Tag Archives: script

Speed and writing

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The history of writing is many things, but it is also a history of raising the speed bar. From stone and wood to paper and digital, writing went faster and faster. New writing technologies superseded old ones not only because they made records more permanent and reliable, but because they saved time.

Parchment replaced papyrus for many reasons, but also because it made writing faster. Paper made it even faster. Scripts evolved against speed constraints. By the 13th century, the highly calligraphical Gothic scripts were restricted to high-profile books, whereas the greater proportion of functional books (government, legal, academic) began to be written against the clock in cursive hands – economy trumped aesthetics, time upstaged beauty.

When you write faster, you spend the rest of the time reading more and looking up more stuff. When you write faster, you write more. When everyone writes faster, a lot more gets written and a lot more writing becomes available. When scarcity plunges, more people have access to this resource, and it gets cheaper and easier to make the resource available. That creates more time, which in time creates more resources.

There is a growing body of evidence from the 12th century onwards which suggests that Western Europe went through a writing accelerator around that time. Writing speed records were being broken, books expanded, libraries grew. When the printing press came to the game, the race was already on. The speed record was broken once again.


The polyglot and poly-alphabetical Middle Ages

An exceptional collection of seven alphabets (two Hebrew, one Greek, one ‘Chaldaean’, one ‘Egyptian’, one runic, and one of obscure origin entitled ‘Norma’) is preserved in a manuscript in the Vatican library (Reg.lat.338) composed in Northern France or perhaps Germany and dating, probably, from the first half of the 9th century AD.  Written in Caroline minuscule (the script that would be adopted by the Humanists and the printers of the Renaissance), the alphabets reflect a remarkable knowledge of non-Western writing. Though partly fanciful, the alphabets are learned enough to challenge the still-pervasive notion that the early Middle Ages were a ‘dark’, ignorant period.

Thanks to Arthur Westwell (@ArthurWestwell) for bringing this incredible manuscript to my attention.


The Hebrew Alphabet: Haec sunt litteras hebreorum (These are the letters of the Hebrews)


The Greek alphabet: Haec sunt caracteres grecas (‘These are the Greek characters’) 


The Syriac alphabet: Haec sunt caracteres que Caldei et Asyrii utuntur (‘These are the characters used by the Chaldeans and the Assyrians’) ; The Egyptian alphabet: Hec sunt caracteres Egyptiorum quas utuntur (‘These are the characters used by the Egyptians’)


The Runic alphabet and The “Norma” alphabet