Or: it turns out monks were tight
Can you read it?
The root of the word manuscript is very literal: manu (by hand) script (written). Of course, this word has now been diluted to mean any body of written work and as a designer every Word document you receive is labelled “xxx-xxx MANUSCRIPT”. But in the Medieval period manuscript really meant written by hand.
Monks (being one of the few literate classes of the time) would spend their entire lives as scribes, working in a scriptorium – a special room or building at the monastery for the copying of texts – where they would be trained to write in a particular script (something like the house style) and then spend months and years copying out manuscript after manuscript. Pens were made of quill and dipped in ink made from blackthorn and wine, and texts were copied onto parchment made from sheepskin.
But within these scripts – and Latin in general – one can find a number of now defunct characters and quirks; quirks that can be daunting for those who read Latin but aren’t familiar with certain scripts and completely alien to non-Latin readers. Ligatures varied from one scriptorium to another, as could individual characters, as did letterforms as many scriptoriums had their own variation on a script, if not their own script entirely. An effort was made to rationalise these scripts by Charlemagne in the 8th century with the introduction of the Carolignian Minuscule* to the Frankish empire, but even that had its own set of anomalies that would be unreadable to the modern eye.
An illustration of common letterforms and ligatures in the Carolignian Minuscule and the modern equivalents.
But perhaps more daunting is the general style manuscripts were written. You see, parchment was an expensive material, so a scribe would, at every opportunity, attempt to save space on the page to avoid using to much of the stuff!
For instance, the modern reader is used to having more separation between words than between individual letters. However, in late antiquity books were written with all letters equally spaced, so there were no spaces to indicate where one word ended and another began. Words were separated in this instance by reading the text aloud.
Things were more familiar in the Medieval period with words separated much as they might be now, but short words – especially prepositions (e.g. in, per, pro, ab, etc.) – were frequently joined to the following word rather than left hanging.
But scribes didn’t stop there, not at all. To make copying faster and books even shorter scribes would abbreviate short or common words into the bare minimum of characters, rendering a word that resembled its longer form enough to be deciphered, but coming into an abbreviated manuscript for the first time could be a daunting task!
A list of abbreviations found in Medieval manuscripts – and these are just the common ones!
In the period these facets were so commonplace that they likely caused little or no problems to readers, especially once the Carolignian Minuscule was introduced and handwriting across large areas was standardised. But today it makes an already difficult and archaic writing system even more challenging for the modern eye.
And why? It was to save money. Much as a modern publisher may look to cut down on the number of pages to send to a printer to save some cash, so too did Medieval scriptoriums try to reduce the length of their manuscripts in order to make for smaller, cheaper books. And when you were the only ones that could read the books you wrote, why wouldn’t you?
*a longer article on the Carolignian Minuscule, including some of the points in this article, will follow shortly…