Standards of writing

Easy to read by everybody. This excerpt from the Moutier-Grandval Bible displays the quality of ‘Caroline minuscule’ script, the standardised handwriting style associated with the emperor Charlemagne. Though dating back to the 9th century, this script is far easy to read today than many types of writing which followed it, including Gothic.

Standards are associated with quality control. ISO, industry standards, standards of beauty are about making sure that items pass quality assessments. But standardisation is not about quality, but range. In other words, it’s about quantity.

One of the earliest gestures towards standardisation happened in literature. The numerous versions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were circulating in the ancient Greek world. The classical Athenians first, and then the Hellenistic Alexandrians reduced the number of variations of the two epic poems by establishing correct versions for everyone. The standard text was born. It may sound like a small thing – surely, you’d want other more urgent things standardised, like hygiene, education, medical treatment, etc – but the idea of validating one correct version among competing variants was as novel as it was consequential. Who would have the authority to do something like this, what would this be grounded in, what methodology would be required for this levelling? And, most importantly, why would anyone be bothered to do it? Taken together, these answers help understand the development of the scientific method, rationalism and textual criticism. For it is not at all obvious that a single version of a text should reign over several, rather than all should have a right to exist independently, as it had always been the case previously.

Standards are convenient. They make things easier. Between the late 8th and the early 9th centuries AD, the emperor Charlemagne instigated a movement to standardise the writing style across the territories he ruled. Having unified a large part of present-day France, Germany and Italy, he inherited a broad range of writing styles. Everyone was writing good and bad Latin, but everyone had a different way to make the letters, to the point that reading the same language had never been harder for those exposed to the writing of others. The standardisation of handwriting is Charlemagne’s most enduring legacy. The letterforms his agents created, and which are called ‘caroline minuscule’, are the source of the modern Latin script, the very letters you’re reading right here right now. Script standardisation across the Carolingian world led to a large number of cultural, political, legal and theological developments whose consequences lay the foundations of our world today.

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