Etch-A-Sketch:

Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records
Hamlet Act 1, Scene V

Anonymous table-book scribble, 1581

This feat was accomplished in part due to the writing device (the graphite pen or stylus) but mostly due to the unique coating of the table-book paper, typically some highly-proprietary preparation of varnish. Like any good gadget freak, 17th century blogger Samuel Pepys could not wait to unbox the latest in erasure technology, nor did he fail to heed the charming urgings of a booth babe:

“…thence [I went] to one Lovett’s, a varnisher, to see his manner of new varnish, but found not him at home, but his wife, a very beautiful woman, who shewed me much variety of admirable work, and is in order to my having of some papers fitted with his lines for my use for tables and the like. I know not whether I was more pleased with the thing, or that I was shewed it by her, but resolved I am to have some made.
Samuel Pepys, May 5, 1665

(It’s also interesting to read the 21st century commentary on his journal, particularly here, where readers naturally assumed that this varnish is to be applied after writing, as a preservative, rather than before, as a method to enhance ephemerality.)

According to Stern, table-books became a status symbol: they demonstrated that you were so highly literate that you couldn’t bear to be without your tables, even if you in fact barely wrote on them. At the conference, someone on Twitter wryly compared them to Moleskine notebooks (and I resemble that remark), but iPad covers may be more apropos. The frequent mismatch between the expense of table-books and the enlightenment of their owners did not go unnoticed at the time:

In hast plucks forth his Tables as to write
Some Sermon-Note, mean while does only scrawl,
Forgotten Errands there, or nought at all.
Characters of Vertue and Vice (Nahum Tate, 1691, via Woudhuysen, 2004)

Because of the very everyday nature of these items, table-books were not often preserved, and today are considered to be exceedingly rare.


Once technology enabled mobile writing, the limiting factor on live transcription rate became writing speed. Thus began an arms-race in shorthand writing systems; dozens proliferated in the period between 1570 and 1650. Stern highlighted the system proposed by P. Bales in Arte of Brachygraphie, and it had an intriguing quotation about the right of universal access to knowledge for all [men], but unfortunately I can’t find an online edition with full text.

A much later book on brachygraphy held by the Internet Archive provides some samples, if you, like me, had never really seen shorthand –

Shorthand example from Gurney, 1838

And fittingly, this digital edition preserved the print book’s own note-taking: a student at practice in the flyleaf –

Student note in the flyleaf of Gurney, Brachygraphy. I did try translating it using the book, but got stuck on the very first character.

Portability plus high throughput dramatically reduced the difficulty of producing live transcription, and thus a form of book piracy was born. Audience members would hastily transcribe sermons and play premieres and then rush them into printingexactly analogous to today’s cam bootlegs. Variations between transcribed versions and authentic publications are usually errors, but can also be records of how dramatic works were actually rendered in a particular performance.

Shorthand persisted into the 20th century, of course, but I’d never released the extent to which it was never a unified “standard.” Curiously, of all the forms of shorthand invented in the history of writing, only one character from one system exists among the 110,180 glyphs available in Unicode: the Tironian et, first invented in 1st century BCE. Its sole frequent use today is in Irish and Scottish signage, as an abbreviation for “and”. I end then, improbably, with a conjunction: .


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