Shorthand in Cromwell and Packer

By Michele Pflug

Last week, I was perusing Katherine Packer’s A Boock of Very Good medicines for severall deseases wounds and sores both new and olde, dated 1639, when I came across some passages consisting entirely of curious symbols: omegas, slashes, numbers, hyphens.  I was utterly unsure of what to make of these cryptic codes embedded in medical recipe book.  Out of curiosity, a professor and I put the images on Twitter, in the hopes someone, somewhere would know how to crack the code.

I was utterly unsure of what to make of these cryptic codes embedded in medical recipe book.  Out of curiosity, a professor and I put the images on Twitter, in the hopes someone, somewhere would know how to crack the code.

Due to similarities, the Twitter community assumed the images came from L. Cromwell’s manuscript book, one of the three manuscripts up for transcription today.

This welcome confusion prompted me to compare the two shorthands.  At first, they appeared to have nothing in common.  Upon closer inspection and comparison, it was apparent that the shorthand in Packer’s manuscript was written upside down.  Suddenly, what I believed to be E’s transformed into 3’s, 6’s transformed into 9’s, and omegas, well, stayed omegas.

I cannot speak with absolute certainty, but based on the similarity of the symbols and the order they appear, the shorthand in both manuscripts seems to be of the same system.  Certain symbols resemble shorthand for measurements in merchant’s notebooks, while others hark back to medieval abbreviations.   These are useful hints, but do not form enough of a basis to translate the passages.  In both manuscripts, recipes written in symbols were often sandwiched between recipes written conventionally, which begs the question: why choose to write certain recipes in shorthand?  In manuscripts shared amongst friends, neighbors, or family, could writing in shorthand be a method of exclusion?  Secret knowledge held by those who could interpret the systems of symbols?  Recipes closely guarded and highly valued?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *