The Rubik’s cube of rubrics

The rubricated capital letter N and heading opening a theological text in a 12th-century manuscript, Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 2

Solving a problem only creates more room for more problem-solving.

Literacy didn’t just solve the problems posed by a wordless world. It created many more.

The invention of writing was one of the most significant revolutions in human cognition. The storage of thought, the capitalisation of wisdom, the perennialisation of the best ideas and practices against time and space, the export, the import and the migration of individual voices across the vastness of space of time – that was a problem solved, but many more proliferated.

How do you differentiate between words, between texts? Ideas compete, stories enter the lice, but words also have their own internacine strife.

Even the messiness of the ancient and medieval written page has its measure of method. In comes rubrication.

One of the earliest methods of separating one text from another was the rubric. Like most other words, ‘rubric’ means today something quite different from what it meant when it made its way into usage – under the rubric of usage, to be facetious.

The rubric is the proof that the ancient and medieval page bled. That it was red, rubeus in Latin.

In European writing, the practice of writing headings and other ‘capital’ words in red ink imposed itself rather quickly. By the medieval period, using rubrics, rubricated headings, words and paragraphs, had become common. Scribes seized the insight that it might be possible to aid reading by submitting the eye to different colours. Red was the most obvious, hence we have rubrication – and not cerulication or viridication, if blue or green had been the colours of choice.

Rubeus. Rubric. Red. The age of lead oxide giving weight to the page and making reading lighter.

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