Medieval Writing
Punctuation is used to clarify the sense of what is written, and since the development of the printed book, we have become familiar with a series of punctuation conventions. These include not only the standard punctuation marks (, . ; : ? !), but conventions such as word spacing, capital letters at the beginning of sentences, paragraphing and page formatting. These are particularly necessary for Anglophones because English is a sloppy language, susceptible to misinterpretation without it. We also read very fast and silently, and the division of the text through graphic conventions allows us to absorb large chunks of text.
(See Bischoff 1990 also Parkes 1991)
My resident medievalist assures me that Latin does not require punctuation, as the grammatical constructions are so precise that the significance cannot be misunderstood. That is the assertion of someone who reads Latin very accurately, but perhaps slowly, and who knows it as a written language. The different forms of punctuation used in the middle ages were graphic clues as to how the text was to be read.
majuscule script
Segment of a manuscript of Virgil's Aeneid from the Library of St Gall (Cod.1394,p.12). The manuscript leaves were found doing duty as book covers. (From Steffens 1929)
Some very early manuscripts almost totally lack punctuation. In majuscule scripts there is no distinguishing feature of the letter at the beginning of a sentence. The words may run continuously without breaks and there may be no punctuation marks employed.
majuscule script
A line from a 5th or 6th century copy of Virgil (Rome, Biblioteca Vaticana, Vat. Lat. 3867) . (From Steffens 1929)
Sometimes in early manuscripts written in square capitals or rustic capitals, a dot was placed between each word, as was also done on carved inscriptions. This reads;


which is a question, but there is no question mark to indicate it.

These texts were essentially designed for reading aloud, and phrasing could be indicated by leaving spaces of variable size between words at strategic places, or by the number of words to the line. The spaces represented points for pausing in oral delivery rather than indicating the grammatical construction of the text. Grammarians of ancient times had specified a simple set of punctuation marks for pauses of various length; low point, medial point and high point which more or less correspond to comma, colon and full stop.
scripto continuo This is a sample from the writings of St Hilarius of Poitiers, dating from 509-10 AD (Rome, Archivio di S. Pietro, D.182. (From Steffens 1929)
Continuous writing, largely unpunctuated, also appears in minuscule scripts of the very early medieval period. The above example is half uncial. With the eye of faith, there appears to be the odd small space between some words, but many others run together in a continuous stream.
The presumption is that reading is a slow and linear process, probably carried out aloud, with the eyes tracking steadily left to right along each line in synchronisation with the utterance of each word. It does not seem at all probable that a reader could flip through pages quickly for sense. Many texts, such as the Bible or Virgil for that matter, may have been well known to the reader and memory may have played a large part in the reading process. While commentaries like that of St Hilarius of Poitiers might not seem great candidates for having been memorised, books of any sort were rare commodities at this early date and probably scanned repeatedly. We remember less because we read too much.
insular script A 9th century copy of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica (British Library, Cotton Tiberius C II, f.34) . By permission of the Brtish Library.
Early Irish and Anglo-Saxon scribes are credited with the introduction of consistent word spacing as a component of insular minuscule scripts. At this remote end of Europe, Latin was being learned from grammar books rather than from oral culture and the spacing was based on grammatical units, ie. words, rather than forms of oral presentation. Note that in the above example, in which the script has features of insular half uncial and insular minuscule, while the words are carefully spaced, they run over from line to line, as in incarnationis at the end of the first line, or gregorius in the second. The lines are not guides to oral reading. Note also that the name papa gregorius does not get capital letters. The capitalisation of proper nouns, or names, seems to be pretty inconsistent throughout the medieval period.
With the use of capital letters at the beginnings of sentences written in minuscule script, enlarged capitals at the beginnings of paragraphs, and the introduction of forms of punctuation marks, we are getting a more familiar concept of writing, even though the letter forms and punctuation marks are somewhat different to those we use today. You can imagine sitting down to a good read of the volume of Bede shown above without your eyeballs popping out of your head, as might happen with the examples of Virgil or St Hilarius given further above.


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