- Hidden in Plain Sight
For the better part of a century, the staff of the John Carter Brown Library, a prominent rare books and manuscript archive at Brown University, has puzzled over an item in its collections known as “The Mystery Book.” The book is a printed seventeenth-century text missing its title page, and no one has been able to identify its author or title. Yet the greatest question has been whether Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was the author of marginalia written in an idiosyncratic shorthand, until recently unencrypted, running throughout the volume. The value of this brief monograph about the Mystery Book is fourfold. First, it introduces readers to the process by which an interdisciplinary team of Brown undergraduates and faculty members managed to crack the marginalia’s code and transcribe the writing. One of those former undergraduates, Lucas Mason-Brown, is a co-editor of this volume. Working along with Brown are Associate Professor of History Linford Fisher, and J. Stanley Lemons, historian of the First Baptist Church in America. Second, it firmly concludes that Roger Williams was indeed the writer of the shorthand. Third, it reveals that part of the marginalia contains Williams’ last major essay, composed in 1680, three years before his death. In it, Williams revisits the themes of infant baptism and Native American conversion to Christianity, on which he had not written publicly for decades. Finally, the editors include two other theological tracts with which Williams was in conversation: one a defense of Baptist principles by English minister John Norcott, which Williams supported; the other a critique of Baptist ideas by the Massachusetts minister and missionary John Eliot. This material, along with a smart introductory essay on Williams and his times, serves as a useful classroom text to expose students to reformed Protestant theological debates in the seventeenth century. Hopefully, it will also inspire scholars to undertake similar collaborative projects with their students. [End Page 198]
The group effort to decipher Williams’ code is refreshing as we move deeper into a digital era in which students’ frequent inability to read even modern script, and their resistance to conducting research away from their computer screens, pose formidable obstacles to them working in seventeenth-century manuscripts written in secretary hand. In this case, correctly identifying Williams’ characters was just one step in the process. The next and most challenging one was to determine what those characters signified. This was where Mason-Brown’s strength in mathematics came into play. Adopting a statistical method known as frequency analysis, Mason-Brown’s team operated from the assumption that particular characters in Williams’ shorthand corresponded to a particular English letter or sound, and that the most frequently recurring characters stood for the most common letters in English. This process revealed that Williams’ shorthand was related, but not identical, to the standard shorthand of the era, in which vowels were indicated by the placement of special symbols in orbit around consonant characters. Thus, minor variations in the arrangement of these constellations could determine whether a word meant cat, kite, cot, coat, or cut. Adding to the challenge, the editors explain, was that “In addition to the core alphabet, Williams relied on a variety of pictographs, rebuses, puns, and arbitrary abbreviations, many of which appear to have been improvised” (p. 9).
Aiding the code breakers immeasurably was their discovery that a portion of the marginalia, the first section, was a transcription of Peter Heylyn’s Comographie in Foure Bookes (1652), which served as a Rosetta Stone for the rest of the writing. Shortly afterwards, they found that the third section was a transcription of Thomas Bartholin, Bartholinus Anatomy (1654). These breakthroughs culminated in them decoding the 22–page middle section, which contained an original Williams essay that began with the line: “[Here is a] brief reply to a small book written by John Eliot called, ‘an Answer to John...