[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/1 pp13-16 later designated J7]
[The 'suspension' signs are as close as possible to the handwritten marks in the original article.]

The End of Short Cuts.

The use of abbreviated English by the fellows of Merton College, Oxford 1483-1660.

John M. Fletcher & Christopher A. Upton.

John Fletcher is Reader in the History of European Universities at Aston University, Birmingham, and Christopher Upton is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Hellenic and Roman Studies at the University of Birmingham. They have been collaborating for several years in investigating the development of Merton College, Oxford, in theTudor and Stuart periods.

1. Spread and standardising of the vernacular.

The Tudor and early Stuart periods brought great modifications in the use and character of the English language. By 1660, the vernacular had largely ousted reliance on Latin by the church in England and had challenged its supremacy in the universities. The position of Norman-French as a language spoken by the aristocracy had been totally undermined and its survival in law seemed an anachronism. The substantial contribution to literature made by the major figures of the English Renaissance had ensured that the vernacular was now used by most writers of se and poetry. Disputes within the English church had discouraged the role of the vernacular even in theological controversy. English by 1660 had become more fixed in its grammar and spelling. During the period 1483-1660, the use of abbreviated English illustrates the rapid development of the language towards the more standardised form that we have today.

2. The Merton College Register.

The appointment of Richard FitzJames, master of arts and doctor of theology of the university of Oxford, as warden of Merton College on 20 March 1483 inaugurated an important period in the history of the college. Amongst his many contributions to the development of its structure, administration and wealth was his inauguration of a register of college decisions and activities, the Registrum Annalium Collegii Mertonensis. [1] The register has been kept from 5 March 1483 until the present.

3. Latin and English.

For our purposes, reference will be made to the register from its beginnings until the Restoration, 1660. During this time, entries were hand-written usually by the subwarden of the college. The normal medium was Latin which remained throughout this period dominant in the universities. From time to time, however, the compilers of the Merton register were compelled to insert lengthy sections in English. Correspondence with non-academics that contained important information relevant to the college, legal decisions and such documents as contracts, indentures or agreements with estate officials were necessarily recorded in the register for future use; such material was usually in English. The different compilers had before them the written examples left by their predecessors since 1483; in consulting these entries, fellows making particular insertions may have been influenced to copy an outmoded style of writing. Also, the continuous use of Latin written in the early days in a much abbreviated form, perhaps encouraged fellows to maintain a similar style for their entries in English. Nevertheless, the survival of this register, compiled, by well educated academics over a long period of time, enables us to make some estimate of the wider changes in the use of abbreviations during these years.

4. Abbreviations.

The early fellows of Merton had been trained in a style of writing that had been developed with great sophistication during the medieval period. The need to economise on expensive parchment and vellum and the absence of supplies of cheap paper had encouraged the use of a highly abbreviated style of writing in Latin. Individual scribes, communities and nations naturally introduced their own special techniques in writing, but this occurred against the background of a commonly inherited and understood system of abbreviations recognisable to all educated readers. The spread of schools and universities in the later medieval period strengthened and expanded the use of this Latin 'shorthand'. Not only were scholars eager to reproduce as rapidly and as cheaply as possible the textbooks that were required in large numbers in all universities, but the introduction of new technical terms known to all working in a particular field enabled scribes to extend their use of abbreviations. Alongside shortened words that can easily be deciphered by readers with a small acquaintance with medieval calligraphy occur those abbreviations and symbols that only the expert aware of the meaning of the text can understand. For example, it was usual to omit the letters <m> or <n> that occur so frequently in Latin words: poetā (poetam), assēsu (assensu); such abbreviations present little difficulty. On the other hand, the writer of, for instance, a logical tractate could use such shortenings as ua (universalia), bor (minor) aor (maior) which are not at all clear to an inexperienced reader. Those fellows who compiled the register at Merton in the late fifteenth century were accustomed to read mostly manuscript books and write for dissemination in such books. Even when early printed books were known, they too usually employed the abbreviated Latin used by scribes in the contemporary universities. When Merton fellows wrote in the vernacular, it is not surprising that, where possible, they adopted the types of abbreviation that they were accustomed to utilise when writing Latin.

5. Uncertainty of interpretation.

On 3 March 1484, Merton College made a presentation to Stratton St. Margaret. [2] The writer of this entry leaves any editor with several major problems of transcription. It is impossible to know whether at the end of several words (Stratton, nominacion) one or two letters are intended. The compiler writes these words with what seems to be a suspension sign after the final <n>, in this manner: Stattonɔ.

Elsewhere, it is difficult to know exactly how the writer intends that words should be spelt. Is owrɔ to be lengthened as ower, owre or owrr? Is therɔ to be there or theer? Is forɔ to be fore or forr? Is vicarɔ to be vicarr or vicare? The suspension sign at the end of samɔ, however can hardly be intended to indicate anything but same.

6. Influence of Latin abbreviations.

The presentation also shows clearly the influence of a style of writing derived from Latin usage. The omission of <er> in the centre of words or at the end is marked, as in Latin: mastɔ (master), Mɔton (Merton). The common practice of abbreviating pre, pro and par or per, especially at the beginning of Latin words, is continued in the written English: pɔsent (present). In a letter written a few years later, on 19 March 1484, [3] and copied into the register because it contained complaints about the chaplain of Burmington, this pattern of abbreviation is more strongly evident. Again we find þyshons (paryshon[er]s)and pɔst (prest), with the Latin abbreviation of the prefix. The heavily abbreviated ɔmēde (commende) and ɔary (contrary) are clearly derived from contemporary Latin usage as are wt (with) and ʄvants (servants). The omission of <er> occurs in lovɔ (lover) and manɔ) (maner) and of a letter in commende, as above, and thē (then). The scribe here has simply treated the English words as he would his normal Latin vocabulary. We also find suspensions for which we can give no definite spelling: forɔ, herɔ, morɔ, ownɔ, or ɔ.

7. Reluctance to spell endings.

It will already be apparent that one of the major difficulties in transcribing such extracts in English concerns the treatment of the endings of abbreviated words. A letter from the college on 16 August 1484 [4] illustrates the problem, with some further indication of the different approach to the use of abbreviations by different compilers. Here, again, we have the usual insertion of a suspension sign at the end of words ending in <r> (pleasur,ɔ, brotherɔ, wotheɔ [other]), but also for some words ending in <m> (whomɔ). Somewhat unexpected is the Latin form adopted in an abbreviation of another <er> ending: yo2, presumably this is intended to be yoer (your), but there is no certainty about this. There seems a marked reluctance to spell out such endings in detail. In an indenture concerning the sale of timber on 20 October 1485 [5] we find wycħ (perhaps wyche) and spryngge; the second suspension seems to be derived from the Latin, but, whereas in that language the <-es> ending for many third declension nouns in the plural is fixed, for the English word we are unable to say whether spryngges or sprynggs is intended. Similarly, in a note of legal advice in July 1486, [6] we are unable to determine whether the written word wrytingɔ is meant to inform us that the word should end with an <e>, or when strengtħ is so written in an indenture of 15 June 1486 [7] if the abbreviation sign over the <h> indicates a letter to follow.

8. Patterns of abbreviation.

The constant introduction into the writing of English of abbreviations derived from medieval Latin continues throughout these years. Sometimes omitted letters are indicated in brief above the remnants of the word: pay (pray), gete (greate or grete), wtyn (withyn). The omission of <er> is often indicated by an abbreviation sign: divɔse (diverse). Reference to the common Latin word-ending <-io> or <-iones> with the replacement of the <i> by an abbreviation sign is repeated in a similar way in English: condicōn, obligacōn. Occasionally the Latin form is combined with a reluctance to state the ending of the word: piorɔ (prior or priore or prioer).

The readiness of compilers to use forms that were familiar to them from their reading of Latin manuscripts was perhaps strengthened also by the character of the documents they were transcribing in English. Presentations, indentures and such formal legal transactions had themselves usually their sources in a Latin or Norman-French original; they had by their nature at an early date often become stereotyped, so that only the relevant names and dates had to be changed to fit a different situation. The entry of abbreviated, standard forms into the English language can easily be understood. However, of more significance to the development of the language itself is the result of such a method of writing, that it absolved the writer from the necessity of spelling out in detail all the letters of the word he was forming. In the case of one of our examples above, for instance, the scribe did not have to make a decision about whether to write greate or grete since the abbreviated form of the word did not expect this of him. So long as such short cuts were employed, many of the niceties of spelling could be ignored, especially as the grammatical structure of the English Language, unlike that of Latin, did not require a firm decision about the exact ending of each word.

9. Examples from the 1480s.

Although fellows of Merton in the late fifteenth century abbreviated many English words when compiling their entries for the college register, they never rivalled the extent of their contemporaries' use of abbreviation in Latin. An indenture of 4 January 1487 [8] in English begins as follows:

Thys endenture made betwene mastɔ Rychard FfitzJames clerk & warden off Marton College in Oxford & ye felysshiþ of ye same place on yt oon þtie and Johñ Warley of Coreham ī ye counte of Surrɔ gētilmā and Thomas Warley off London goldsmyth...
A few months before this, in August 1486, [9] an indenture written in Latin commences:

Hec indentura fĉa intɔ Ricɔ Ffitziames custodē collegii de Mɔtonɔ in Oxoñ & eiusdɔ collegii scolares ex una þte & Ioheɔ Leverens de Chessindon in coɱ Surrɔ husbandmanɔ ex alta þte testat2 ǭ dictɔ custos & scolarɔs unanimi assēsu & ɔsensu ɔcesserūt...
The similarity in the use of abbreviations in both passages is clear, but the writer has a much easier task in shortening the Latin version by his reliance on an accepted code of practice.

10. Growing use of books after 1500.

The long wardenship of Richard FitzJames, from 1483 until 1507, coincided with a time of noticeable change in the character of Oxford intellectual life. The printed book, rare in 1483, had begun to appear in rapidly increasing numbers in the university bookshops. The donation of John Neele to Magdalen College library in 1489 contains many printed books amongst its forty two items. [10] At Merton, it was thought useful to repair the manuscript books in 1504, [11] but the last distribution to the fellows of books from the unchained collection seems to have been made in 1519. [12]

By 1520, shortly before FitzJames' death, John Dorne could list for sale in Oxford over two thousand books, most of which were printed texts. [13] The scribes and their techniques were no longer required for the mass production of academic works, nor was it so necessary for scholars to master the art of writing and reading the Latin shorthand of the schools. Indeed, this style of writing had itself ceased to be fashionable amongst learned academics influenced by the impact of the New Learning. As numerous surviving documents, and the Merton register itself, show clearly, scholars who wished to be considered as members of the contemporary society of humanists, wrote in an italic hand.

Here the earlier, highly technical abbreviated Latin of the medieval academic was scorned, as were often the subjects he had studied. FitzJames was probably born around the year 1445; at the time of his death in 1522 these changes had been affecting Oxford society for some years.

It would not be surprising, therefore, to see the warden's method approach to the writing of English in his old age reflecting a tradition that was rapidly disappearing. In 1503, when he was perhaps in his middle or late fifties, he wrote a letter to the subwarden fortunately pasted into the register, so giving us a copy of his own hand: [14]

Mastɔ subwardenɔ y ɔmēde me to you. And wherɔ y wrot to you the last wyke that y trouyde itt good to differrɔ thelectionɔ ovɔ to quīdenaɔ tinitatis y have be thougħt me synɔ that itt woll be thenɔ a bowte mydsomɔ. Wherɔ fforɔ y se ytt kanɔ not be so ɔveniētly synɔ oɔ scolers to be chosinɔ must entre in to the college be fforɔ midsomɔ yff we doo well to godde pleaʒ and o2 founders intent which synɔ ys so y pay you kepe fforth yo2 day off electionɔ appoyntyde wherɔ y kumɔ orɔ not as off lyklihode y schałł not the worse...

11. Medieval yields to 'modern'.

Clearly, the aging warden is writing in the manner of a scholar trained in the traditions associated with the Latin shorthand of the manuscript book.

If the style of FitzJames' letter is compared with that of an indenture also written in English and entered in the register shortly afterwards [l5], the differences are striking:

Allso itt is agreed atwix the said þtys tht the said Gilbt shall well & trwly content & pay to the said warden & scolers therɔ successors or assignes for all the said wood undɔ forme above rɔhersid bowgħt.
Traditional Latin abbreviations, especially suspensions of <er> or <e> and the contraction of <par>, remain. The general appearance of the first passage is certainly 'medieval' while that of the second is 'modern', if we may be allowed to use these terms. Significantly, the writer of the indenture does not replace the first syllable of 'content' with a symbol, as FitzJarnes would probably have done.

12. Stereotyping.

The style of writing of the English entries in the register for the first half of the sixteenth century becomes more stereotyped. A few standard abbreviations deriving from the Latin remain in use and there is still a tendency to avoid any commitment to the exact ending of certain words. As an example, here is the entry of a condition relating to an obligacion of November 1516: [16]

The condicion of this obligacionɔ is suche that if the above bounden Richard Symonds and Oswald Mitford onɔ theyr partie well &truly þforme obʒ ve fulfill and kepe all & singlre covenante grauante...
However, as late as 1544, an official document in English appointing an attorney to act on behalf of the college against those damaging flood-gates in Cambridgeshire is written in the following Style: [17]

... to þcure entɔ & þsecute ałł suche wryte actions þcesses as ys or shalbe thowghte nedefull & necessarie for o2 behofe ɔcɔ nyng the wrongefull & iniuste vexatīōn & molestatīōn don to & aienste the sayde wardenɔ...
This entry seems to hark back to the manner of writing of the late fifteenth century. It is so different in character to other contemporary entries that we must suspect that the writer placing in the register what was a formal, legal document imitated not only the words but also the abbreviated form of an older original. Archaic styles of writing could survive and individuals could adopt an older abbreviation as a deliberate indication of their interest in the past.

13. Fewer abbreviations in late 1500s.

The great majority of entries for the second half of the century show a marked tendency to reduce the use of abbreviations. But commonly used words such as with, your and our are regularly abbreviated to forms wt, yor and or; occasionally an <m> or <n> is omitted and the loss indicated by a stroke above the word; the prefix <par-> is often shortened. The appearance of such entries is shown, for example, in a letter of complaint from the college in 1556: [18]

These are to doo yow to wete that I wt mye cōpanie off Mertonɔ Colledge have certayne knowlege that ye alter and change at yor pleasure the gleebe lands off ou2 þsonage of Pontelande in such wyse that in fewe yeres to cūme ou2 lande shall nott be knowen froɔ yore and others...
Sometimes not even these few, and easily decipherable, abbreviations are used. A condition for an obligation of 1578, [19], for example, contains only one shortened English word: ye for the, a usage which was to persist for several generations.

14. Seventeenth century.

Entries for the early seventeenth century in English contain only a few, clearly standard abbreviations. In 1610 the warden and fellows wrote to accept the offer of a donation to increase the allowances made to the postmasters - undergraduate scholars of the college. [20] This letter contains only the following abbreviated words: ye (the), wch (which), þportion (proportion), evɔy (every), wth (with), þtestation (protestation), evɔ (ever). Paradoxically, in view of the original medieval motive for the use of abbreviations, it is, with few exceptions, the shorter rather than the longer words that are now reduced. Similarly, in a protest made by a fellow against the election of new members in 1642, [21] the only shortened words are ye (the), mtie (majesty), wch (which), mr (master) and or (our). On the eve of the Restoration, the warden, detained at Gresham College in London, wrote to the fellows on 20 July 1658 excusing his absence at the annual election of new officials; the letter was in English and was copied into the register. [22] The writing is clear, and the construction of the words and sentences presents little difficulty to the modern reader. The warden shortens college to coll, which to wch and writes ye for the; otherwise there are no abbreviations. When compared with the written English of his late fifteenth century predecessor, Warden FitzJames, it is clear that the calligraphy of Warden Goddard in 1658 reflects the attitudes of a different literary and scholarly world.

15. Moving towards a standard.

Such a development has some implications for the establishment of a recognised form of the English language. When it became usual to write out in full almost all words, especially the longest, and to give in detail the precise endings of words that had earlier been only vaguely and indefinitely indicated, then the move to accept a standard, 'correct' form of any particular word must have been strengthened. Earlier writers did not have to consider this, since a stroke of the pen to indicate a contraction avoided the need to make such decisions. The virtual abandonment of the use of abbreviations in writing English by the middle of the seventeenth century, therefore, marks a move away from a flexible treatment of the form of the language and towards a gradual acceptance of a convention in spelling that, for good or ill, we have inherited today.

16. Changing needs and writing practices.

Finally, we must consider why the fellows of Merton over this period of time curtailed their use of abbreviations when writing both English and Latin. The medieval forms evolved in response to special circumstances, especially in the academic world of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The cost of the handwritten book was prohibitive, yet no university could function without ready access to at least the fundamental works required as set reading by the various faculties. Lecturers could pass on a certain amount of information, but lecturers needed texts and both masters and students required to make notes. Such scholars had little time or need to produce the beautiful manuscripts commissioned from the well-rewarded professional scribes. The copies they made were for utilitarian purposes, written as quickly as possible on as little paper or parchment as possible. Hence the need to evolve a highly abbreviated script often comprehensible only to readers themselves expert in the subject. The advent of the printed book ended these special circumstances. By the middle of the sixteenth century, many scholars were in possession of considerable libraries. The printing industry consumed large amounts of paper, itself stimulating an outburst of manufacturing activity. Oxford scholars, now without worries about the cost and accessibility of paper, writing for those publishers who would print their works, had no reason to continue to use the abbreviated forms obligatory for their predecessors. Moreover, humanists encouraged the use of an 'italic' as against a 'gothic' script; the latter came to symbolise all that was associated with the 'obscurity' and 'backwardness' of medieval scholasticism. Shorthand became a means of transferring quickly the spoken word to the written word, an intermediate form between what was said and what was printed rather than itself a form to be reproduced.

17. Conclusion.

We have examined here the written texts produced by a group of individuals, highly educated academics, in a special context, a well organised and long established institution. Itwould be interesting to learn if the abandonment of abbreviated English proceeded more rapidly or more slowly elsewhere; would, for example, literate members of societies in northern and western regions, less open to the influences of London and the universities, retain older usages longer? Did lawyers and clergymen, whose daily routine required the writing of many similar documents whose form had been long since determined, retain not only older words and constructions but also earlier abbreviations? Do we have the same pattern of development in universities - on the continent and in Scotland, also affected by movements we have discussed above? We have no space to consider such problems here, but we hope to have drawn attention to a minor but interesting and neglected aspect of the development of the English language during the Renaissance.


[1] The register has been edited in three volumes for the period 1483-1603 for the Oxford Historical Society. However, since these editions do not always include full transcripts of the English material contained in the register and give no idea of the abbreviations, of Latin or English, used by the compilers, all references here are to the first two MS volumes of the register kept in the college archives. The notes refer to both volumes as RA.; folio references are to the first volumeand page references to thesecond. We are grateful to thewarden and fellows of the college for permission to consult their records and sincerely thank the archivist, Dr J. R. L. Highfield, and the assistant librarian, John Burgass, for their ready help and cooperation. Our secretary, Françoise Bannister, as always, gave us her ready assistance.

[2] RA., f. 8v.

[3] Ibid., f. 9.

[4] Ibid., f. 14.

[5] Ibid., ff. 22-22v.

[6] Ibid., ff. 25v-26.

[7] Ibid., f. 27.

[8] Ibid., f. 31.

[9] Ibid., f. 29-29v.

[10] J. M. Fletcher, 'A Fifteenth Century Benefaction to Magdalen College Library', Bodleian Library Record, 9(1974), 169-72.

[11] J. M. Fletcher and C. A. Upton, 'The Repair of Manuscript Books in Merton College Library 1504', Archives, 17 (75) (1986), 138-43.

[12] F. M. Powicke, The Medieval Books of Merton College, Oxford, 1931, p. 248.

[13] The list is printed in Collectanea 1 (O.H.S.), Oxford, 1885, and Collectanea 2 (O.H.S.), Oxford, 1890.

[14] RA., f. 139

[15] Ibid., f. 139v.

[16] Ibid., f. 234v.

[17] Ibid., f. 293.

[18] Ibid., f. 310.

[19] RA., p. 64.

[20] Ibid., p. 234.

[21] Ibid., p. 348.

[22] Ibid., p. 414.

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