CUP (2022) h/b 624pp £110 (ISBN 9781316514795)

As cries become ever more strident for crudely-defined ‘relevance’ and quantity of output to be used as measures for the value of scholarly activity, it is heartening to be asked to review a counter-example of the highest quality. It is a piece of research and discovery which began with the chance find of what looked like an odd Latin word-list in a bundle of grammatical manuscripts dating to the eleventh century A.D. and written in central Italy, and led into an investigation of materials associated with one of the important tools in the administration of the Roman Empire, a part of the everyday oil of the wheels of government, and for some a means of career advancement.

The Expositio Notarum, ‘An Assemblage of Signs’, is shown to be partly derived from material which was originally contained in a manual used for the training of professional Roman shorthand writers, probably in the early second century A.D. However, it needs to be examined in two parts: at first sight it looks like a conventional glossary, a word-list with following meanings and notes, but the list of words and phrases, the lemmata, and the notes which explain them in fact need separate consideration. The lemmata, it is argued, are selected items from a list which was part of a manual for teaching Latin shorthand dating at the latest to the early second century A.D. The entries which follow them, on the other hand, come from a later context and on various grounds can plausibly be assigned to the early part of the fifth century A.D., and the compositor who put it all together is—less certainly—to be located in North Africa.

The notae of the book refer to the signs of Latin shorthand and, though they do not occur in the text, there is a clear reference to them. The Roman system of shorthand, which differed from the Greek, is traditionally attributed to Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, and can be quite fully reconstructed in its later form from a set of tables compiled in the Carolingian era which have become known as the ‘Tironian signs’. The connection with shorthand goes some way to explaining the groupings of words in the twenty-three sections of the text, for the listing is not alphabetical or regular but does make some sense as an attempt to give orderly help in the mammoth task of memory required to master a system of shorthand in which a sign had to be learnt for each word. The two components of the Expositio naturally have embedded traces of their two cultural and educational backgrounds and these are followed up in enlightening detail. Such a brief summary does not, however, do justice to the complexity of the book nor to its potential usefulness to scholars in many different fields.

The Introduction gives a swift overview of the nature of the Expositio and explains the likelihood of the original linkage of the lemmata to an accompanying text which is now unidentifiable; there is a short explanation of the ‘Tironian signs’ and some of the evidence for connecting the Expositio to the tradition of shorthand development. In particular there is a persuasive demonstration that the material of the Expositio belongs to a much earlier stage in the systematization of shorthand teaching than the later and tidier system of the Carolingian tables.

There is a short section on what little is known or may be surmised about who learnt shorthand in the Western world—some were slaves, but notarii are also later found in positions of some power. As to exactly how the skill was taught, we know virtually nothing, but an Egyptian Greek slave who was apprenticed by his master to a professional shorthand writer in the second century A.D. needed a full-time course of two years to master the skill—it was no easy option. There are interesting grounds for supposing that there may be something in common between the word-lists of the teacher of language, the grammaticus, and the lists used by shorthand teachers, and speculation that apprentices to the craft may sometimes have been quite young.

There is then an account of the fascinating after-life of the manuscript of the Expositio which we now have: from its origin, possibly in North Africa in the early fifth century A.D., it came to England and, after being used in the compilation of other teaching materials like glossaries, its traces can be found in various European centres, and then in the eleventh century it travelled back to Italy, finally becoming part of the grammatical bundle which eventually made its way to the Bodleian. After this Introduction, there is first a list of ‘Other Witnesses’ i.e. extant Latin glossaries which have been shown to have drawn upon the Expositio. These are important because they are accompanied by editorial explanation and comment and in some cases amplify the published text of the Expositio.

The text of the Expositio itself together with some additions is then presented. It consists of twenty-three sections of varying length containing the lemmata followed by the gloss or note. As printed, each entry follows the same pattern: the lemma is in bold type followed by the gloss. Beneath this, headed GLOSS., there are references in alphabetical code to any of the previously-described ‘Other Witnesses’ which may be relevant, followed, if necessary, by the editor’s own comment. The items are grouped according to the sections of the original text and then by number within each section. This looks formidable at first sight and certainly does not make for an easy read, but it is mightily handy for anyone doing serious work in this field and will save hours of complicated search.

A typical entry

The lemma is in bold and the gloss defines it: ‘the person who …’ [here] ‘spends it’.

References to the word in the various glossaries are listed, followed by Dionisotti’s comment:

  • E.56 Sextertiarius ipse qui illud erogat

    GLOSS: A E ABV SC; CNT: 40.86

    Twice in Petronius = ‘twopenny-halfpenny, worthless’; the

    gloss is probably a (silly) guess, as often with -arius deriva-

    tives; cf. F.33, F.103, G.75, J.84, J.120.

There follow six Appendices and six Indexes which serve the same valuable purpose of detailed scholarly assistance and comparison; they take up more than a third of the book and represent a huge investment in time and trouble and a wonderful demonstration of dogged, dedicated scholarship. The first Appendix lists seven possible additions to the text, the second gives a linguistic overview with eight sub-sections in grammatical categories, the third offers a Concordance with glossaries of Anglo-Saxon provenance, the fourth a Concordance with Schmitz’s Notae Tironianae, the fifth a list of parallels with Placidus’ Glossae, and the sixth a Concordance with Festus. Finally, there are six Indexes on specialized topics e.g. traces of Greek in the Expositio.

The book inevitably contains a great deal of highly-organized detail and the Cambridge University Press has done a really fine job in presenting everything so clearly and so accurately. Copy-editing and proof-reading must have been a nightmare.

Such a volume is, to take the bare bones, the first publication of a puzzling manuscript and the teasing-out of its identity, significance and history, and it belongs in the workshops of meticulous, detailed scholarship. The task required and has found the services of an editor who commands an immense range of learning, a charming honesty, and a capacity for clear, acute judgement. She also has a courteous and generous regard for what is likely to help those who make use of her work in the future—with now and then the odd invitation to a chuckle (who would have thought that Minicius the hedgehog would have cropped up alongside Peter Rabbit in a work like this?). All in all it is a work of which British scholarship should be very proud and a fitting tribute to a life-time’s work for which her students and colleagues must be very grateful.


King’s College London