Words Without Borders

A millennium after ancient Greeks transcribed their myths, medieval scribes refashioned the written word into a republic of letters.

By Matthew Battles

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


A monk illustrating a manuscript, from the series Evolution of the Book, by John W. Alexander, c. 1896. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

In ancient Greece, writing arose among traders and artisans doing business in the markets with foreigners and visitors from other cities. Their alphabet emerged not in scribal colleges or the king’s halls, nor was it brought by conquerors, but instead came ashore in the freewheeling, acquisitive, materialistic atmosphere of the agora, the Greek marketplace that also birthed democracy and the public sphere.

The Phoenician letters, transformed by Greeks into the alphabet, share an origin with the Hebrew characters. They crossed the Aegean Sea with trade that flourished between the Greek peninsula and the Canaanite mainland in the ninth century BC. The first alphabetic inscriptions in Greek appear on goods—keepsake vases, containers for oil and olives. The likely earliest such inscription extant, the “Dipylon inscription,” is on a wine jug; it reads something like this: “Whichever dancer dances most fleetly, he shall get me [this vessel]”—a trophy cup. The so-called Cup of Nestor, a clay vessel dating from the eighth century BC, bears an inscription that begins “Nestor’s cup am I, good to drink from.” For the next couple of centuries, Greek letters are used mostly to inscribe dedications—indexing acquisition and ownership in a society where property was the basis of participation in the lettered public sphere.

This was a society of freeborn traders and artisans, a culture that prized beauty, expressiveness, and originality—the perfect environment for the kind of flourishing public space writing seems everywhere to wish to build. And yet the magisterium of writing grows slowly in ancient Greece. Centuries pass before the first texts appear. The dating of these poets is very controversial; Homer and Hesiod slip into myth, sharing priority with Orpheus as the earliest Greek authors. Hesiod mentions rivers first explored and prizes won by Greeks in the eighth century BC, the era of the Dipylon inscription and the beginnings of the alphabet. Like Homer, Hesiod is replete with the formulas that facilitate memorization of oral epics: lists and epithets, rhythmic, repetitive phrases.

Hesiod begins Works and Days with a prayer to the Muses, “who give glory through song”: “Through him mortal men are famed or unfamed, sung or unsung alike, as great Zeus wills.” Here, the memory function writing serves is most powerfully evoked and connected to Zeus, the fountainhead of political might. Through song, the Muses bestow fame upon men—true to their origin as daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, patroness of the singers and remembrancers.

Homer, too, writes like an oral poet painfully aware of the limits of memory. As the classicist E.R. Dodds points out, when Homer appeals for divine aid in rendering his compositions, he asks for help not with form but content:

Always he asks the muses what he is to say, never how he is to say it, and the matter he asks for is always factual. Several times he requests information about important battles; once, in his most elaborate invocation, he begs to be inspired with an Army List—“for you are goddesses, watching all things, knowing all things; but we have only hearsay and knowledge.” These wistful words have the ring of sincerity; the man who first used them knew the fallibility of tradition and was troubled by it; he wanted first-hand evidence.

In what would later be called the home of Western literature, writing gets off to a supremely leisurely start. The classicist Eric Havelock argued that Greek literacy requires a “special theory,” for there, as almost nowhere else, literacy arrives unforced. The artistic culture of ancient Greece had little need of writing; its power was held by the performers, the singers, to whom scribes and “authors” could appear only as rivals.

Writing had even existed in Greece before the arrival of the Phoenician version of the proto-Canaanite alphabet—in the Mycenaean age from which the tales of Homer sprang. The Mycenaean writing systems, Linear A and B, derived from the cuneiform that already was ancient in the Mediterranean world. And they were used in the royal fashion of old, to serve ultimatums and record the deeds of the strong (or so it seems; Linear A has yet to be decoded). But between the Mycenaean age and the classical period, Greece underwent its own dark ages, and the letters were lost. By Homer’s time, the oral poets who sang the tales of the Trojan War saw Mycenaean writing through a glass darkly, they discerned the power of the marks but knew not how they were made to speak. Homer’s only mention of writing comes in book VI of the Iliad, which recounts how King Proteus sent his rival, the stalwart but unlettered Bellerophon, on an errand to a vassal king, carrying with him a “folded tablet” engraved with “baleful signs” and “deadly tokens” spelling out the doughty Bellerophon’s own death sentence. This sole instance of writing in the Iliad dramatizes writing’s old ways as a murderous servant of kings; moreover, it betrays an ignorance of writing’s basic workings—for the tablet carries not words, but “signs and tokens.” Rousseau was one of the first to point to this as troubling evidence that Homer was himself illiterate.

Havelock observes the irony of Greek literature: that the alphabet, which would replace the oral recitation of the bards, took as its first task the preservation of their oral culture. In Greece, the magisterium of writing took the form of a paradoxical “written orality” privileging acoustic aesthetics and public performance over the administrative needs of the kings. For all its vaunted powers of remembrance, writing seems to come into its own as art when it co-opts not only the bards’ ancient task of recollection but the work of performance as well.

In time, Greek authors and scribes would compile whole libraries of texts, recording and performing in thousands upon thousands of scrolls piled up in Athens, Pergamum, and Alexandria. Those scrolls would burn and disappear, just as the tablets of the Assyrians had disappeared beneath the hills that overlook the Tigris and Euphrates. The Romans would follow their practice of library building. But writing, for all its powers of memory, crumbles again and again at the implacable forces of time, war, and change. Like Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, the magisterium of writing always wants to say, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”


For a long millennium, the letters of the ancient world crumbled, were carved anew, and crumbled again. It wasn’t until 782, when Charlemagne invited the scholar Alcuin to his school at Aachen—the favored royal residence in what is now westernmost Germany—that a resurgence of writing and classical learning started in Europe.

Alcuin was born not on the Continent but in northern England, in what was at the time the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria ruled by Æthelred I, whom Alcuin would later blame for a decadence and pettiness that left northern Britain prey to the long sundering season of the Vikings that began with the sacking of Lindisfarne, seat of the Bede the Venerable and an early home of monastic learning.

Writing and learning had holed up in Britain through the Dark Ages. In the sixth and seventh centuries, monastic scribal practices flourished in Ireland. Monks made their way from the strife-torn Continent to learn Greek and imbibe the distinctive writing styles, or “hands,” and the remarkable, intricate illumination traditions of the Irish scribes. Their brothers had traveled to England to found the monastery at Lindisfarne in 635, where their Hibernian scribal hands met and mixed with the half-uncial writing, descended from Roman cursive, that had arrived with Augustine in Kent in 597.

Secreted like jewels amid the depredations of feudal warlords, the monasteries were isolates of order organized around writing—the slow, steady proliferation of books copied out by hand, volume giving birth to volume beneath the scratching quills of patient scribes. The rule of order in the scriptorium was absolute. Falconer Madan, keeper of manuscripts for Oxford at the turn of the last century, imagines the scene, where the rule of silence was so powerful that scribes used hand signals to indicate their needs:

If a scribe needed a book, he extended his hands and made a movement as if turning over leaves. If it was a missal that he wanted, he super-added the sign of a cross; if a psalter, he placed his hands on his head in the shape of a crown (in reference to King David); if a lectionary, he pretended to wipe away the grease (which might have fallen on such a book from a candle). . . . Finally, if a pagan work was required, after the general sign, he scratched his ear in the manner of a dog!

Artificial light was strictly forbidden in the scriptorium, as the open flame of candles risked disaster in the presence of so many books. Thus writing for the monks, while central, was seasonal, restricted to the sunny months along with sowing, tending, and harvest.

The works the scribes copied were dictated by theology and monastic scholarship. The scribes were not authors but copyists—and yet this copying required a full measure of training and skill, a long apprenticeship to the severe tasks of transcription. But writing always invites invention: in an unbroken, onrushing stream of letterforms, there will be eddies and whirlpools, floods and freshets. Where medieval scribes found textual invention proscribed, they gave vent to enterprise in the art form that we call illumination. Madan evocatively imagines the evolution of decorative form in medieval manuscript writing:

First, certain letters (usually the first letter of a new sentence, but sometimes the first letter of the line which followed the commencement of a sentence) were simply made larger than the rest, and perhaps colored. Next, the ends and corners of such letters were exaggerated, and ran over into the margin, until in the course of time the whole margin was filled with offshoots from one or more large letters. At last the margin was formally separated from the letters, and received a wholly independent design. Meanwhile room was found either within a letter, or about a margin, or above the text, or on a separate page, for a miniature, the highest form of illumination, which in the best examples rivals in completeness and power the finest paintings of famous picture galleries.

Along with methods of decoration and illumination, scribal hands also proliferated. Styles of rough-and-ready handwriting first learned from Roman soldiers and notaries had been adapted to the strange vowels and guttural consonants of Northern Europe at the behest of abbots and feudal chiefs eager to keep the mysteries contained in letters secret. In centuries to come, amid the warring, archipelagic polities of the early Middle Ages, the spidery forms of Merovingian, Visigothic, and Beneventan scripts would evolve among local fiefdoms and bishoprics—an efflorescence of variety meant to conceal meaning as much as to express it. And thus for all the attention to the practices of copying—inarguably the dominant mode of literary practice in medieval Europe—error is rife throughout the European scribal record. Ironically, this erratic output is crucial to modern scholarship, as it often furnishes the chief means by which the genealogies of manuscripts may be measured. Scribes both produced errors and then faithfully reproduced them; copied and recopied, errors trace paths from one scriptorium to the next, connecting source to copy down through the Middle Ages.

The new scribal hand that emerged from Alciun’s arrival at Aachen, Carolingian minuscule, combined the simple forms of late Roman script with the distinctive rhythm and grace of Insular hands (so named because they came from Alcuin’s home in the British Isles). Alcuin and his scribes did much to clarify the scribal condition: they gave texts regularized punctuation and spacing and introduced the use of capital letters to begin sentences and mark off major divisions in the text (they’re not called uppercase and lowercase yet; those terms derive from printers’ cases of metal type). Alcuin’s scribes copied and commented upon thousands of works, and learning proliferated from the Pyrenees to the Danube. After twenty years of constant warfare, Charlemagne’s pacified kingdom reorganized its energy in the form of learned pursuits. Alcuin’s reforms reprise the civilizing mission of Charlemagne’s reign in a lettered key—replacing proliferation with hierarchical order, ideals with standards, the whim of weather and seasons with steady accumulation; the forest for the garden.

A thousand years after Aeschylus and Euripides, Alcuin’s scribes took up anew the work of writing libraries for medieval Europe. Libraries in this history aren’t just collections of books. They’re also totalizing statements, manifestos of graphic endurance, writing made powerful not through its expressiveness but by its prolix abundance, so ubiquitous it can afford to act no longer as mere transcription of utterance but as brick and stone, elemental stuff expanding to fill space. Yet at this seemingly imperial end point of the magisterium of writing we discover another side to its enslaving power. For wherever writing seems to achieve preeminence as a tool of the powerful, we find at that moment that it becomes possible to take it apart and turn it upon itself, a line of that same material quickened once more into a truth-making, universe-etching voice. This is what the Greek writers did as they transformed remembered tales into works of literature; it’s what the scholars and writers and printers of early modern Europe would bequeath to us in the form of a republic of letters knitting those fragile strands of text into a web. It’s what happens when we turn the rough tool for inscribing talents of gold and the exploits of kings into world-making, soul-changing verbal contraptions that reward innumerable readings, seemingly changeless prisms of written words capable of shifting and changing within us—in short, when we teach ourselves how to make literature.


Excerpted from Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.