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Panat Times

Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Paul Saenger's "Space between Words"

Reviewed in 1998

Fournier and Le Bras remark that the only innovation in religious practice attributable to Western Europeans was (is) the penitential, and this from the Early Church in Ireland.

Now Paul Saenger comes along with Space between Words; the Origins of Silent Reading (Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 1997), 480 pages, and claims that it was in the Early Church in Ireland that the placing of spaces between words in the Western World first developed. Possibly as a result of wishing to make what is called reading a more efficient practice, yielding greater clarity and comprehension, Irish monks, and soon the Anglo-Saxon confreres at Sherborne, for example, first put dots between words, and then spaces. Influence from Syriac practice directly from early texts transported to Ireland, there might have been, and ancient Hebrew word-spaced manuscripts clearly influenced these, but still, it was the periphery of Early Medieval culture that became the center for this important innovation. Their missionary activities are well known, but less well known is the diffusion of word spacing that accompanied it.

Saenger integrates the most recent findings of modern behavioral psychology on visual, memory, and learning skills. The Bouma shape, named after Herman Bouma, a Dutch psychologist—see Vision Research 13 (1973), pp. 762-82—is the distinct image of a word, as the eyes and mind register it for meaning, as distinct from the images of letters that may seem unrelated. Memory must interact to ‘see' a word in x number of letters. Brains register just about as many letters at a certain eye performance. It is safe to conclude that human brains have not evolved all that much since 750, so this research can really yield interesting inferences.

Antique readers apparently saw little reason to facilitate reading; it would only be in a culture where the vernacular was so different from Latin that attempts were made to increase clarity and comprehension, and ease in reading, occurred. Saenger has made some of these arguments before, particularly about silent reading, but here he offers a full exploration, and in a sense erudite corroboration for these views.

Because reading is a skill so central to so many aspects of culture, Saenger's study of reading has much to say about cultural history in a world history perspective. At once comparative (with references to Chinese, Burmese, Indian, and ancient Egyptian, with more on Arabic) and diffusionist (in the sense of tracing the use of word-spacing through various manuscript provenances and ‘schools') Saenger's book is a model study of the creation and extension of practice that has long since ceased to be explored in words or teaching. Word spaces are part of the Braudelian routine, like brushing teeth, that is, these are practices that fall consistently below the discursive. Not that we cannot talk about these routines; quite the contrary, we can, but in general we do not.

Though drawing on scholarship from the great traditions of paleographical and textual critical research, Saenger's eye has looked for features on manuscript pages which have been there, but not seen by specialists in these disciplines. He could not have written this book without all the earlier research, and he says so, but his own quest has been quite different. There is ever so slight an amount of repetition to help the reader, and attention to definitions of technical terms, and sub-headings within the chapters to provide focus. Saenger's book is a model of expository prose history that carries on the mission of the Irish monks who first put spaces between words for clarity and increased comprehension.

In fields where research is often centered on a single manuscript, a handful of manuscripts, or at most a region of century of one type of manuscript, Saenger's book must be seen as both glorious and disconcerting. He says so much about so much with such an air of definitiveness and authority that erudite cautious specialists may bridle, or throw up their hands. So be it. One suspects that there will be a few decades of articles nuancing this or that point, but Saenger will be the point of departure. He is fond of pointing out that ‘this is the first (surviving) this or that.' Scholarship of a precedental nature prompts others to find examples that are earlier. I well recall when Robert S. Hoyt said in seminar, "There is no knight service in Domesday Book," and there one day, plowing away on working out the geography of Odo of Bayeux's holdings, I found: ‘the service of one knight.' My professor was wrong! But he was more deeply right in teaching me to read critically. He was also right to note that Domesday is really not about knight service. The point here is that in reading Saenger one sense that it is a book of major importance. Though so different, one thinks of Henri-Jean Martin's Livre, pouvoir, et société... immediately, and John Baldwin's two volumes on the thought of Peter the Chanter. Other comparisons come to mind, but it is more interesting to try to characterize the book itself. I lack the learning to offer a professional review. What follows is a personal reading.

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In addition to the behavioral-psychological research, and the measurement of how many letters are read before a word is perceived in them, there is constant attention to what the sources actually say about reading, and what early illuminators indicate about copying and writing. There is no sense of trying to stay out of the text--a sense one finds in early work by Roger Chartier—but rather an attempt to interpret everything that can be found that is related to the topic. Recourse to philology occurs occasionally to clarify just what seeing, reading, and other crucial words meant at different times over the centuries.

The scripta continua of the ancient Roman world, that is writing letter after letter without spaces, which is also what children tend to do, certainly did not make for easy comprehension. The highly irregular or periodic word order of classical Latin also certainly did not make ease for comprehension either. What Saenger refer to as the aerated manuscript--spaces between letters that do not correspond to units of meaning, could scarcely be considered progress toward easier comprehension.

The inscriptions by 7th-century Irish monks at Jouarre (Philippe Ariès had a Romantic sensibility about these tombs, and understandably so; they are deeply moving to behold) have interpuncts between words, clearly an attempt to reduce ambiguity of meaning. In a culture where (unlike in Italy, southern France, and Spain) Latin was truly a foreign language the addition of spaces and points for clarity occurred in a general movement to improve comprehension. The move toward writing sentences in a subject, verb, object order--and thus conforming more to the simpler Latin of the Vulgate. Interest in variants in manuscripts also developed among these Irish monks, along with the study of grammar.

The transcribers of ancient Hebrew, Syriac, and Early Christian texts in ancient Roman transcriptions eliminated the spaces between the words that were found in these earliest versions. Insulars would begin by restoring them. Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne (ca. 640-709) took note of word separation as he did it, and he had some idea of the figura of a word, as something distinct from the figura of a letter. It would be Insular monks who would also add spaces between words in texts in ancient Greek. Then, as Irish monastic communities reached out with their message, in learned and word-spaced manuscripts, the continentals who first copied them eliminated the spaces.

Very early, thanks to the survival of a few books of prayer for private prayer, Saenger is able to argue that spaces between words, and ease of comprehension, and private reading and devotion occurred virtually simultaneously, in a culturally related way. More personal writing, and a sense of authorship, and of silent reading and copying were thus all parts of a single cultural movement. It would also foster grammar study, and with this, theological studies, legal studies and eventually the reception and extension of Aristotelian philosophical thought.

The reception of Arabic writings, and their transcriptions and translations of ancient Greek and Roman works did not surprise, because once they began to add vowels, Arab scholars then also put spaces between words. Saenger offers brief, concise discussions of the history of the use of numerals--with points, spaces, and superscript letters being Insular in origin. Musical notation had not been know to ancient Romans; Guido of Arezzo would add to the use of letters as neumes the staff.

With all this, and much more in place, Saenger turns to the groups which he calls the protoscholastics—that is, Gerbert of Aurillac, Richer, Abbo of Fleury, Heriger of Lobbes, and Fulbert of Chartres. Word separation would become the norm in the manuscripts written by this group, or transcribed for them. Abbo's fascination with language as something in itself, almost fails to surprise, since he also knew Anglo-Saxon writing, and for some as yet unexplained reason, left some writings in Occitan, rather than Old French. The reception of ancient philosophy would be greatly facilitated for this group by word separation. And unlike ancient writers, they began to make tables and lists linked by lines. These towering learned figures were closely linked not only to Robert the Pious, but served as advisors and tutors to the Ottonians, thus creating something of a cultural and political synthesis.

With Benedictine reform, notably at Mont-Saint-Michel, Jumièges, and somewhat later Italy, particularly at Cassino, word separation became standard practice. Cistercians would extend it quite quickly to southern France, thus by the 12th century not only a quite uniform Latin, but space between word transcription prevailed all over Europe. I have been certainly too brief in the recounting of a remarkable movement that would remain solidly implanted in Western culture in general.

For the later Middle Ages Saenger notes that the cursive writing of the 14th-15th centuries was probably less difficult to read for contemporaries than we would expect, since their eyes caught the pictogram of the word, very rapidly, with abbreviations being a help. The number of strokes in a number, so bothersome for us, was probably less bothersome to them. And despite the reverence for classical writings, and the attempts to return to ancient spelling, and the periodic sentence by Humanists, word separation was not challenged by the great linguistic movements of the late 15th and 16th centuries.

Saenger ends his book with a discussion of the implications of private and silent reading and writing for the rise of the sense of the author, the possible rise of heresy as a result of increased individual reading, and the exploration of the more manifestly individualized self, including the erotic, in writing. Guibert de Nogent becomes his example--one that would be difficult to imagine in an earlier century, at least since Augustine. The one in his writing is one of celebration and accomplishment--of minds at work to improve comprehension and rapidity of reading and writings--minds ready for the invention of moveable type, the cheap book of individual prayer, the cheap editions of Cicero and Ovid, and "how to" books.


P.S. Paul Saenger was assigned to me as an advisee by the admissions office of Columbia College; he had designated history as his major, and was in the History Department. We met as persons working out a selection of courses in the fall, 1962-1963? A year or two later Paul brought over a large steamer trunk to Panat full of our personal effects (we had come by Pan Am charter) at just the time we were moving into our house in Panat. Paul stayed with us at the time.

He took various courses from me at Columbia, and then went off to Chicago to work with H. H. Gray. His thesis on the Burgundian "mirrors of princes" literature has given me an anchor in the earlier centuries in seminars on Early Modern France over the years.