New Project: Deciphering Stenographic Notes in Historical Documents

Scholars want to decipher a Virgil commentary and develop a digital transcription tool

A digital tool is planned to assist in deciphering stenographic notes in historical documents. Developing such a tool, which would enable the transcription and editing of ancient and early medieval stenography on the basis of pattern recognition, is the aim of an interdisciplinary research project at the Department of History of Heidelberg University. It will be derived from a commentary on the Roman poet Virgil handed down from the 9th century. The manuscript, written in a form of shorthand, is largely unexplored and is now to be deciphered. For this purpose, the project, headed by Heidelberg’s Medieval Latinist Tino Licht, has received approx. 350,00 Euro euros in funding from the Volkswagen Foundation for a period of 18 months. Scholars from the universities of Mainz and Erlangen-Nuremberg are also participating.

The Virgil commentary "Vergilius Turonensis" arose in the scriptorium - the writing room - of the St. Martin Abbey in Tours (France) and is today held in the Burgerbibliothek in Bern (Switzerland). It is the most comprehensive testimony to Virgil studies in the age of the Carolingian Renaissance. This renewal of interest associated with a cultural reawakening started from the court of Charlemagne in the 8th century and, according to Prof. Licht, had a great influence on Middle Latin language and literature. The Virgil commentary in the Bern manuscript was written in a shorthand system called the Tironian Notes, developed in antiquity. "This shorthand system is extremely complex and so these texts are very hard to decipher," emphasises the Heidelberg scholar, who heads the division of Latin Philology of the Middle Ages and the Modern Era at the Department of History.

The scholars involved now want to decipher the Tironian Notes in the "Vergilius Turonensis" and build on that to develop a digital procedure with which complex stenographies can be transcribed and edited on the basis of pattern recognition. "Since this early type of stenography often takes individualised forms or has a multi-track, complex structure, automated transcription methods are ineffective. That is why we need a tool to assist with the individual work on the historical documents," Prof. Licht explains. The aim is that, in the foreseeable future, this tool should be usable for other shorthand systems, too. "We intend for it to contribute to deciphering literary and administrative documents up to the present time that are written in various systems and are virtually impossible to read."

Also involved in the project "Stenography in historical documents. Development of a stenographical tool based on deciphering a Virgil commentary in Tironian Notes" are Nikolaus Weichselbaumer from the Department of Book and Reading Studies of the University of Mainz, and Dr Vincent Christlein, a computer scientist from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.