Pen, Paper & Prose Power

A Brief History of Writing – Part Two: From Roman Times to Times New Roman

by Ashley Williams


‘If all seas were ink, all reeds were pen, all skies parchment, and all men scribes, they would be unable to set down the full scope of the Roman government’s concerns.’ 

from the Babylonian Talmud




At the height of its territorial expansion in 117 C.E., the Roman Empire’s motto, Imperium Sine Fine (Empire Without End), would probably have evoked a geographical as well as a temporal association. However, the Western Roman Empire did eventually come to an end in the 5th century C.E.

Among its many lasting legacies, one in particular would be truly without end. It would be mightier than the sword and more formidable than the much feared Roman legions. It was its influence on the written word. It could be argued that the Western Roman Empire would not have spread so wide, lasted so long, or been as monumentally successful as it was, had it not been for its extraordinary effectiveness in using the written word to communicate between so many countries, regions and continents, across so many deserts, mountains and seas.

Latin: Historical Context

Perhaps a common misconception about Latin is that it was the original language of Italy proper. In fact, as the linguistic/tribal map below illustrates, in the 6th century B.C.E. Latini (Latin) was only one of a big family of Italic languages, and it was only spoken by a minor tribe from the tiny central-west region, Latium. However, Latium eventually became the region from whence the Roman civilization would develop – outwards from its epicentre, Rome. Many words from the Celtic dialects of northern Italy, the Greek of the southern part of the peninsula, the Etruscan language of the central region, and dialects of other areas would all contribute to Latin over time.

In fact, after learning the writing system of the Etruscan civilization in the 5th century B.C.E., the Latins would, by the 7th century B.C.E., adopt 21 of the 26 archaic Etruscan letters (in turn taken from the Greek alphabet). Later, K, Y, and Z were added to facilitate the Latin spelling of Greek names and loan words. And Z, a very old letter which had fallen into disuse, was reintroduced by the Romans. J and V were the consonantal forms of I and U so they did not require separate letters until they were adopted later on by both the Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Romanian), and the Germanic languages (German, Dutch, English, and Scandinavian dialects). Incidentally, although W was added to Old English as a double V ('double U' in English) as early as the 7th century, J, the last of the 26, was not universally considered a distinct letter in the English alphabet until as late as the 19th century.

From the reign of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, Latin was made the official language of the law courts in the west and of every military post in every far-flung corner of the empire. In effect, those who wanted to get on in life, whether they were Roman merchants in Arabia or foot soldiers guarding Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain, had no choice but to learn their Roman letters.

However, in contrast to Alexander the Great, from whom they had learned so much with regard to the complicated business of empire building, the Roman emperors never officially imposed Latin on the peoples they ruled over. Nevertheless – and crucially for the story of writing – non-Romans in Europe and beyond would, over time, adopt the script of their rulers.

Latin and Greek for the Urban Elite

Although the Romans had conquered Greece in 146 B.C.E., they certainly were not able to conquer the Greek language – nor did they try, for two main reasons: firstly, being more widely spoken and written than Latin as a first or second language in large parts of the Mediterranean, it was essential for the business of empire maintenance; secondly, for the Roman upper classes, proficiency in Greek was an intellectual status symbol.

Urban elites throughout the Roman Empire shared a literary culture imbued with Greek educational ideals, and the study of Greek was as an expression of cultural achievement. Young men from wealthy families in Rome often went abroad – usually to one of the Greek schools in Athens – to study not only rhetoric and philosophy, but also music, physical education, and mathematics. And from the 1st to 3rd centuries C.E., the Second Sophistic cultural movement promoted the assimilation of Greek and Roman social, educational, and aesthetic values.

Like never before, whether they were writing in Latin or Greek or both, ambitious citizens of Rome were keen not only to become more literate and learned as a patriotic statement of Roman-ness: they also wanted to show off to each other how articulate and erudite they had become. Educated women often became calligraphers or scribes. Indeed an educated wife was an asset to a socially ambitious household, and dinner parties and banquets were opportunities for both sexes to display their intellectual capital.

From grocery lists to scholarly instruction, wax tablets were widely used in the Roman world. They were nothing new, however: they inherited them from the Greeks who had been using them since about the 8th century B.C.E. They were made by pouring molten wax into shallow wooden containers. When it hardened, people were not only able to write on the smooth surface, but they could erase any mistakes with the flat end of the stylus. Also, by re-heating the wax, the tablets could be used again and again. In fact, the phrase ‘clean slate’ is roughly equivalent to tabula rasa, a Latin expression still used in English discourse.  

The tablets were usually bound together in a leather thong, or arranged to fold together, perhaps like a child’s early-learning picture book. Their drawback lay primarily in the fact that they required more dexterity with a stylus (more pressure to combat traction) than for writing with ink on papyrus or parchment, and the user had to lift the stylus in order to change the direction of the stroke. Nevertheless, these folding wax tablets and styli were standard stationery, particularly for the middle classes, and for Roman schoolchildren from well-to-do families.

Wax tablets spread around the Roman Empire and continued to be used right through the Middle Ages and beyond. In fact, fishmongers at the market in Rouen, France, were using them up until the 1860s. Although wax tablets were used by the Romans as a cheap, portable, and re-useable alternative to papyrus, they did not replace it by any means.

Perhaps we can infer from the relief below that the two children on either side of their teacher are being instructed at an elite school, as they are either holding the more expensive papyrus, made from the pith of the papyrus plant, or a parchment scroll. A third student has arrived holding a loculus, a forerunner of the pencil case, which would have contained styli, an ink pot, and a sponge to correct errors. This scene would have been atypical for the vast majority of Roman children. The lack of state education for the young greatly contributed to the low level of literacy among the general populace. Most children would never even get to hold papyrus or parchment, let alone learn to write on one.

The word ‘parchment’ is taken from the French, parchemin, which in turn is derived from the city where the craft was developed in Ancient Greece: Pergamum (now in Turkey). To produce parchment, sheep, calf, and goat skins were soaked in lime, stretched on a rack, and finely shaved to produce a thin, translucent, off-white writing surface. Parchment should not be confused with leather which was also used as a writing material for thousands of years (leather is tanned, not limed). Vellum, a higher grade material, was also manufactured for many centuries. Made primarily from the skin of a calf (or goatskin, occasionally), its name is derived from the word ‘veal.’ Incidentally, some legal and royal documents around the world are still written on vellum today (with quill pens), as they last considerably longer than paper. However, Romans who were unable to afford vellum, papyrus, parchment, or wax tablets found another surface on which they would express themselves.

Latin for  the Masses

The word ‘graffiti’ is derived from the Italian, graffiato, meaning ‘scratched.' Evidence that ordinary townsfolk could write can be found in the messages they scratched and painted onto walls; and their spelling and grammatical mistakes give us general clues as to their level of literacy. 

Some of the best graffiti examples are to be found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Roman cities entombed in ash and lava when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E. Death came very quickly, the volcanic debris preserving humans and animals for eternity, as though they had been turned to stone by Medusa. Unsurprisingly, buildings and walls – including what was scrawled on them – have also been preserved. On the facades of Pompeii’s streets we can read Latin curses, political slogans, magic spells, famous literary quotes, and even amorous declarations of the 'Romeo loves Juliet' variety.

Two examples of Pompeii graffiti could even have been scratched on the toilet door of any modern-day Roman bar: one is the address of Novellia Primigenia, a prostitute who, we are told in rather coarse language, was not only beautiful but also very good at her job; the other is the picture of a phallus with the inscription ‘Handle With Care.’ All these scribbles give us a fascinating insight into Roman street life. But graffiti was not new to Rome: similar messages have been found at excavated sites in Ancient Egypt and Greece.

As the business of governing and trading increased commensurately with the requirements of an expanding empire, there were many administrative centres employing professional scribes, whose skills were much in demand. These men of letters were often paid by illiterate citizens to explain the meaning of official documents they had received (such as tax demands or fines), and then scribe a reply for them if necessary. The practicalities of governing local populations meant that translators and interpreters were also much in demand. Some Roman judges are known to have attempted to ensure that the application of laws and oaths would be comprehensible to Punic (mainly from modern-day Tunisia), Gaulish (large parts of central and western Europe), or Aramaic-speaking peoples from the Middle East, by having the documents announced publicly and/or written in the local vernacular and displayed in town squares.

Roman military posts throughout the empire were required to make and store vast collections of written reports and service records, so papyri, parchment, ink, and styli were essential administrative tools, making their manufacture and distribution a key concern for regional governors and military commanders.

According to military records, an extremely high proportion of soldiers were literate. Many letters from soldiers of various ranks to their families have been preserved, providing some credence to that official claim. They give news concerning events in the legion, as well as requests for money and articles; and some letters record soldiers complaining that they had not received whatever they had previously asked for. The letter below was written in Greek by a young soldier to his father back home in Egypt:


Apion to my father and Lord Epimachos: Many good wishes!

First of all, I hope you are in good health and that things are going well for you and my sister and her daughter and my brother.  I thank the Lord Serapis [an Egyptian god] for saving me when I was in danger at sea.

When I arrived at Misenum [the Roman war harbor, near Naples], I received three gold pieces from the Emperor [Trajan?] as road money, and I’m doing just fine.

Please write me a line, my lord father, about your own well-being, second about that of my brother and sister, and third so that I may devotedly greet your hand, because you brought me up well and I may therefore hope for rapid promotion, the gods willing.

Give my regards to Capiton and my brother and sister and Serenilla [a family slave?] and my friends. I’m sending you my little portrait through Euktemon.

My [new] Roman name is Antonius Maximus.

All my best!                   


From Scrolls to Books

In Roman times, papyrus was no longer being imported wholesale from Egypt: it was being domestically manufactured in officinae (workshops). Several different grades were available, ranging from rough wrapping papyrus to high-quality writing paper suitable for royal documents. The Latin word for ‘scroll’ was volumen (from whence we get the word ‘volume’ in reference to a long book). It means ‘spiral’ or ‘swirl.’

To make a scroll, sheets of papyrus were glued together, often making the text rather lengthy. For example, the Egyptian scrolls which recorded the royal history of Ramses III were over forty metres long. But even standard scrolls in Greece and Rome could be ten meters long or more. The design of the scroll allowed only for sequential usage. This was very inconvenient for anyone looking for a single reference in a text – a task made much easier later with numbered book pages and book marks. Also, as two hands were needed to unravel a scroll, it was difficult to read and write at the same time, and only one side of the paper could be used because the reverse side was exposed to continual handling. One had to be careful when handling papyrus: unlike parchment, which could be sharply creased, papyrus cracked easily when folded.

Even before the Roman Empire emerged, parchment was beginning to overtake papyrus as the quality writing material of choice. And though early book production had begun in Rome during the 1st century B.C.E., the gradual replacement of scrolls in favour of books made from parchment leaves took place between the 2nd and 4th centuries C.E.

The etymology of the old Latin word for ‘book’ – codex – suggests it was derived from much earlier wax tablets, due to the fact that it means ‘block of wood.' Wooden tablets were often made of beech, and the Old German and Norse word for ‘beech’ was bok, hence ‘book.’ The more modern Latin word for a multi-leaved text, however, was libri or liber, often collected and stored in libraria.

Libraries were not a Roman invention, by any means: the Ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt is thought to have contained more than 500,000 texts, collected from all over the known world. Those not purchased by the library were borrowed, copied, and returned. The library at Rhodes is said to have rivalled Alexandria's, and those in Athens and Pergamon also housed extensive collections. However, it was during Roman times that libraries became much more prominent and numerous. Though we do not know how many libraries serviced the greater Roman Empire at its zenith, the fact that by 377 C.E there were 28 libraries in Rome alone gives us an idea regarding the scale of their proliferation. Town squares and city high streets across the empire also became dotted with the increasingly popular tabernae librariae (bookshops).   

Many authors in the Roman era were unhappy with some of the error-ridden copies which bore their names. Due to a lack of copyright laws at this time, writers often had parts of their work plagiarised, or even stolen in their entirety. Copying books became big business for some, and a skilled slave copyist in Rome could have fetched as much as 100,000 sesterces (about the same price as a fine villa on the outskirts of Rome in the 1st century C.E.). Some collectors amassed large personal libraries of copied books to augment their cultured leisure status. 

As the demand for - and supply of - books increased, literature became no longer the domain of the intellectual elite and upper classes. Consumer literature purely for entertainment became more and more popular; readers could now choose from a wide range of topics and genres, including illustrated erotica. Also, tables of contents and indices became commonplace – a standardization which greatly facilitated direct access to information. However, books might not have attained such popularity if it had not been for the introduction of two interconnected developments.

Writing Materials and Styles

As the use of parchment and vellum became more widespread, the quill pen superseded the heavier reed which, in any case, was in short supply having been over-harvested in its natural environment, Egypt. Parchment and vellum were natural companions for the quill: animal skins could be made smooth and velvety (unlike the fibrous papyrus) so the more delicate quill suffered little damage.

Quills were actually the feathers of large birds such as geese or swans. In fact, the word ‘pen’ comes from the Latin for ‘feather’ – penne. The barrel, which could retain a small reservoir of ink, was trimmed short because a long, curved stem would twist in the hand, causing writing errors. The feather’s barbs were also trimmed or stripped from the barrel completely. 

By the 4th century C.E. all these adjustments had contributed to the development of a finer, more user-friendly script known as uncial (‘one inch’), which became the main book hand of Roman and early Christian writings. Over time it largely replaced both quadrata (the square-shaped capital letters habitually chiselled on Roman monuments) and capitalis rustica, a curvier version of quadrata. Although rustic capitals began to fall out of use in the 5th century, they were still used until the 9th century as a display script in titles and headings, with uncial providing the main text. Uncial and the half-uncial script which followed it would survive, in various forms, for hundreds of years after the Roman Empire had come to an end. 

For example, the circa 800 C.E. Book of Kells was written in a hand known as insular majiscule, a variant of uncial which originated in Ireland. As you can see (left), the Irish monks who wrote the Book of Kells left a blank space between each word; they had been doing so since the 7th century, and by the 8th or 9th century this style had become common across Europe.

Perhaps we could not imagine reading un-spaced text nowadays, but scriptio continua was precisely how people had written and read for many centuries before the Irish monks' radical split with tradition. However, hundreds of years before this happened, another radical split would occur: the sun would set on the Western Roman Empire and rise in its eastern counterpart. During this period of tumultous upheaval, when political and religious elites clamoured for control, what was being written was far more important to them than the style of script in which it was being recorded.

The Christian Influence

The Latin word ‘papyrus’ (from which ‘paper’ is derived) came from the Greek, papuros. However, the Greeks used this word for the plant-based foodstuff; for non-foodstuffs such as cord, baskets, and writing surfaces, they used the word bublos, reportedly after the Phoenician city of Byblos from whence papyrus was exported to Greece. This is the source of both ‘Bible’ (‘The Book’) and ta biblia (‘the books’) - the term used to collectively describe the Old and New Testaments. In fact, Koine (common) Greek was the language into which the New Testament was first translated.

However, when Christianity became the official Roman religion in 313 C.E., and ‘the books’ were subsequently translated into Latin by Jerome, they were sent to the furthest reaches of the empire. Christianity was seen by some – not least Emperor Constantine the Great (reigned: 306-337 C.E.) – to be not only the saviour of mankind, but a very useful strategic asset in preventing the Roman Empire from disintegrating entirely. 

Emperor Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, would turn his back on Rome itself, and build a new imperial capital in the city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople (now Istanbul). Unlike Rome, Constantinople would be built with an overtly Christian architectural mandate. The Church would be given vast lands and become very wealthy under Constantine; a privileged position which the Church Fathers in Rome and Constantinople would be unlikely to relinquish without a struggle.

One way to ensure that power, control, wealth and privilege remained in Church hands was to restrict the people’s access to information through literary censorship. In effect, the Church would now decide what people could read and who could read it. Those writing, distributing, or even reading texts which the authorities viewed as seditious would be persecuted for the following millennium and beyond.

Mass book-burnings were not uncommon. Popular libraries and book shops in Europe went into decline, as did secular reading and writing in general. Copyists were still very much in demand, though they were not slaves writing out the great works of Classical Greek and Latin literature anymore: they were monks and other members of the clergy. Their task was simple: ‘copy out these religious texts we have deemed appropriate, and help them to be communicated to the masses as sacred knowledge and instruction.’ This would remain the mandate of ecclesiastical scribes and priests for another thousand years. However, Western civilisation owes a huge debt to some of the early monks for making copies of – and safekeeping – many ancient secular Latin texts, against the demands of some of the more authoritarian Church Fathers.

However, from the 8th century C.E. eradicating secular literature was not the Byzantine elites' most serious concern: an existential threat from the East was knocking on their doors.

The Islamic Golden Age

The Abbasid Caliphate, which dominated the Islamic world from 750 C.E. unil the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 C.E., would be instrumental in uniting the warring Arab tribes into a powerful empire. However, territorial conquests and the spread of Islam were not the only tasks on their agenda: in the coming centuries Arabic and Persian (now Farsi) would overshadow Greek and Latin as the languages of scholarship and literature.

The importance of knowledge to the Abbasids is attested to by one particular traditional Qur’anic saying, or hadith: ‘The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr.’ An institution known as the House of Wisdom was established in Baghdad, where both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars sought to translate the world’s existing knowledge into Arabic. Tragically, the contents of the House of Wisdom - and other libraries in Baghdad - would be thrown into the Tigris when the Mongols invaded. The river was said to have run black with ink for six months.

The Abbasid scholars were renowned for being almost obsessed with gathering information and knowledge from the territories their armies had overrun, and from other places with which they had merely traded. They assimilated, synthesized, and significantly advanced some of the most important scientific and literary achievements of peoples as diverse as the Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Indians, Persians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Byzantines.

It is believed that many of the greatest works of western literature could have been lost forever if they had not been translated into Arabic and Persian (and then later re-translated into Turkish, Hebrew, and Latin). 

In common with most other scripts used today, the Arabic alphabet can trace its ancestry to Phoenician writing, though it is thought to most closely resemble the Nabataean variation of the Aramaic alphabet. (The Nabataeans were an ancient people who once lived in the borderland between Arabia and Syria.)

One reason for memorizing the Qur’an (a practice which exists to this day) is thought to have been due to a lack of books in the early Islamic world. However, as supply began to catch up with demand, the Abbasid scholars realised that the words of the Prophet Muhammad and the fruits of the scribes' labours could be enjoyed by an even greater number of households if a less ambiguous, more universally comprehensible Arabic script was developed. One of the scholars' most important developments was the addition of dots to some letters in order to differentiate between Classical Arabic’s 28 phonemes (sounds). Though this adjustment did not become obligatory until much later - and regional variations persisted for centuries - a more user-friendly Arabic script had been born.

Perhaps the main impetus for the spread of Arabic literature was the arrival of paper from China in the 8th century. It would not be until the 10th century that paper would arrive in Spain, and from there it slowly spread to the rest of Europe. The Arabs learned how to produce it domestically, and immediately realised it was much easier to manufacture than parchment, less fragile than papyrus, as well as being absorbent and easy to write on. Copyists got to work and produced more volumes and editions of a greater variety of books than would be seen in Europe for many centuries to come.   

The paper revolution and a more comprehensible script combined to create a boom in Arabic literature and literacy. Mothers and fathers, in general, took great pains to educate their children, and this parent-driven cultural approach has to take some of the credit for literacy rates being higher in the Islamic Golden Age than at any time since Classical Athens in the 4th century B.C.E. The high literacy rate was also great news for budding authors, many of whom began to make a good living from their craft. 

In addition, a great deal of public money was provided by the government for translations and scholarly pursuits in general. And by the 10th century the famous library of Tripoli, in modern-day Lebanon, is said to have housed as many as 3 million books; and many other libraries across the Arab world housed sizeable collections.

Middle Age Europe

While Arab schoolchildren were reading an array of Arabic folk tales, as well as the Qur’an, it has been suggested that the whole of Europe was wallowing in The Dark Ages (the traditional characterization of a period from roughly the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century C.E. to the 13th century, during which the collective cultural and literary output in the region was relatively limited). However, while many historians have suggested that The Dark Ages spanned only the Early Middle Ages (5th – 10th centuries), others avoid the term completely, viewing it as not only pejorative, but also inaccurate and misleading. One of the points the Dark Age deniers make is that under the patronage of Charlemagne, European scholarship and culture began a general renaissance. 

On Christmas Day 800 C.E., Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne (Charles I / Charles the Great) as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In effect, though, it was a loose political federation of central European principalities, duchies, counties, and Free Imperial Cities, over which Charlemagne had limited political powers. Voltaire would remark many centuries later that the so-called ‘Holy Roman Empire’ was, in reality, neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire!  

Although Charlemagne was never fully literate himself, he recognized the importance – to the business of ruling – of literacy and having a uniform script which people could actually read. A severe lack of Latin literacy had led to a very limited number of court scribes. Even more worrying for Charlemagne was the fact that not all parish priests could actually read the Bible. And some not fully-literate monks had made several errors when translating or copying texts, which had only compounded the confusion. Even those who were capable of translating or copying religious texts accurately were not necessarily writing in a script which others in another part of the empire could understand. And the fact that the Romance languages themselves were becoming mutually unintelligible also prevented clergymen in different regions from communicating, in particular regard to their common stated purpose: the moral regeneration of society via the word of god.

In an effort to address these serious issues Charlemagne summoned the leading scholars in Christendom. He gave them responsibilities for improving clerical education, first and foremost in Latin literacy. However, for the history of writing, his most important contribution was the creation of the Carolingian miniscule script, mainly under the influence of one of Charlemagne’s chief advisors, Alcuin of York. Efforts had already been underway to standardize the widely varying Franco-German writing styles which had sprung up over time. However, Carolingian miniscule (essentially a hybrid of early Roman half-uncials and their cursive forms, along with features of the insular scripts used by English and Irish monks) became the European calligraphic standard, and would remain so for centuries after Charlemagne’s death.

Local and regional handwriting variations did persist, however, in areas such as Britain where imperial influence was weakest. But even in Britain, Carolingian miniscule managed to make a significant impact. Its rounded, clear, lower-case lettering (for the main text) and neat word spacing enabled literacy levels, at least among the clergy and ruling classes, to improve considerably. It was the most important landmark in the history of writing since the standardization of the Roman alphabet. From then on, all the elements of modern writing were in place; subsequent modifications were largely fashionable or practical, rather than structural.

The standardization of Latin, which Charlemagne also introduced with the assistance of his court-appointed scholars, allowed for the recognition of many new Latin words within the grammatical framework of Classical Latin. This enabled not only clerics, but also administrators and traveling merchants to make themselves understood to a greater extent than had been possible for centuries. 

Though posterity recognizes the work some of the early Christian monks, Western civilisation owes an ever greater debt to the Carolingian Renaissance: most of our classical literature, including many ancient Roman texts – both religious and secular – comes from often elaborately decorated copies produced in the scriptoria (monastic writing rooms) of Middle Age Europe. Indeed 7000 manuscripts and books written in Carolingian script survive from the 8th and 9th centuries alone.

In 11th and 12th century France, Britain, and Germany, the style of writing became increasingly compressed and fractured, forming an extremely dense matter on the page. It was known as Black Lettering or Gothic script. ('Goth' was a pejorative term derived from the Roman characterisation of the ancient Germanic Goth tribe as uncultured Barbarians, and later applied by Renaissance scholars to this style of writing, which they deemed outrageously inelegant.) Gothic script was used continuously in many parts of Europe from around 1150 to well into the 17th century, and it was the main German script up until the 20th century. As un-aesthetically pleasing as it may have been to some, Black Letter script was mainly the result of scribes attempting to write more quickly. The compressed text also took up less space on the page, saving scribes money on parchment and (later) paper.

From the 14th century onwards the Renaissance spurred a growing demand for secular texts. In schools and universities across Europe, the writings of philosophers and scientists were becoming increasingly popular, along with books on mathematics, astronomy, and music. A literary interest in poetry and story-telling had also begun to blossom. Clerics and monks were now joined by a growing number of secular scribes, and the business of making books flourished. However, two technical developments would enable more books to be created than ever before.

Paper and Printing

Though it has often been suggested that paper was brought to Europe from China via the Silk Roads in the 12th century, it was, in fact, being domestically manufactured in Muslim-controlled Spain and Portugal as early as the 10th century. As previously mentioned, the Arabs brought back paper and its production secrets from China (reportedly via two Chinese prisoners) in the 8th century.

Though the evidence is not conclusive, it is generally believed that water-powered paper mills were a European invention: the Chinese had traditionally made paper by manually pounding the raw material with pestles, while the Arabs had relied upon both human and animal labour to grind the fibres using a heavy tool called a 'trip hammer' (the Chinese adopted this production method later).

The Arabs seem to have been able to produce paper at a relatively low cost, and books, naturally, proliferated. In the 12th century, for example, one street in Marrakech, Morocco, contained 100 bookshops. And a Persian traveller in Cairo in 1035 mentioned vegetable sellers even wrapping their customers’ purchases in paper to take home.

With regard to the production of low-cost paper and books – among many other things – Europeans had a lot of catching up to do, and, over time, they did. From the Iberian Peninsula paper mills gradually spread throughout Europe. In late 13th century Italy, paper-making centres began to multiply, reducing the price of paper to one sixth that of parchment. Books were still unaffordable for most, though, because of the number of pages they contained, the labour of the scribe, and cost of the book-binding materials.

Paper in the Middle Ages was not made from wood but from the linen, cotton, and hemp fibres of recycled textile materials known as ‘rags,’ whose supply could fluctuate, leading to shortages and increased paper prices at times. It was not until the steam-powered wood-pulp paper mills of the 19th century emerged that paper became an affordable commodity for the less well-off.

It is interesting to note that due to their noise and smell, paper mills were often required by medieval law to be erected some distance from the city walls. The first paper mill north of the Alps to be subject to this law was in Nuremburg, Germany. And it was here, in Germany, about fifty years later, that a man would invent a mechanical, moveable type printing machine: his name was Johannes Gutenberg.


His machine – along with the oil-based ink he developed – would begin the Printing Revolution, and play a key role in the development of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution. It would also provide the material basis for the knowledge-based economy and the spread of literacy to the masses.

For printers and readers alike, books became economically viable products for the first time in Europe. And with more and more people beginning to read an ever-expanding source of material, including the radical ideas of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others (which would be partly responsible for the Protestant Reformation), the traditional power of the religious and political elites of Europe would come under sustained pressure. And it was not only the Protestants who threatened the status quo, but the increasingly prominent middle classes too. Heightened self-awareness in society through reading and education in general would transform Europe – and the rest of the world, in time – as the number of new books printed in each country’s vernacular began to render Latin obsolete as the language of books. The number of libraries in Europe expanded dramatically, as did their inventories.

It was not long before those who clamoured for a new, modern Europe would realize the potential of the printing machine in expediting the process of transformation, not only through the widespread dissemination of books, but via broadsheets, pamphlets, and newspapers too. The proliferation of the written word through print media would rise exponentially over the centuries to the extent that they would largely usurp books as the vehicle through which the masses would gain access to information. Ballads and satirical cartoons were joined by articles which covered a broad spectrum of public interest events, all vying for space with advertisements.

The power of the newspaper editor would prove to be phenomenal: governments and politicians could rise or fall in an instant, and wars could be supported or resisted, depending on the stories and headlines printed. Not until the invention of the radio, television, and later, the Internet, would newspapers have a worthy rival.

However, newspapers are still a very influential source of news information today, and the staggering impact they have had on society cannot be underestimated. This power originated with the invention of the printing press. The word ‘press’ to describe the print media and its digital descendent comes from Gutenberg’s method of pressing a moveable typeface onto paper sheets. And the ingenious German’s machine would have an immense impact on one traditionally highly valued occupation in particular: the ancient craft of the scribe.

Writing Developments in the Post-Printing Age

Whereas people were able to read an ever-increasing supply of written material due to the revolutionary developments in printing and paper production, the situation for those who wanted not to publish but simply to write their diary or compose a letter to a friend had not changed much. The quills and ink they had always used were largely unchanged. But writing styles, on the other hand, were constantly evolving.

In 15th century Italy new styles of writing were developed, which became known as Humanist scripts because they were associated with scholarship and science. Florentine scribes, such as Poggio Bacciolini, reverted to the original form of Carolingian miniscule, and another scribe, Niccolo Niccoli, produced an angular hand from the Gothic cursive which became the basis of the modern Italic script. Both men returned to Classical Roman forms for their capital letters. Incidentally, scholars and scribes of the time mistook the much more modern Carolingian miniscule as having originated in Classical Rome. Nevertheless, the rediscovered script was passed on to influential 15th and 16th century book printers, such as Aldus Manutius of Venice, and in this way it became the basis of the lowercase typefaces we use today.

Printing spread rapidly throughout Europe in the second half of the 15th century, but there was still a demand for handwritten manuscripts. The Vatican, understandably nervous about the proliferation of unsanctioned material being printed in large quantities, continued to employ scribes at its Chancery (medieval writing office) who developed a script known as Cancellaresca Corsiva (Chancery Cursive). Scribes all over Europe began producing single or limited copies of their work and developing ever more ornate writing styles, perhaps hoping to retain a certain level of prestige in the eyes of the more traditionally minded. 

However, as competition grew, many scribes became unemployed. Those at the top of their field, though, were unwilling to give up without a fight. In 1522, a Venetian, Ludovico degli’ Arrighi, published a printed book of writing samples, Operina, followed by a manual of several scripts including cursive Black Letter, Roman and Italic forms. The printed copy-book became very fashionable, not only in Italy but also in Germany, France, Spain, and Britain. Many European writing masters took up the idea of using it as a teaching resource; essentially it became a calligraphy textbook. As a direct result of this book’s publication, Humanist scripts spread out across Europe. The Chancery hand, for example, was favoured in Tudor England and was officially adopted by Queen Elizabeth I.

As the years went by, the writing masters, who published work and tried to attract individual patrons, were conscious of their increasingly precarious position, and the rivalry between them grew fierce. Due to their shrinking and highly competitive occupation, late medieval scribes focused on developing ever more elaborate and eye-catching forms, as self-advertisement. The pure functionalism of medieval and Renaissance scripts became obscured in the extraordinary flourishings of the copy-book styles.

Perhaps these stylistic advances were detrimental to the development of writing among ordinary people, who surely lacked the dexterity which fancy modern writing behoved. Indeed we can see from some of the writing samples which have survived from this period that not everyone got the hang of it.


At this juncture we should, perhaps, spare a thought for the relatively small percentage of us who have struggled more than others through the ages to produce a fine hand, due not to any dextral dysfunction but resulting from an arbitrary decision taken by the Greeks which became a European cultural norm: writing from left to right.

Historically, left-handers have not only been at an inherent disadvantage when writing – it is much worse than that: they have been accused of being possessed by the devil. People still throw salt over their left shoulder because that is where the devil was thought to reside. It is intuitive to suppose that Leonardo da Vinci (incidentally, a left-hander) had this in mind when he decided upon the position of the apparently female figure (possibly Mary Magdalene) in the centre of Last Supper. (The figures to her right are looking at her over their left shoulders.)

And the vilification of left-handers goes way back: the Bible has over 100 positive references to the right side but 25 negative ones for the left. It is not a coincidence that the word ‘right’ also means ‘correct’ or ‘proper.’ Moreover, the Latin word sinistra originally meant ‘left’ but had taken on the connotation ‘evil’ or ‘unlucky’ by the Classical Latin era; and over the centuries 'sinister' came to mean ‘threatening’ and ‘malicious.’ In addition, ‘dexterous’ came to mean ‘skillful’ or ‘clever’ in the 17th century, especially with regard to the use of the hands, but the Latin word dexter originally meant ‘on the right hand.’

Over the centuries some lefties have had their preferred hand tied behind their backs to force them to conform, while others have been accused of practicing witchcraft. And whether or not some historical public enemies such as Joan of Arc were gauche was probably not important to faithfully discern; the hand with which they were said to write, conveniently added to the prosecution’s case.

It is interesting to note that some cultures very far from Europe still discourage lefties from writing with their naturally favoured hand. The intricate stroke patterns of Japanese and Chinese scripts are designed for right-handers. When first teaching in Japan I was surprised to see perhaps only one or two left-handed writers in a class of forty or more; sometimes there were none at all. This is not to say that there are fewer left-handed people in the Orient. I knew many people who performed most routine tasks with their left hands – except writing – due to the influence of their parents and teachers from an early age. I suspect that social conformity has a lot to do with this cultural norm in Japan, rather than it being solely a practical solution to the particular technical requirements of their writing system.

Back in late Middle Age Europe, the complicated stylistic demands of the new elaborate scripts, combined with the intrinsic dynamics of quill penmanship, would surely have made life even more difficult for left-handers. However, the invention of a new writing implement may well have cheered them up: the pencil had arrived. 

New Stationery and Machines

The word ‘pencil’ is derived from the Latin, pencillus. It meant ‘little tail,’ in reference to the small ink brushes used for some forms of writing in the Middle Ages. Still erroneously believed to be made of lead, the core of a pencil is actually made from a form of carbon: graphite (from the Greek, graphein, meaning ‘to write’). It was first discovered in Bavaria in the 15th century, though, on the other side of the world the Aztecs may well have beaten them to it. Later, in 1564, large graphite deposits were discovered near Keswick in the Lake District, England, where a major pencil manufacturing industry would later emerge in the 19th century. But as this artefact (right) attests, British people had been using hand-made pencils for at least two centuries before they were industrially mass-produced.

The first modern pencil was actually invented in 1795 by a Frenchman, Nicolas Jacques Conte, by roasting a water-softened mixture of clay and graphite in a kiln, before encasing it in a wooden surround. He developed a range of products; the most popular was hexagonal in shape, designed originally so that it would not roll off a carpenter’s bench and shatter the graphite core. They became essential tools for artists and draftsmen, but the rounded tip of the pencil made it easier for the layman to scribe and, though its contribution to the growth of literacy is impossible to quantify, it surely made a significant impact.

Just like the quill, pencils could be sharpened with a ‘pen-knife' but, unlike ink, graphite could be easily erased when one of the remarkable properties of rubber was discovered in 1770 by an English engineer, Edward Naime. Before this, it is said that people used breadcrumbs to erase the mistakes they had made. However, just like food, rubber – being a plant – rotted quickly. It was not until 1839 that Charles Goodyear invented a way to cure rubber to increase its durability. He named the curing process ‘Vulcanization’ after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Perhaps the invention of the rubber ('eraser' in American English) would seem a relatively minor development in the history of writing, but their value is surely not lost on millions of schoolchildren learning their letters.

We should not forget the pencil’s much older sibling either: the pen. A copper nib found in the ruins of Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79 B.C.E., attests to the age of this writing technology. Also, a 953 C.E. reference to the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt using what we may infer from its description to be a fountain pen, and an entry in the Diary of Samuel Pepys in 1663, which recorded ‘a silver pen to carry ink in’ should lead us to surmise that the ‘new invented’ metal pen being advertised in The Times in 1792 was not new at all.

Nevertheless, the mass-production of metal-nibbed ‘dipping pens’ began in Birmingham in 1822, followed later by stronger steel-nibbed versions which came into generalized use. A patent for a new fountain pen was granted to the French government in 1827, and they also became widely used in following decades. The other two major pen inventions to come along were the ballpoint pen, patented by a Hungarian newspaper editor, László Bíró, in 1938 (though it was based on an 1888 design patented by John. J. Loud), and the felt-tipped pen, a product invented in the 1960s by Yukie Horie of the Tokyo Stationery Company. Marker pens and highlighters are derivatives of the earlier felt-tipped pen.

All this new stationery has proved to be convenient and accessible to all, contributing to the spread of literacy throughout the modern era. One casualty, however, has been the tradition of European penmanship. In the late Victorian era a revival of medieval writing was instigated in England by William Morris, and then continued by Edward Johnston, both of whom took the trouble to study old manuscripts in order to rediscover the proper techniques of their design and execution. However, men like these were competing not only against the increasingly sophisticated printing machines, but also against modern typewriters. 

The Industrial Revolution’s motto of ‘speed and efficiency’ would be exemplified by these machines. And by the mid 19th century, stenographers and telegraphers were capable of typing as many as 130 words per minute, compared to around 30 words by hand. It was impossible for traditional writing to keep up with typing technology. Then, a hundred years or so later, computers would come along and replace typewriters almost overnight. Incidentally, in the wake of the NSA e-mail spying scandal, the Indian High Commission in London has raised concerns regarding confidential information which they fear might be being accessed by foreign intelligence agencies. They have solved the problem by reverting to typewriters when composing sensitive documents.



Calligraphy – as a cultural pastime – is arguably making a tentative comeback. However, as a taught subject at schools in the West, it has long since fallen by the wayside, presumably because it is not considered to be a useful scholarly pursuit in comparison to other subjects. However, some countries around the world still value writing as an essential skill; in Japan, for example, calligraphy is a core subject at primary school, and a popular elective course and club activity in junior and senior schools.

Nevertheless, as schools worldwide become increasingly computerised, it is surely not too far-fetched to imagine a high-tech education system in the decades to come which renders pens, paper, and textbooks utterly obsolete. Many adults too – including some friends of mine – who once learned cursive longhand at school, have forgotten how to write ‘properly.’ Perhaps when signing a check or credit card receipt is the only time many people need to pick up a pen nowadays. And with billions of imperceptibly time-delayed messages now being sent across the globe every day, it is intuitive that the number of handwritten letters sent to friends and family will continue to decline, year-on-year. Even the e-birthday card market is giving its paper forbear a run for its money.

The written word – the original way in which humans externalised information – has come a long way since the days of bone scratching and cuneiform clay tablets. Whether modern ‘textspeak’ should be characterised as a progression or a regression is a very subjective call. Whatever my own opinion on this might be, I have to face facts: if I sent a text message to my fourteen-year-old niece, saying: ‘Thank you. Oh my god! I ate too much in Starbucks! Are you going to see your mates at the weekend? What’s for dinner tonight? Talk to you later. Kisses’, the textspeak equivalent of: ‘thx OMG! i 8 2 mch in *$! r u gonna c yr m8s @ w/e? wut 4 dina 2nite? ttyl xx’ would be equally comprehensible to her – and certainly more familiar.

However, perhaps textspeak is simply a transitional phase preceding an even more radical 'brave new world’ – one which most of us might struggle to envisage. The growth of multimedia literacy is regarded by many rational cultural observers – in addition to science fiction writers – as the first step towards a post-literate society, in which the ability to read or write is no longer necessary or common. 

Whether such a scenario is merely the product of exaggerated hypothetical musings or not remains to be seen. Perhaps those of us who still value the written word should rediscover, practice, and develop our penmanship skills - and encourage our children to do the same. After all, if we do not all make an effort, we will end up lamenting the personal and collective loss of something very ancient and very special: the art of writing itself.

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