Alright guys. Time for a history lesson.
I promise it’s cool!
Most people assume, if not know, that books haven’t always been books as they are today. First they were clay tablets in the Ancient Near East, then papyrus all over the Roman Empires, then parchment took over in the Middle Ages when colder, wetter climates in the north turned out to be not so hot for how fragile papyrus was.
But it wasn’t just the appearance of books that changed; it was how people read. And a lot of these changes happened during the Middle Ages.
Thankfully, that’s right up my alley.
What if I told you that before the Middle Ages, practically all reading was done out loud? That if you’d passed by a monk hunched over a piece of parchment and muttering to himself he wasn’t crazy but just reading up on his Augustine?
Well first, some context!
The Medieval time period doesn’t have the best reputation. The period is skimmed over as a time of bloodshed and plague. And there was a fair amount of that. But though progress may have temporarily been slowed, there were still a bunch of things that were done in those days that totally became the basis of how we do things today. One of these things is writing. Specifically, how we do it, and how it impacts our reading.
See, the Greeks and Romans (EDIT: As Ilana pointed out below, it was technically the Phoenicians) came up with alphabets and systems of writing, and this was all very clever, but they had this thing where they wouldn’t put spaces between their words. This made it pretty freaking difficult to read, to the point where it’s now widely accepted that they always read out loud, so they could sound out the words and fully understand the meaning of the letters. Some claim they more did this out of the musically of well-written passages, that they liked hearing themselves read, and others say that they read out loud because it’d be otherwise hard to comfortably read and retain things. It’d be too confusing. Especially if you had to read a long text. It gets tiring.
Oh. And did I mention there was no punctuation? Because there was no punctuation.
Here, try it. How comfortably can you read this?
These things didn’t begin to change until the acceptance of Christianity. Around 300 CE, after becoming legal in the Roman Empire, Christianity became the new vogue religion. People started converting. But because all their lives they’d learned to worship Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and they knew nothing of this new doctrine, they found themselves constantly having to consult the Bible to remember what it said. It was a totally new set of rules and stories.
Not surprisingly, this whole no-spaces-between-words thing made referencing kind of a pain. So they started making distinct headings for easier navigation, which included putting spaces between the words of the first line of the new concept or section. But just the first line.
And as the religion spread north, it became more and more popular and monasteries began to take root. And the more people there were, the more extra copies of the Bible were needed. Monks everywhere began making them.
There was a slight problem, though. Romans spoke, read, and virtually breathed Latin. Insular Christians, who lived in what’s now the UK, most decidedly did not. But since they could only really access the new religion through this other language, they needed to learn it.
Guys, Latin is really hard. Like, really hard. I almost died, learning it. Many a tear was shed come exam time. And I had a big grammar textbook and the bastardized English language to help me. They just had some Bibles and a few translators, and a mother-tongue language that was nothing like Latin. (Here’s a taste of Old English for you.) And you know what didn’t help? Almost everything looked like this:
No spaces between the words and no punctuation. And Latin, a language famous for its multitude of case and verb endings essential in making a phrase make sense, was made that much harder. No spaces meant non-Latin speakers were struggling with reading, and where the Romans and Greeks may have chosen to read out loud, (or not, depending on who you ask), the Insular Christians needed to. Needless to say, it got annoying.
So they said screw-all to those traditionalists down south, and began to use spaces between their words.
And just like that, written language was changed forever.
Here’s why. The old way, witheverythingwrittenlikethis, the letters were independent of each other. It’s only by concentrating and sounding them out that they become words that you associate with real-life things. But the moment spaces were added, the words became a kind of pictograph. As in languages like Chinese, where a symbol represents an object or a concept, these individual word units started visually representing what they stood for. It was no longer just the auditory senses that could understand what was written. You read the word ‘bench’ and you saw a bench, not just letters that spelt out ‘bench’.
It was in the Carolingian Renaissance, around 800 CE with Charlemagne at the head, that using spaces and punctuation became law. He basically said that he didn’t care what script (or font) was used as long as both were present and as long as, for the love of god, people stopped usng abbr fr evrythng just to save space on expensive parchment. But that latter thing is a different story. (Basically, not everybody used the same abbreviations, things became confusing and…yeah, you get the picture.)
And here’s where it gets deliciously conspirational.
With people being able to read internally with ease, suddenly those dangerous political notes or pamphlets about how you want to overthrow the king weren’t so inconveniently damning. No more did people stand around reading assassination plots aloud in the middle of the street only to get arrested because of how stunningly obvious they were being. And sure these examples are extreme, but still, things became more personal. Nobody could walk by, hear what you were reading, and judge you for it.
Most importantly, reading became easier. Way, way easier. And it would contribute to a spike in literacy.
Which, let me tell you, opened up a wide new range of literary possibilities, from the simple joy of reading the latest new romance about knights and maidens to the badassery of sneaking around with banned books, which ranged from heretical scientific texts that would later improve the world, to the base smut and pornography that inevitably came into being.
So let’s all give a nice big thanks to those poor Insulars who didn’t know their Latin. And a great big kiss to Charlemagne, the original badass, and a man I am wildly in love with.
And don’t forget to appreciate the spaces. The brilliantly obvious addition to the written language. Otherwise, you’d have never gotten away with reading books under the table in elementary school.