Prior to the invention of the printing press, book manuscripts were handwritten by scribes, often in an extravagant and meticulous way. Prior to the twelfth century, scribes writing manuscripts had to consider many factors before actually beginning their work. This article reviews two books written by scholars on the history of handwriting.
A Comparison of Text Elements:
Writing as Handwork, by Colette Sirat and
A History of Writing, by Albertine Gaur
The book in its modern form emerged in Rome during the first century CE. Its shape grew naturally from that of the bound wooden tablets that were in use as notebooks at the time. These manuscripts were made of one or more quires, or gatherings, of flexible material such as papyrus or parchment, and were written in ink. Eventually, after Moslems brought the technique of manufacturing paper to Europe from China, introducing it to Spain and Sicily during the twelfth century CE, paper became the material of choice for the pages of manuscripts.
Handwriting far predates these developments, and the materials used to write different texts have varied with time and place. Naturally, before the invention of printing processes (the earliest being the woodblock press), manuscripts were written by hand and some were lavishly and painstakingly illustrated. Scribes, no doubt, had to take the purpose of a text, its intended readership, and its overall design into account before putting their first mark on the clean surface before them.
I have chosen to review two books about the history of handwriting. While they are both written by scholars in the field, each is designed to appeal to different readers. The choice of readership affects many decisions concerning the content and appearance of a text, and this becomes apparent when examining these two books.
Cover and Size
The first things one notices about a book are its cover and size. Colette Sirat’s book, Writing as Handwork, is written for academics and is a study of the history of handwriting in the Mediterranean and Western Cultures. Albertine Gaur’s A History of Writing, written for a more general audience, traces the development of handwriting worldwide. The cover of Sirat’s book is low-key in appearance, using only a few colors, with an illustration which fades into the background. It is not designed to attract a reader’s attention, but rather the interest of its readership is assumed. It is a thick tome of some 575 pages (including the index). In contrast, the cover of Gaur’s book is alive with graphic symbols. It attracts attention and interest by the use of bold, contrasting colors and shapes. Though nearly the same size as Sirat’s book, Gaur’s is about half as thick (224 pages, including the index).
Brepols, publisher of Sirat’s book, specializes in academic books in fields related to the humanities. Its website states that Brepols focuses on publications of interest to the scholarly community. Gaur’s book was published by The British Library, which publishes nonfiction and academic books on subjects related to its collections.
Both texts are very well illustrated. In Sirat’s book, the illustrations are numerous and placed throughout the text. Some are grouped, and all are in black and white. It is important to note, however, that nothing is lost through the lack of color. In Gaur’s book, the illustrations, primarily in black and white, are also located throughout the text, with some grouped together. In addition, there are four pages of full color illustrations placed at the beginning of the book.
Sirat is a professor at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Department of History and Philology, and head of the Hebrew Department, Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris. She is a scholar writing for other scholars and states in her preface that this book represents forty years of research. It is also the only book on the topic of handwriting that examines the movements made by scribes. In her preface, Gaur, former head of the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books at the British Library and author of a number of books on topics related to writing, mentions that her book is not intended to compete with scholarly works on the subject. Rather, she aims to view the topic from the 20th century perspective of information storage and the interaction between scribe and society. Her purpose is to introduce the subject to a wider audience.
Sirat’s study follows the traditional format of an academic paper: there is a brief preface, an introduction with a time line, explanations of the terms used, and discussion of the scope of the study, which includes a brief overview of the topic. It is here that Sirat builds her case for the evidence presented and gives examples of the types of texts and materials she examines. The body of the text, which covers 471 pages, places Chapter One before Part One. This first chapter, entitled “The Corpus Involved,” describes the selections employed and estimates the extent to which they are representative of their time and place. The body of the text is followed by three appendices (12 pages), a bibliography (31 pages), a list of illustrations (8 pages), and a general index (17 pages). As noted above, Gaur’s book is about half the length of Sirat’s, though it covers a much wider geographical area. It includes a preface (2 pages), the body of the text (196 pages), in which she introduces the topic and terms to her readers before proceeding with more detailed descriptions, a list of abbreviations (1 page), a bibliography (4 pages), and an index (10 pages).
It is interesting to note that, while the pages of the books are of similar size (Sirat—200 x 270 mm; Gaur—195 x 255 mm), the area allotted to the text on the page (Sirat—162 x 200 mm; Gaur—130 x 205 mm) and the space between the lines of text (Sirat—3 mm; Gaur—2 mm) differ in a meaningful way. Though the fonts seem to be of similar size and clarity, the cumulative effect of the width of the text on the page (wider for Sirat’s book) and the difference in line spacing (Sirat’s book has more space between the lines), was to slow this reader down. I found it nearly impossible to skim the text in Sirat’s book; I was forced to read more carefully. It would be interesting to know who made the decisions about margins and spacing and whether the effect was intentional. Ultimately, I found the text in Gaur’s book to be too crowded though I do not think I would have felt that way had I not been alternating between the books.
Comparison of Selected Terms
When writing, authors must take their readership’s level of knowledge of the topic into consideration. Use of genre-specific language is to be expected in an academic text but must be handled somewhat differently if the goal is to reach a wider audience. The difference in how Sirat and Gaur handle three terms related to scripts can be attributed to the fact that they are writing for different readerships.
Majuscule: In Sirat’s book, the first mention of this term is, “Others wrote an awkward and clumsy hand with an untidy mixture of majuscule and minuscule forms.” The term does not appear in the index and is not defined in the text. It does, however, appear in Gaur’s index, which redirects the reader to the listings under “Calligraphy.” There the reader is given the page number of the first mention of the term, which reads, “…majuscule or capital script….” Webster’s College Dictionary gives the following definition: “a large letter, capital, or uncial, as in medieval manuscripts.”
Minuscule: This term is not defined when it first occurs in Sirat’s work, nor does it appear in the index. The first mention of the term that I noticed was the following: “…a particularly elegant minuscule script.” The term is, however, found in Gaur’s index, and the reader is again directed to the listings under “Calligraphy.” The term is not really defined in the text but is referred to as “rounded,” and there is an illustration just above it which gives the reader a clear picture of its meaning. Webster’s defines minuscule as: “a small cursive script developed from the uncial and used in medieval manuscripts.”
Uncial: This term is listed in Sirat’s index. However, its first appearance, “…the transition from uncial to the newly created minuscule…,” does not provide the reader with a definition or any clue to its meaning. Gaur’s index once again refers the reader to the terms listed under “Calligraphy,” and the first mention in the text is: “…rounded characters were moulded into a proper style in so-called uncial script.” The definition in Webster’s is: “…designating or of a form of large, rounded letters used in Greek or Latin manuscripts between AD 300–900.”
These three terms are well-known to anyone familiar with ancient or medieval manuscripts or writing. Writing for academics, Sirat seems to assume knowledge of genre-specific vocabulary whereas Gaur, who wishes to introduce the topic to a general readership, does not.
Selected Topic–Tools and Materials
While there are references to tools and materials scattered throughout both books, Sirat’s deals with them in greater depth. In Chapter One, 23 pages are devoted to an overview, divided by time and place, of tools and materials. Chapter Eleven, entitled “Written Objects: Their Material, Size, Weight, and Shape,” has a further 21 pages of detailed descriptions of both. Gaur’s book has a section called “The Processes of Writing,” which gives 21 pages of information on tools and materials, but in less detail.
Both authors have geared their entire approach—from format, to language used, to material covered—toward their intended readership. While Gaur’s book covers a far greater geographical area, it is less detailed, shorter, and more suited as an introduction to the topic. Sirat’s book is meant for scholars, though it is accessible to the layman due to the inclusion of intriguing details and Sirat’s genial style of writing.
Agnes, Michael E., ed. 1999. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed. New York: Macmillan USA.
Casson, L. 2002. Libraries in the Ancient World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Gaur, A. 1987. A History of Writing. London: The British Library.
Sirat, C. 2006. Handwriting as Handwork: A History of Handwriting in Mediterranean and Western Culture. Turnhout: Brepols.