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Timothy Bright Revisited

from The Barwicker No.67

The following extract is taken from 'Who's Who in Shakespeare's England' by Alan and Veronica Palmer and is a summary of 'Timothe Bright' by WJ Carlton (1911). It supplements our earlier article on Timothy Bright, rector of Barwick-in-Elmet from 1594 to 1615, (see 'The Barwicker No. 62). As often in the past, we are grateful to Norman and Joyce Hidden for supplying us with this extract.

BRIGHT Timothy (1550/1 - 1615), physician, clergyman, inventor of shorthand: born in Cambridge and educated there at Trinity College (1561-8). He was studying in Paris in 1572 and escaped the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day, finding shelter in Walsingham's house. He then returned to Cambridge, took his medical degrees, married, and began to practise medicine. A treatises on preserving health, Hygenia (1582), was followed by one restoring health, Therapeutica (1583). By 1585 he had became a physician at St Bartholomew's Hospital, Smithfield, largely owing to Walsingham's influence. Here he produced his Treatise on Melancholy (1586), in which he distinguishes between the mental and the physical causes of sorrow. Shakespeare is thought to have used the book and may even have derived the phrase "discourse of reason" for Hamlet's first soliloquy.

About the same time Bright invented his shorthand system; he offered to teach it to Robert Cecil, sending the Cecils' secretary, Hickes, Paul's epistle to Titus in shorthand. By 1588 he had a royal patent for his system and published a book, Characterie, in which he describes his revised method. Bright's shorthand, though justly acclaimed as the first system devised in Britain, was cumbersome; it involved the use of alphabetic symbols with different terminations representing 537 different words while an elaborate table of synonyms was intended to supply other words; it had to be written vertically, from top to bottom of a page, rather than horizontally. Peter Bales and John Willis soon challenged Bright's Characterie system.

Bright's shorthand studies and his Epitome of Foxe's Book of Martyrs absorbed so much of his time that in 1591 he was dismissed from St Bartholemew's Hospital, after repeated warnings, for neglecting the care of the poor. Already Walsingham's patronage had brought him the curacy of Christchurch, Newgate, and he was now presented with the livings of Methley (1591) and Barwick-in-Elmet (1594) in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Disputes with his parishioners at Methley led to his being summoned to the Ecclesiastical Commission; he was ordered to contribute to the relief of the poor and repair his parsonage. By 1615 he had left Yorkshire, moving to Shrewsbury where he lived with his brother William, Curate of St Mary's church. Here he died and was buried in St Mary's.


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