In the production of text, shorthand was used at least since the time of Cicero: his assistent Tiro developed a writing system which allowed him to keep up with his master at dictation speed. His system of slashes, curves and hooks which represent syllables and sometimes entire words survived, and was used in the context of administration and law by professional scribes in the early Middle Ages.
Among complete manuscripts in Tironian notes, Psalters stand out – probably because these were known by heart and were therefore very apt to train the eye for the Tironian signs. One only had to recognize the words which one knew followed. Otherwise, Tironian notes are quite rare, presumably because they were mainly used for drafts, and not for finished products of writing. The survival rate for these drafts must have been much lower than for finished products. In margins, however, Tironian notes are relatively common. One of the obvious reason that has been speculated to be at the root of this is that Tironian notes could be used to compensate for the lack of space. Indeed, we can often observe Tironian script in the narrowest margins, or in between the lines where there is very little space to write text. Here is an example from a Martianus Capella manuscript, Leiden, University Library VLF 48, fol. 2r: we can see Tironian notes in the small inner margin and in the cramped space between the lines, for example over the words “seu genitricis habes” (the seventh line on the photo).
It has also been suggested that the use of Tironian script reflects an oral aspect, and points to a context of school or private teaching. They could have been the notes used by a teacher to lecture, or the notes taken by students listening to their teachers and writing down their words. The difficulty here is that it is hard to imagine a student being allowed just to take notes in a manuscript, for writing manuscripts was an activity which was organized in a very strict and hierarchic fashion.
It is important to note that the presence of Tironian notes in a manuscript are a clear sign that the text was produced by a scholar educated at the highest level, in a monastic centre in which a real effort was invested in intellectual effort. The monasteries of Corbie, Auxerre, Laon, Fleury, for example – these are the monasteries that produced manuscripts with Tironian notes. Scholars known to have been using Tironian script are (among others) Lupus of Ferrières, Heiric of Auxerre, John Scottus Eriugena.
Tironian notes have a personal touch. The script is a basic set of strokes and curves signifying a certain sound, like -cur or -bus or re-, and the individual elements are connected to make words. This, however, can be done in different ways, which makes it very difficult to read the Tironian shorthand of a person with whom one is not familiar. Martin Hellmann created an online dictionary of Tironian notes, the supertextus notarum tironiarum, which is organised to guide the user from the basic elements to the combined ones that form words. Yet it is still very difficult to solve the Tironian writing we find in our manuscripts, because the connections we find in the manuscripts only rarely match the ones given by the site.
The use of Tironian notes, furthermore, was common practice in the process of textual criticism in the Carolingian period. Lupus of Ferrières, who is notorious for his hunt for better copies of the texts he owned, used the Tironian notes meaning “alter” (a shape similar to an “h”, with a hook attached to the right), and “antiquus” (the shape of a triangle, or Greek capital delta) to mark variants for his text in the margin. We can see them here, in this manuscript of Macrobius’ commentary on Scipio’s Dream, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 6370, f. 20r and 39v:
So, to conclude: the presence of Tironian shorthand suggests several things about a text and its makers. First, Tironian notes are used in a scholarly setting, by scholars who are still working on their texts, either to change or redact it, or to correct by comparing it to other versions of the same text, or to give it the right layer of commentary which can guide the reader or student in his understanding of the text. Second, there is a personal aspect to Tironian writing which points to the context of private scholarship. An individual scholar may have felt invited to add his own thoughts in a manuscript and when he used Tironian shorthand to do so, this may suggest that he did so for private use, or at least for a very selective audience, to wit those familiar with his style of writing Tironian. The fact that he was – apparently – allowed to write in a manuscript at all, confirms the speculation that he belonged to a highly educated scholarly elite of professional scholars, a circle of advanced students and teachers.