The engrossing dance of letters and words

A beautiful example of a text written in Caroline minuscule, 9th century, Oxford, Bodleian, MS. Laud Misc. 134, f. 15v

It’s not just that we have access to more texts, books and written knowledge today than at any other point in history. It’s also much much easier for us to read anything. Since most of us only read texts produced within the last half-century, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that reading has always been as easy as it is today – the cognitive engagement with uniform, space-separated letters laid out on a clear, neat page, subjected to a stack of layout rules, clarity and intelligibility.

The truth is that reading has been and still is evolving, and that new and better ways of reading are constantly being developed. Intelligibility and reading accessibility have always been on the table in the history of the bound book.

The script in use in the West today admittedly goes back to the ancient Romans, but doesn’t come down from them in a straight line. A complex and fascinating history of Latin scripts connects our scribal practices today with their roots in antiquity.

One of the secret and mildly guilty pleasures of palaeographers (expert readers and deciphers of ancient texts) and manuscript scholars is that of showing an ancient or medieval text written in letters of the Latin alphabet to a layperson and asking them whether they can read it. Even a Latin manuscript from the 5th century AD prompts a certain sense of familiarity in someone who approaches it for the first time. Their letters resemble our own and some words stand out. But familiarity doesn’t mean intelligibility, and fascination, awe and confusion begin right there.

It is also incorrect to assume that ancient and medieval readers found it as easy to read their own manuscripts as it is for us to read our printed or electronic texts. There is plenty of evidence that the ancients often found it hard to read the texts of their own age and they surely wouldn’t have been able to make out the text in a manuscript, papyrus roll or parchment codex, as easily as we do with our paper printed books. One of the things the Emperor Charlemagne is famous for is for having identified a Europe-wide script-intelligibility problem and to have called for a sweeping letterform reform. Thereout emerged the hugely influential and world-shattering Caroline minuscule (Caroline for Carolingian and minuscule for its introduction of lower-case letterforms, another huge invention), a type of letterforms which serves as the proximate ancestor of today’s types and fonts.

So next time you read something, including the last paragraph of this post, toast the long history of the human mind’s engagement with the written word and remember how lucky we are to be sitting here, on the shoulders of giant readers and writers, gazing at the engrossing dance of letters and words, on the page or on the screen.

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