We all know about the social and even theological impact of the printing press. However, few people appreciate that the practice of putting spaces between words was almost as revolutionary.
When homo sapiens first began to move from pictorial symbols to an alphabetic text in the 8th century BC, writing was simply an adjunct of speech. Since we do not pause between each word when speaking, it simply never occurred to our ancestors to put spaces between their written words. They were simply transcribing what they heard. A corollary to this was that silent reading remained a relative anomaly.
In his Confessions, Saint Augustine was surprised to stumble upon Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading silently.
“When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”
When reading a text without word separation, it is extremely difficult to get the sense of what is being communicated apart from actually hearing it. (This would have been even more the case for civilizations such as the Jews since the original Hebrew manuscripts not only left out spaces between the words, but all the vowels as well.) In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr explained something of what the process of reading would have involved prior to the advent of word separation:
“Readers’ eyes had to move slowly and haltingly across the lines of text, pausing frequently and often backing up to the start of a sentence, as their minds struggled to figure out where one word ended and a new one began and what role each word was playing in the meaning of the sentence… The slow, cognitively intensive parsing of text made the reading of books laborious. It was also the reason no one, other than the odd case like Ambrose, read silently. Sounding out the syllables was crucial to deciphering the writing. Those constraints, which would seem intolerable to us today, didn’t matter much in a culture still rooted in orality.” Carr, The Shallows, 61-62.
The necessity of reading aloud helped to keep reading a communal act. While people certainly did read audibly to themselves, or mumble quietly, the fact that text was normally spoken helped to keep reading a public activity done in concert with others. This, in turn, affected how people wrote. Authors wrote with the expectation that their works would be read aloud, normally within social contexts involving discussion. The expectation of discussion created boundaries to what people were willing to write.
It was monks living in Ireland and Scotland in the 7th century who first came up with the concept of word separation, in order to ease the cognitive burden of reading Latin for those Celts for whom Latin was not a native tongue. It was not be until the 11th century, however, that the practice became widespread on the continent. When that did occur it ushered in one of the key landmarks in the history of the codex: the era of silent reading. Word separation essentially did to the book what the gramophone did to music. Just as the gramophone allowed for private listening, so word separation allowed for private reading. While reading remained a communal affair throughout the Middle Ages and even afterwards, it was no longer exclusively so. The advent of silent reading allowed literature to take on a more personal and intimate role, while readers and writers alike became more adventurous. In his fascinating book Space Between Words, Paul Saenger writes that
reception by the reader….Already in the eleventh century, heresy was linked to solitary intellectual curiosity and speculation….Reading with the eyes alone and silent, written composition removed the individual’s thoughts from the sanctions of the group, and fostered the milieu in which the new university and lay heresies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries flourished. These heresies spread by the privately read tractatus. Alone in his study, the author, whether a well-known professor or an obscure student, could compose or read heterodox ideas without being overheard.” Saenger, Space Between Words, 264.
Paul Saenger has also gathered an impressive array of evidence to suggest that word separation may have played a central role in the rise of mysticism in the late Middle Ages, which was itself antecedent to the neo-Augustinianism of the reformers as they stressed the primacy of the individual’s vertical relationship with God. To quote again from Saenge:
“Private, silent reading in the vernacular gave lay readers the means of pursuing the individual relationship to God that had been the aspiration of erudite Christians since Saint Augustine…. Scores of…religious texts, including translations and original compositions, stressed the importance of reading, vision and silence in achieving spiritual solace. In the prologue to his Vie de Christ, Jean Mansel declared that the spoken word is fleeting, while the written word endures, and he called upon knights and princes disposed to devotion for the profit of their souls “to see” (voir) the content of his book. Proceeding from the reading of the life of Christ, Mansel urged each person to meditate using the “eyes of his contemplation.”… Peter of Luxembourg stressed the need for private prayer and silent study. Ludolf of Saxony’s Life of Christ, translated for Louis of Bruges, advocated the solitary reading of Scripture as a principal element of the contemplative life. Through the translation, the author now advised pious laymen to place before their eyes the deeds and words of Christ. Books of hours, produced in increasing number for lay readers, were tailored to serve the need for individualized spiritual experience…. Isolated, private reading and prayer as the pathway to salvation, in turn, may have fostered insecurities about the worthiness of each individual’s faith and devotion and stimulate zeal for religious reform. The reformed mendicant orders of the fifteenth century found their strongest supports among the urban merchants and the aristocratic families, who silently read vernacular religious manuscript books. Three generations later, many scions of these same families would become the supports of John Calvin. On the eve of the Protestant Reformation, the mode of the dissemination of ideas had been so revolutionized that lay readers, like university scholastics, could formulate dissenting views in private and communicate them in secret…. The printing press would play an important role in the ultimate triumph of Protestantism, but the formulation of reformist religious and political ideas and the receptivity of Europe’s elite to making private judgments on matters of conscience owed much to a long evolution that began in the late seventh century and culminated in the fifteenth century in the manner in which men and women read and wrote. This enhanced privacy represented the consummation of the development of separated writing and constituted a crucial aspect of the modern world.”
One of the factors propelling the reformation itself may have been this shift, and the greater autonomy that word separation allowed readers to possess as they shifted from being hearers of the Word to readers of the Word.
Stephen Joel Garver explained as the subtle difference between hearing a text vs. ‘reading’ it. “Hearing suggests a posture of attentiveness, a hearkening that is tied to sounds that enter into the mind unwilled and therefore call for reaction and submission, placing the hearer at the text’s disposal. Reading, on the other hand, requires a choice to look, a gaze that places the reader above the text, controlling how that text is divided and appropriated, placing the text at the disposal of the reader.” Stephen Joel Garver, “Inventing ‘The Bible’: Revelation, Theology, Phenomenon’.
From the King James Bible to the i-pad (Part 3)
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