The Writing on the Wall

These days all youngsters are taught how to print, but only 21 states require primary school students to learn cursive. Clearly we are not adequately preparing the next generation for 19th-century scholarship.

Working on my book Sowing the Seed of Truth involved many mostly happy hours of transcribing the script in Murray Shipley’s handwritten journal. The happy hours, of course, were the ones when I could easily make out what he wrote. Ink was typically easier to decipher than pencil in terms of contrast to the yellowed paper, but ink also tended to smudge:

Shipley sometimes considered it optional to cross his t‘s and dot his i‘s, which could make it challenging to distinguish will from well outside of context. Not to mention his occasional use of archaic words and phrases, although it was very helpful to know that he relied on the King James version of the Bible when quoting scripture. The preceding fragment, “which he will shew to you to day,” comes from Exodus 14:13. Thank you,!

Shipley also tended to connect his ampersand to the next word, and again, context was helpful in figuring out what he was saying:

“Arise, & be not afraid” made more sense than “Arise, the not afraid.” Plus, he noted that he was quoting from Matthew 17:7.

Misspellings sometimes sent me down a rabbit hole. My proudest moment came when I was able to figure out the following allusion:

“Look at the beautiful work of Paisly the Patter . . .” Paisly the Patter? Googling it returned only paisley the pattern, which was clearly not correct. The key was in the adjacent reference to “one dying for his faith in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew.” I began searching for information about that event, and found an obscure footnote that mentioned that the life of Bernard Palissy, a potter, was likely spared by Catherine de’ Medici, as he was a personal favorite of hers. So Shipley got the dying bit wrong, but he was clearly talking about “the beautiful work of Palissy the potter.”

In spite of such difficulties, I was grateful for the fact that, except for the occasional note in the margin, all of Shipley’s writing was horizontal. I can’t say the same for some of his family correspondence. I don’t know whether the issue was a lack of paper or the expense of mailing multiple sheets, but more than a few letters look like this:

Thank goodness for the ability to rotate a JPG!

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