Amazing articles on just about every subject...


History Of Writing

( Originally Published 1893 )



AFTER the invention of speech, the invention of writing was only a question of time. No race of human beings which could speak would rest for long contented with oral communication, but would endeavour, whether for the transmission of a message or for permanent record, to represent words by visible characters. And as early speech made large use of the imitative (onomatopceetic) faculty, so primitive writing made free use of pictures, first to represent material things, and then by a further advance of its infant powers to represent ideas suggested by those pictures. These two stages are known as ideographic, ideograms meaning either pictures or (for the second stage) pictorial symbols. It is curious to note that the contents of an ordinary printer's case of type show an ideogram still in use. What is but a ` pictorial symbol,' saying as clearly as in words, ` Look there ! ' ? So, too, the ` Roman ' numerals I, II, III, IIII are in all probability pictures of one, two, three, and four fingers held up, just as V is the whole hand, the four fingers being grouped together as one and the thumb as the other limb of the figure. X is probably simply two Vs ; but the higher Roman numerals were not needed by primitive man, and seem not to be ideographic. Savages still use this picture-language ; and Dr. Isaac Taylor, in his History of the Alphabet, gives a striking illustration of a record of a raid made by North American Indians in A.D. 1762, in which almost every part is pure picture writing !

The third stage was perhaps the most momentous, and consisted in fixing a written symbol, not to some object or idea, but to a particular sound, whatever objects or ideas that sound might call up ; as would be the case if the mark were not taken to represent ` look ! ' or ` attend ! ' or ` there ! ' but the sound ` there,' so that it would stand for ` there ' or (pretty nearly) ' their.' This, the ` phonographic ' stage, is the one in which we now are, and consists naturally of three steps—(1) when the written symbol represents a whole word, (2) when it ex-presses a single syllable, (3) when it represents a single letter, as in our present alphabetical writing. The first two of these may be illustrated by the use of & for et in Latin, coupled with its usage in certain centuries in any word containing -et-, so that we find fier &, perp&uus, and the like ; for in these latter examples the symbol means the sound et and not the word et. The third is, of course, our own usage.

The letters which we use in writing and printing have had a history which exhibits in most cases, in spite of our imperfect records, every one of the five stages described above. We will briefly trace this line, giving the ancestry of the English alphabet, and selecting the letters D and M for illustration.

The pedigree is this :

Egyptian (Hieroglyphic),

Egyptian (Hieratic), about 19th cent. B.C. Hamitic.

Old Semitic, Semitic.

Phoenician, about 1100 B.C.

Old Greek, close of 9th cent. B.C.

Latin, about 600 A.D. Aryan. English,

The most extraordinary fact in this line is the transference of the alphabet on two separate occasions from one race of languages to another. Each race has its peculiar sounds, vowel and consonantal, and a transference of the symbols without the actual sounds would seem a hopeless and unworkable task. And our surprise is not lessened when we consider three points in which Semitic languages differ from all others—(1) nearly all are written from right to left, (2) the Semitic alphabet proper has no true vowels, (3) it has never varied from twenty-two letters, whereas the Aryan alphabets constantly vary in the number and phonetic value of the letters. For twenty-eight centuries have the Semitic languages preserved these peculiarities ; and that men were able to accomplish the feat of transference to and from a Semitic alphabet is a wonderful testimony to human powers of adaptation.

Among the earliest Egyptian Hieroglyphic writings preserved to us is that which is cut on a stone tablet 1 in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, and carries us back to a priest employed in the cult of the Egyptian king Send, not later than about 3000 B.C. This inscription is still one of the oldest known written records in the world. In this, as well as in later records, we find all five stages coexisting ! This fact will serve to impress on us the immense antiquity of Egyptian writing and of alphabetical writing, and the various rate at which civilization progresses ; for we find alphabetical symbols in B.C. 3000, and purely pictorial symbols in A.D. 1762, though the latter is as certainly prior in conception to the former as the dawn is before the day.

By the nineteenth century B.C. the ancient Hieroglyphic picture writing of Egypt was worn down to what is known as Hieratic, in which the symbols would not be at once recognized as pictures, though based on them. In about this century, probably just when the Israelites were in Egypt, the great transference took place : a Semitic people adopted the Egyptian symbols, using them for what is known as Old Semitic, as seen in the Siloam inscription at Jerusalem, and the Moabite Stone now (so far as it has survived) in the Louvre at Paris.

We have no evidence whatever of the way in which the Phoenicians acquired and adopted the Old Semitic symbols ; and till recently the weak link of the whole chain of connexion was at this point, the doubt being, not whether the earliest Greek writing was deduced from Phoenician (for that has been universally conceded), but whether and how Phoenician came from Old Semitic. However, the opinions of De Rougé and others, as described, for instance, in Isaac Taylor's History of the Alphabet, have till lately been generally accepted, and even now no constructive theory has been advanced to take their place. The general effect of the discoveries of Sir Arthur Evans and others is to show that the history of the alphabet is more complex than was at one time thought. De Rouge's theory has no doubt been rudely shaken, and it has been shown that all kinds of direct transmission have taken place, as from Egypt and from Philistia to Crete. Non nostrum tantas , but it may still well be true that much of the alphabet passed along De Rougé's lines of transference.

It is instructive to see what solid truth is thus to be found in the old Greek legend of Cadmus, which represents him as a Phoenician of Tyre, yet intimately connected with Egypt, and as having introduced into Greece from Phoenicia or Egypt an alphabet of sixteen letters. For the Greeks did most undoubtedly derive their own alphabet from the Phoenician, adapting Semitic symbols to an Aryan set of sounds ; and caused it to be used in Greece itself and over all the shores of the Aegean. The Greek alphabet thus acquired was carried by the Chalcidians of Euboea, at about the end of the ninth century B.C., to one of their Italian colonies, the well-known town of Cumæ in Campania, and, for some reason not recorded in history, was taken up by the one Italian people destined to found an empire, the earliest inhabitants of Rome. The result may be told in Dr. Isaac Taylor's words : ` It became the alphabet of Latin Christendom, and the literary alphabet of Europe and America. It is now, with the single exception of the Arabic, the only alphabet possessing any claim to cosmopolitan extension.'

The letter D is a good example of the changes above described :—In Hieroglyphic, it is a view of the hand, the thumb projecting above (see plate opposite p. 106, in the cartouche). Clearly the essential point about the figure is, not the view of the fingers, but the projection of the thumb ; accordingly in Hieratic the form is ..ca x preserving the thumb-line. In Old Semitic this became A, an angular form due to inscriptions (see p. 6), perpetuated in the Greek A, but rounded in Latin to D, and in later forms to Ô, d. d.

Or take the letter M. In Hieroglyphic this is a side view of an owl, with its face turned towards the spectator. The owl was mulak, and so when the symbol became syllabic it represented mu, and when alphabetic m. Later the owl loses its ears and tail, but still recalls the picture.

In Hieratic it has come to 3, the upper curve representing the head and the lower the rounded back, all else being dropped as unessential. This in Old Semitic appears in Greek as M, in Latin capitals the same, and in smaller letters, from an attempt to write it quickly, m.

Let us now trace in rather more detail the history of writing in Western Europe from Roman times to our own. Much of the significance and most of our appreciation of the manuscript volumes to be here-after described will be lost if we do not see clearly, even if in outline only, the changes of writing which mark the principal eras and nationalities which succeeded the empire of Rome. The table on page 26 will illustrate the course and connexion of each kind.

The great fundamental division of writing, which is applicable to all periods and peoples, is that which puts on one side the common, ordinary hand in private use,—the hand which we and all our ancestors have used in writing letters, setting down accounts, keeping diaries, and scribbling,—which is Cursive ; and puts on the other side the writing reserved for literary monuments, the ornamental, set, careful, impressive hand which we now, owing to the printing-press, hardly know, but in which monks wrote out chronicles, in which old service books were produced, in which legal and regal trans-actions, and everything which seemed to deserve immortal record, were enshrined. We ourselves usually have two hands, if we only notice them, a careless private one, and a formal calligraphic style. --Our survey of Western handwritings naturally begins with the Roman Capital writing. The sudden remark of every one who is shown a specimen for the first time is, how extremely like our own printed capitals ! Take a facsimile of a MS. written in Roman square capitals—every letter from A to Z will be found shaped as ours, except W, which does not exist in Latin, and J, U, which are not distinct from I, V. How this comes to be, in a subject where all is change, will be seen as we proceed.

Pure square Capitals are hard to find in writing as distinguished from inscriptions, but exist, for instance, in the fragments of Virgil in the library of St. Gall (fourth or fifth-century A.D.: Palaeogr. Soc. i. plate 208). But the first declension from the pure type, namely Rustic Capitals, is not uncommon. In this all the letters are capital, but are thinner, compressed laterally as it were, while the numerous horizontal strokes on the right hand of an ordinary capital are often prolonged to the left. Thus E becomes E, T becomes I. The first great change is, however, the Uncial hand, which perhaps meaning originally letters an inch (uncia) long, came to be used for a kind in which all the letters are still capital, except that A, D, E, H, M, Q have become.

The next step is the still commoner Half-Uncial hand, in which the general appearance is no longer capital, and indeed only N and F are clearly and unmistakably of that nature ; the rest approximating in shape rather to our small printed letters, as in p, m, f (s), r (r). It will be understood that the references in this chapter are to the ordinary, natural hand of a scribe, not to the artificial and ornamental hands reserved for titles and incipits or colophons. It is due to the latter that the plate opposite p. 31 is able to present us with four styles in one example.

In the seventh and eighth centuries we find the first tendency to form national hands, resulting in the Merovingian or Frankish hand, the Beneventan of Italy, and the Visigothic of Spain. These are the first difficult hands, except Old Cursive ; and when we remember that the object of writing is to be clear and distinct, and that the test of a good style is that it seizes on the essential points in which letters differ, and puts aside the flourishes and ornaments which disguise the simple form, we shall see how much a strong influence was needed to prevent writing from being ruined by the national hands. That influence was found in Charles the Great.

In the field of writing it has been granted to no person but Charles the Great to influence profoundly the history of the alphabet. With rare insight and rarer taste he discountenanced the prevalent Merovingian hand, and substituted an eclectic hand, known as the Carolingian Minuscule, which may still be regarded as a model of clearness and elegance.

The chief instrument in this reform was Alcuin of York, whom Charles placed, partly for this purpose, at the head of the School of Tours in A.D. 796. The selection of an Englishman for the post naturally leads us to inquire what hands were then used in England, and what amount of English influence the Carolingian Minuscule, the foundation of our modern styles, exhibits. But we must begin with Ireland.

If we gaze in wonder on the personal influence of Charles the Great in reforming handwriting, we shall be still more struck by the spectacle presented to us by Ireland in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. It is the great marvel in the history of palæography. Modem historians have at last appreciated the blaze of life, religious, literary, and artistic, which was kindled in the ` Isle of Saints ' within a century after St. Patrick's coming (which was about A.D. 450) ; how the enthusiasm kindled by Christianity in the Celtic nature so far transcended the limits of the island, and indeed of Great Britain, that Irish missionaries and monks were soon found in the chief religious centres of Gaul, Germany, Switzerland, and North Italy, while foreigners found their toilsome way to Ireland to learn Greek. But less prominence has been given to the artistic side of this great reflex movement from West to East than to the other two. The simple facts attest that in the seventh century, when our earliest existing Irish MSS. were written, we find not only a style of writing (or indeed two) distinctive, national, and of a high type of excellence, but also a school of illumination which, in the combined lines of mechanical accuracy and intricacy, in fertile invention of form and figure and of striking arrangements of colour, has never been surpassed. And this is in the seventh century the nadir of the rest of Europe.

The great Irish school of writing and painting passed over to England by way of the monasteries founded by Irish monks in Scotland. There St. Columba (d. 597) founded the first Scottish monastery at Iona, and thence the first monastery in England was founded by St. Aidan at Lindisfarne or Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast (A.D. 635). But in 597 St. Augustine of Canterbury had landed in Kent, and with him brought the old Roman half-uncial hand still to be seen (among other volumes) in the two Latin books of the Gospels, traditionally supposed to be among those actually brought by Augustine, and now preserved at Cambridge and Oxford. These two forces, the Roman and the Irish half-uncial hands, may be said to have met at the Council of Whitby in 664. Was Augustine or Aidan, Rome or Ireland, destined to supply us with our English national hand ? The Irish hand won the day, and the ` Hiberno-Saxon ' (or ` Insular ') hand became the national hand of England, Scotland, and Ireland, until the Norman Conquest at last reversed the national victory of Whitby, and the Roman or Continental hand, which had never wholly lost its footing in England, excluded its rival. It is certain, then, that Alcuin was trained in Insular calligraphy, so that we may be surprised to find that the writing which, under Charles the Great, he developed at Tours, bears hardly a trace of the style to which he was accustomed. En revanche, in the ornamentation and illumination of the great Carolingian volumes which have come down to our times, we find those persistent traces of English and Irish work which we seek for in vain in the plainer Carolingian writing.

This minuscule superseded all others almost throughout the empire of Charles the Great, and during the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries underwent comparatively little modification. Even in the two next centuries, though it is subject to general modification, national differences are hardly observable, and we need only distinguish two large divisions, the group of Northern Europe (England, North France, and the Netherlands), and the Southern (South France, Italy, and Spain). The two exceptions are, that Germany, both in writing and painting, has always stood apart, and has lagged behind the other nations of Western Europe in its development ; and that England retained her Hiberno-Saxon or Insular hand till the great Conquest of 1066. It may be said that the twelfth century produced the finest writing ever known—a large, free and flowing form of the minuscule of Tours. In the next century comes in the angular Gothic hand, the difference between which and the twelfth century hand may be fairly understood by a comparison of ordinary German and Roman type. In the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries the writing of each country may be discerned, while the general tendency is towards complication, use of abbreviations and contractions, and development of unessential parasitic forms of - letters (see plates facing pp. r, 64, 66). The study of these styles is a study of details, and as such needs the manuals mentioned in the Bibliographies in App. C.

How then, to revert to a previous question, does it come about that our modern capitals are like those of ancient Rome, and our ordinary letters, as printed, so like the Carolingian minuscule ? This we can now answer. The early printers of the second half of the fifteenth century took as their models one or other of two kinds of letters, either the current Gothic hand, of which modern German type is the direct outcome, or the luxurious style which—itself a revival of the clear twelfth century writing —was adopted in Italy by the scribes of the Renaissance. This latter set of forms, through the collective good sense of successive generations, won its way, and secured for all future time the neat, easily read and sensible forms of the familiar Roman type. We see, then, that readers of the present day owe their eyesight and their comfort to (I) the revival of pure forms of an old Roman kind by Charles the Great ; (2) the almost accidental fact that the later Carolingian writing of the twelfth century was imitated by the Italian scribes of the fifteenth ; (3) the happy natural selection by which printers chose this revived kind of letter. Had any one of these links failed, our type would probably have failed to attain its undoubted excellence.

Of court-hand the stiff, formal writing affected by law courts and royal chanceries—our space does not allow us to treat. It began to diverge from the literary hand in the ninth century, and after the twelfth becomes more and more artificial and perplexing till at least the seventeenth. It is allowable to doubt whether this is wholly unintentional, and to suggest that in essence court-hand has been more or less an instrument which has helped the lawyers of past times to make their profession exclusive, secret, and mysterious in the eyes of the laity.

Abbreviation and Contraction

A student, when he has mastered the difficulties connected with the forms of letters—which indeed can almost be met in the case of any particular MS. by a skilful use of methods used in solving cryptograms,— will find himself face to face with the serious trouble of abbreviations and contractions, especially in MSS. later than the ninth century. He finds mia written for miseria or for misericordia, he finds mundus written mud and the like. Till Ludwig Traube (d. 1907) arose, these difficulties could only be overcome by empiric rules and facts, but that great paleographer (who occupied a place among paleographers almost as eminent as that of Henry Bradshaw among bibliographers) discovered principles where others only saw sequences of fact.

Traube was the first who distinguished the true relation between the two great systems of Abbreviation (by which term is implied any way of writing a word in short form, although in practice Shorthand is excluded from its scope as being too artificial and mechanical), namely Abbreviation by Suspension and Abbreviation by Contraction. The former class consists of a shortening by suspending the pen, simply not writing the whole of the word (as in A.D. for Anno Domini, Nom for Nomen). The latter is a shortening by giving the beginning and end of the word, and often an important letter in the middle, and recognizing certain definite symbols akin to Shorthand (as in the examples given on p. 33).

The history of these two methods is interesting. The earliest of the two at Rome was Suspension, which starts the word for you but gives no inkling of the termination. Examples are H.S.E. (Hic situs est), on sepulchral monuments, S. V. B. E. (Si vales bene est), in letters. But it was especially taken up by lawyers who used numerous forms like .Tm. for Testamentum (where the m is the first m, not the termination 1). This system, though subject to whole word, but never the termination. Thus nosier could be .N. or .NT. the fortunate limitation that the suspended word must be in common use, and therefore partly self-suggestive to educated men, developed so many ambiguities that in the fourth century of our era it began to give way before the insidious approach of a rival system.

The system of Contraction started with the Jews, who were accustomed to omit the vowels in the sacred name of Jahwe or Jehovah. It was transferred by Hellenizing Jews to Greek scribes through Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures. From the Greeks it passed to Rome. One of the proofs of Jewish origin is that the usage, even in Latin, was at first absolutely confined to just five Sacred Names : Deus (cites— ), Jesus ), Christus (.2725 ), Spiritus, and Dominus . The Greek stage is obvious from the h and the x p . This limited set of contractions is found in Rome from about A.D. 300, but in Africa and Gaul from about A.D. 410, and in Spain before A.D. 450.

But the floodgates soon opened wider, and other ecclesiastical terms suffered contraction, and by the sixth century lay terms were admitted, and the vogue of Suspension was over. A remarkable example of the fight between the Old and the New is afforded by the seemingly insignificant word nosier, which derived its importance at first from the common ending of a liturgical prayer, ` per Dominuin nostrum Iesum Christum', and the like. The oldest form of abbreviation was .N. (Suspension), but its ambiguity was its ruin. The new system quickly killed it, substituting the type (if we take the genitive case nostri as a convenient case for describing types). But even this was ambiguous nostro, colliding with non, and with nam, etc.). So a rival type arose, which waged a curious and definite war with the older type. Thus in Italy and France the war raged from about A.D. 700 to 900 : in Ireland and England only from 700 to 800 : in Germany from 800 to nearly 1000. In all these battlefields the in type won, and throughout the Middle Ages nosier is, nostri , nostro nostrum etc. This example is a specimen of the fighting which went on every-where, and as the campaigns are pretty well known, we obtain a valuable instrument for dating old MSS.

However, for MSS. which my readers are likely to come across, it may be assumed that the full system of Abbreviation by Contraction is in force, and a few details of its chief forms may be given.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com