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9 Handy Facts About the History of Handwriting

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While today we can get machines to write for us, for most of human history, writing was a manual endeavor. And there are people who are super passionate about keeping it that way. Some schools are building handwriting requirements into their curriculum, although even the positive research results on the benefits of handwriting over typing aren’t big enough to be super conclusive, and some studies find that cursive, in particular, probably isn’t any better than other methods of putting words to paper. But handwriting has a long and storied tradition in human history, and if only for that reason, it’s not going away anytime soon. Here are nine facts about handwriting through the ages, courtesy of Anne Trubek’s recently published book The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting.

1. THE WORLD'S FIRST WRITING SYSTEM WAS TINY.

Cuneiform, the Sumerian writing system that emerged from Mesopotamia 5000 years ago, was usually etched into clay tablets that were often only a few inches wide. Trubek describes most of the Cuneiform tablets she handled at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York as being only half the size of her iPhone (though who knows if she has a 5 or a 6S). "Find the second portrait of Lincoln on the penny," a Morgan Library curator told her. "You know, the one of his statue inside the Lincoln Memorial on the obverse? That’s how small the script can be."

2. MEDIEVAL WRITING WAS REGIONAL.

A 12th century Austrian manuscript. Walters Art Museum via Flickr // Public Domain

After the fall of the Roman Empire, different scripts developed regionally as writers embellished and tweaked existing systems to create their own styles. However, this made books a little hard to read for those not educated in that exact script. All books were written in Latin, but the letters were so different that many scribes couldn’t read writing from other regions.

3. THERE IS AN ENTIRE FIELD DEVOTED TO READING HANDWRITING.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t decipher other people’s writing easily. "The truth is, most of us already cannot read 99 percent of the historic record," Trubek writes. Paleographers study for years to specialize in particular scripts used in a certain time and certain context, such as medieval book scripts or 18th century legal documents. "In other words," Trubek points out, "even someone whose life work is dedicated to reading cursive cannot read most cursive."

4. CHARLEMAGNE WAS A STICKLER FOR HANDWRITING.

The emperor—who was largely illiterate himself—decreed in the 9th century that the same script be used across the Holy Roman Empire, an area that covered most of Western Europe. Called Carolingian minuscule, the uniform script dominated writing in France, Germany, Northern Italy, and England until the 11th century. The Gothic script we associate with medieval times today is a derivation of Carolingian minuscule that popped up during the 12th century. It was later revived in the 15th century, and became the basis for Western typography.

5. MONKS WERE NOT FANS OF PRINTING PRESSES.

Reading a first proof-sheet from a printing press in Westminster Abbey, March 1474. Getty

The 15th century monk Johannes Trithemius defended the need for handwriting in his essay "In Praise of Scribes." He claimed that while scripture could last a thousand years, the printed book was "thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely." Printing would make books unsightly and introduce spelling errors, and he predicted that history would judge "the manuscript book superior to the printed book." It had nothing to do with him losing his once-steady job to a machine, no. Indeed, Martin Luther complained of books much like people today complain about the quality of writing online, saying "the multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this form of writing."

6. THE FIRST FONT WAS VERY SCRIPT-LIKE.

The first printed books were designed to look a whole lot like the manuscripts of that day, so as not to shock people with newfangled design. Johannes Gutenberg and his hired craftsmen hand-carved an elaborate Gothic script into 290 unique characters for the printing press, allowing the printer to recreate every letter in upper- and lowercase, as well as punctuation, so that the type looked just like what a scribe would make. The first letters of every section were even red, just like manuscript style dictated.

7. HISTORICALLY, HANDWRITING PROFESSIONALS WERE QUITE UPWARDLY MOBILE.

Circa 1450, a medieval master writing with quill and parchment in his study. Getty

When printing put scribes out of work, they instead became teachers, tutoring and writing books on penmanship. These writing masters became wealthy professionals in a way that they had never been as simple scribes. When businesses and governments began hiring secretaries for the first time, who would take dictation and have a working knowledge of several different scripts, it became an unusually effective way to rise up the class ranks in medieval Europe. The papal secretary was the highest position a commoner could occupy in society.

8. IN THE 17TH CENTURY, HANDWRITING WAS PERSONALLY REVEALING

In the 16th and 17th centuries, different scripts became more than just a sign of where you learned. Specific scripts were established for classes and professions, and even for gender. Wealthy Europeans would use one script for their personal correspondence and another for their legal and business correspondence. A whole host of scripts in England were developed just for court use, making many documents completely illegible to anyone not trained in that specific style of writing.

9. PUNCTUATION WAS RARE UNTIL THE 18TH CENTURY.

Before literacy became widespread, spelling varied widely from person to person, and nothing was standardized. It became uniform over time, and the first dictionaries weren’t published until the 17th century. Even then, standardized spelling didn’t become regular for another century. Punctuation was even worse, remaining "largely nonexistent or nonstandardized," according to Trubek, until the 18th century.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain
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The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Media Specialist, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible.

But then bondmaid went missing. “Its slips had fallen down behind some books, and the editors had never noticed that it was gone,” writes Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything. When the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, bondmaid wasn’t there. (That volume of the OED does miss other words, but those exclusions were deliberate matters of editorial policy—bondmaid is the only word that the editors are known to have physically lost.)

When the slips were later rediscovered in the Scriptorium, Murray reportedly turned red with embarrassment. By 1901, some 14 years after the exclusion, he was still reeling over the mistake in a draft of a letter addressed to an anonymous contributor: “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission. The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable, and with our minute organization one would have said absolutely impossible; I hope also absolutely unparalleled.”

All was not lost for the lost word, however. In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.

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Rent an Incredible Harry Potter-Themed Apartment in the City Where the Series Was Born
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The Muggle city of Edinburgh has deep ties to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling wrote much of the book series while living there, and there’s even a pub in Edinburgh that named itself after the author for a month. Now, fans passing through the Scottish capital have the chance to live like their favorite boy wizard. As Digital Spy reports, a Harry Potter-themed holiday home in the city’s historic district is now available to rent for around $200 (£150) a night.

Property owner Yue Gao used her own knowledge as a fan when decorating the apartment. With red and yellow accents, a four-poster bed, and floating candles adorning the wallpaper on the ceiling, the master bedroom pays tribute to both the Gryffindor dormitory and the Hogwarts Great Hall. The Hogwarts theme extends to the lounge area, where each door is painted with a different house’s colors and crest. Guests will also find design aspects inspired by the Hogwarts Express around the apartment: The second bedroom is designed to look like a sleeping car, and the front door is disguised as the brick wall at Platform 9 3/4.

Pieces of Harry Potter memorabilia Gao has picked up in her travels are hidden throughout the home, too. If visitors look closely, they’ll find several items that once belonged to Rowling herself, including the writer’s old desk.

Take a look at some of the photos of the magical interiors:

The apartment is available to rent throughout the year through canongateluxuryapartment.co.uk. And if you can tear yourself away from the residence for long enough, there are plenty of other Harry Potter-themed attractions to check out in Edinburgh during your stay.

[h/t Digital Spy]

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