How Our Writing Systems Helped Preserve Literary Masterpieces


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

To an extraordinary extent, the techniques for recording words, sounds, transactions, and varieties of knowledge are medieval developments that were not improved upon until the invention of photography and sound recording in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Writing systems like cuneiform and hieroglyphics were innovations of the fourth millennium BCE.

Hieroglyphics writings on a wall
Hieroglyphics was an innovation in the writing system in the fourth millennium BCE. (Image: Louvre Museum/Public domain)

Medieval Recording Technologies

The various alphabets of antiquity—Greek, Hebrew, Roman, Coptic—derive from that developed by the Phoenicians in the second half of the second millennium BCE to facilitate written communication among the trading posts of their pan-Mediterranean economic network.

Ancient scribes recorded the words dictated by their owners—most professional scribes were slaves—and so preserved histories, letters, poetry, political speeches, philosophies, mathematical treatises, laws, and other literary genres. 

Stonemasons recorded epitaphs, accounts of battles, and imperial edicts; engravers kept track of the emperor’s changing appearance in each successive issue of imperial coinage. Portrait painters and sculptors preserved, or glorified, the likenesses of their patrons. 

So what was different about medieval recording technologies? They were easier to use, replicate, and read than their ancient counterparts. They were simultaneously more precise and much more widespread. And they enabled more and more kinds of long-distance communication, whether those distances were geographical or temporal.

Reading: A Rare Skill

A vast majority of ancient texts survive only in medieval redactions. Moreover, they survived in formats that made them legible to a much wider variety of readers, thanks to some revolutionary developments in the layout and appearance of writing on the page.

An ancient Latin text
Texts in antiquity were hard to read because the writing system didn’t include spaces to help differentiate between words. (Image: Late antique copyist/Public domain)

In antiquity, learning to read was difficult, and reading aloud in public was a distinctive skill reserved for men with special training. This is because ancient texts (Greek, Hebrew, Latin, etc.) were written entirely in capital letters—the only letters yet invented—and with virtually no spaces between words and no punctuation to indicate the meaningful units of a sentence or to signal the cadences in which it should be read. 

Very skillful readers would often boast about their ability to read an unfamiliar passage at sight: in the 4th century CE, the young and brash Saint Augustine of Hippo made a name for himself as someone who could decipher and declaim a new text with little advance preparation. It was said of other clever men that they could read a text in private without sounding it out or even moving their lips! But for most literate people, reading aloud was necessary to construing the text since it helped to hear the syllables, and so determine the beginnings and endings of words and phrases.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval LegacyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Monks Changed the Writing System

All of that changed quite quickly in the course of the 7th and 8th centuries. In remote parts of western Europe, monastic missionaries were trying to convert the Celtic and Germanic peoples of the British Isles to Christianity and train local men for the priesthood, which meant teaching them Latin. 

Unlike Christian converts elsewhere in the former Roman Empire, these peoples spoke languages that shared almost no common linguistic features with Latin. So Celtic monks began to break down the words in their books into self-contained units, distinct from the other words in the same sentence.

Painting depicting Charlemagne holding a sword
Charlemagne’s reign influenced the development of new writing systems in places under his rule. (Image: Albrecht Dürer/Public domain)

At the same time, monks in Ireland and England began experimenting with ways of laying out a page so that the eye could more easily grasp the different clauses of a sentence or anticipate whether a given sentence was a question or a quotation from another source. Marks indicating small pauses were distinguished from marks indicating what the English still call a full stop: the end of a sentence. Longer texts were divided into numbered chapters and further into demarcated paragraphs.

Charlamagne Standardized Communication

At the end of the 8th century, the Frankish king Charlemagne came to control a vast empire comprising what is now all of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg; most of Germany; parts of the Low Countries, Switzerland, and northern Italy; as well as Catalonia. The success of his imperial project rested, to a great degree, on the centralized institutions of government he fostered, which meant standardizing written communication among all of these territories. 

He brought scholars from Ireland and Britain to his court to teach new recording technologies. And to all the previous innovations, these scholars added another: a script known as Carolingian minuscule, written in a rounded hand with lowercase letters that were easily distinguishable from capitals, while capitals were now reserved for the beginnings of sentences and words that deserved special emphasis. This script is the ancestor of all our modern typefaces.

Preserving Literary Giants

Thanks to these changes, Carolingian scribes in the 9th century were able to create thousands of manuscripts recording current events and practices while at the same time producing accurate texts of the Bible and writings by ancient authors, including the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Roman comic playwright, Terence, and any other Roman authors whose names you know: Cicero, Virgil, Suetonius, Horace, Ovid.

At the same time, just as medieval scribes were using their new technologies to record ancient texts, they were also ensuring the preservation of vernacular lyric and epic traditions. In the 10th century, two Anglo-Saxon scribes preserved the epic we know as ‘Beowulf’, a long-verse narrative that weaves together older pagan storytelling traditions with some newer Christian elements.

The fact that this now-famous poem survives only in that single manuscript is a sober reminder of how many more such texts were lost. One could say the same for the oldest manuscript of the French epic, the Chanson de Roland (or Song of Roland), copied in the early 12th century.

Common Questions about How Our Writing Systems Helped Preserve Literary Masterpieces

Q: Why was learning to read difficult in antiquity?

Ancient texts were written in all capital letters because short case letters hadn’t been invented yet. Also, texts didn’t have any punctuation or spaces between words or paragraphs.

Q: How did skilled readers in antiquity approach a text they weren’t familiar with?

Since the writing system at the time was nothing like what we have today, reading was extremely difficult. Skilled readers would boast about their talent, yet, they would have to sound out the words aloud to understand the text.

Q: How have we been able to pass down literary masterpieces throughout generations?

The writings of ancient authors had first been written down on papyrus. Medieval scribes would use their new writing system, which included spaces and lowercase letters to transcribe the texts on parchment.

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