Mysterious writing in rare 16th-century Homer identified

The mysterious marginalia found in a 16th-century edition of Homer's Odyssey has been identified by a digital humanities student from the Archivio di Stato di Milano in Italy.

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University of Chicago Library

The mysterious notes scrawled in a 1504 edition of Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana donated to the University of Chicago Library have been identified. As suspected by the book's donor, the curling, 150-year-old script is a form of French shorthand in use in the 19th century.

In order to identify the script, the library was offering a US$1,000 bounty to the first person who could provide a translation with supporting evidence for their claim. The winner was one Daniele Metilli, a digital humanities student at the Archivio di Stato di Milano who has hopes for a career as an archival librarian.

Working with colleague Giulia Accetta, who is proficient in contemporary Italian stenography and fluent in French, Metilli identified the script as a form of shorthand invented by shorthand author Jean Coulon de Thévénot in the late 18th century. The shorthand notes in the text are mostly French translations of Greek phrases from the Odyssey.

There were some easily identifiable elements in the notes that gave a starting point for identification: a few words scribbled in French and the date 25 April 1854. From this, Metilli and Accetta were able to ascertain that the notes were a system of stenography in use in France in the mid-19th century.

From that point, it was a matter of identifying the shorthand. They found a chart comparing a shorthand system they had rejected to Thévénot's system in a 1789 book by Thévénot called Méthode tachygraphique, ou l'art d'écrire aussi vite que la parole. They were able to translate the text using this chart and two French translations of the Odyssey, one from 1842 and the other from 1854-66.

"Every consonant and vowel has a starting shape, and they combine together to form new shapes representing syllables," Metilli wrote of the shorthand system. "The vertical alignment is especially important, as the position of a letter above or below the line, or even the length of a letter segment can change the value of the grapheme. This explains why most notes in the Odyssey shorthand are underlined -- the line being key to the transcription."

Two other students reached the same conclusion: Vanya Visnjic, a Ph.D. student in classics at Princeton University, and Gallagher Flinn, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Chicago, both identified the script and provided translations.

Metilli and Accetta, meanwhile, will continue to work on translating the text, hoping to ascertain the identity of the author -- and why the text only appeared on two pages of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana.