Descent Ascent

How islands of early-medieval literacy fostered the written word

By the end of the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire had limped its way through accumulating military defeats and political changes, succumbing in slow motion, leaving western Europe in the Dark Ages. It’s trendy these days to point out that the Early Middle Ages weren’t that dark, and that the fall of Rome wasn’t that bad. And from a typographer’s perspective, it wasn’t. This period of history left us with a typographical keystone—a link between ancient and modern type: Carolingian minuscule.

Rated on actual use of the written word, however, the Early Middle Ages were a catastrophe. From a high-water mark in the days of Pseudolus, literacy declined across broad tracts of the former Roman Empire, preserved primarily in islands of literacy. And some of these islands were on literal islands: Britain and Ireland.

When Rome abandoned Britain, it put Britain in a common position with its neighbour. Ireland had never been a part of the empire, remaining insulated from the Roman-continental world on their insulam. Given the luxury of insularity, the Irish had long-since started making books of their own, introducing illuminated manuscripts to the medieval world and developing a style known, appropriately, as insular art. Their style of illustrated text featured stunning artistry: pages decorated with gold and a distinct interlace pattern. They also innovated tables of contents—valuable in enabling random access and the attendant sea-change in how we process information. In the years after the fall of Rome, they exported this style to newly insulated Britain. The movement reached its apogee in the 8th century.

The key figure in this was Alcuin of York, a brilliant polymath: teacher, scholar, poet, mathematician, clergyman. Educated as a young man in the cathedral of York, Alcuin was a beneficiary of one of the best islands of literacy and knowledge in the 8th century. By the middle of the century, Alcuin was teaching there, and wrote a codex on grammar, logic, and rhetoric. His academic prowess eventually took him to Rome, where Alcuin met a Frankish king who’d established a new dominion across a big chunk of the former Western Roman Empire: Charlemagne.

By many accounts, Charlemagne was only semi-literate. While he probably liked reading, he hadn’t had the advantage of learning to write from a young age, and though he practised, he struggled. For all that, he still understood the power of the written word. What was true in the vast and diverse ancient Roman Empire held in Charlemagne’s smaller—but still vast and diverse—medieval Carolingian Empire. Recognizing an asset in the educated and curious Alcuin, Charlemagne invited him to his court. Alcuin agreed.

Charlemagne wanted every church and monastery to have a copy of the Vulgate Bible—the official Latin translation of the bible, completed in the 4th century. At the time, each church or monastery could form its own island of literacy, responsible for maintaining and reproducing their own manuscripts. Due to differing hands, varying legibility, and questionable literacy, bibles had become increasingly irregular in the four hundred years since the creation of the Vulgate Bible.

Alcuin’s job was to correct this, asserting regularity and efficiency over individuality. To this end, Alcuin developed a new type that we today call Carolingian minuscule. Carolingian minuscule was a vast improvement on earlier medieval and Roman typography, using round uncial letters, spaces between words, more punctuation, and upper and lowercase letters. It also revealed its heritage in Irish monasteries, using the Irish form of many letters. The type was an unqualified success, setting the standard for how text should look, providing a template for the transcription of myriad pieces of ancient writing. Through the transcription of ancient texts, Carolingian minuscule would become so ubiquitous that hundreds of years later it was mistaken for actual ancient type and readopted by a burgeoning intellectual class, obsessed with Antiquity; a sterling accolade for Alcuin, the Carolingian Renaissance man.

As for Charlemagne, his plan worked. He consolidated his empire, and at the start of the 9th century he was crowned Emperor of Romans. While his Holy Roman Empire was a shadow of the Roman Empire it replaced, it endured—in a crystal-clear demonstration of the benefits of good typography—until the 19th century.


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