Reading continents

If the letters of this 9th-century text are so easy to read without any training, it’s because this manuscript was part of the caught in the legibility revolution of the Carolingian period, (Basel, Universitätbibliothek, F V 33).

My heart misses a beat (and that’s quite often) each time I read popular books about the history of the world which marginalise the role writing played in the rise of civilisations and in paving the road we walk today. It’s the agricultural revolution and then industrialisation which focus most of the attention. As for writing, most of these books track its invention, before running a thread through the development of the book and of printing. The largest chunk of the history of writing, namely that of manual writing, is all too often passed over in scriptural silence. For over 90% of its life, writing was done exclusively by hand. Whatever the material, stone, wood, metal, papyrus, parchment, the human hand represented the primary ‘technology’ in getting the writing job done. Despite the minority of our new writing technologies – mechanical and electronic –, we elide, in our individual imagination and in our shared culture, the fact that writing was manual for the last five thousand years of human history. And as we elide this aspect of cultural development, the dark shroud of oblivion extends over another element: legibility.

The wide primacy of the Latin script in our time shouldn’t obfuscate the convoluted, and often unintelligible, struggle over readability. In Europe, alphabets and letter forms unfurled across the Mediterranean in different ways at different times. The Greek alphabet, so prevalent in the Hellenistic period, was once a humble cru of a very limited terroir. The same with the Latin script, which has now conquered the world, if not geographically then at least culturally. But even this Latin script, so taken-for-granted these days, had its own internal evolution. By 800 AD, despite the massive cultural, intellectual and scribal impact of Rome, Western Europe descended into a multiplicity of writing styles. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that by the 9th century, there were as many writing styles in the West as there were polities, and many of these writing styles were incomprehensible among each other. One of the least sung achievements of the so-called Dark Ages was the adoption of standard writing, an unprecedented move coming from a quasi illiterate ruler, the emperor Charlemagne. The adoption of the same script across the ruled territory improved communication and led to a strengthened written culture, which lies at the heart of the modern world. And the irony of this is that the writing style and the letter forms emerging out of this unhailed revolution have become, out of literate ignorance, the letter forms and the style of our modern Latin script, the many fonts populating our word processors and our books. For when the first humanists of the 14th century turned their eyes towards classical texts which had been copied furiously by the 9th century adopters of the scribal revolution, they assumed those manuscripts to be as ancient as ancient Rome, and promoted those letter forms as most venerable, to the extent that the script of the Italian humanists of the Renaissance became a replica of 9th century Carolingian (or caroline) script.

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