Beyond optical recognition

No doubt reading the text (Virgil’s Aeneid book 3) in this 5th-century manuscript fragment was as difficult back then as it is now. With no separation between words (known as scriptio continua), reading was slow, focused and ruminative. At least the capital letters (Roman square capitals) improved visibility. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1394

With the advent of Christianity, the West was introduced to a novel reading practice, that of meditative reading. Ruminating over a text, reading the same passage over and over again, allowing the words to grow roots in the heart by developing their aborescence in the mind. Pioneered by the theologians and mystics of the new faith, meditative reading, and a whole metaphysics of it, developed in late antiquity and especially during the medieval period.

But reading in manuscript, as all reading was at the time, without the benefit of the printed word and the apparatus of the modern page, is itself, whatever the metaphysical commitment of the reader, if any, might be, a meditative project. For reading in manuscript, that is, reading text on a manuscript page, is an activity which the modern reader is wholly unfamiliar with. And while there is no information to help us determine the average reading speed of the average medieval reader, it is nevertheless true that the reading speed of a manuscript reader was then, as it is now, exceedingly lower than that of reading a printed text.

The manuscript page, even on the eve of Gutenberg’s groundbreaking invention, was a terribly difficult thing to read. Abbreviated words, unequal letters, compressed script, unreliable layouts, were as many challenges besetting the experience of reading a text. During the same period, a manuscript from Germany would’ve looked quite different from one made in Italy, and a book from England would’ve contained a different set of abbreviation conventions than one made in Hungary. Faced with so many challenges, the reader would’ve proceeded slowly, reading and rereading until the text was clear in their mind. As each page was read slowly, the reader would’ve gone back and forth between leaves, focusing on this paragraph or another, wrestling with the text, chewing each bit before moving on to the next.

Print made reading a simple cognitive operation, to the extent that words are now almost instantly recognised on the page, allowing the brain to focus entirely on second-order operations like processing meaning and memorisation, instead of wasting time and resources on optical recognition.

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