The History and Uncertain
Future of Handwriting

Anne Trubek
Our keyboards - - - the ones we use on computers and cell phones and, earlier, on typewriters are known as QWERTY. They layout was invented in 1873 "in order to separate common letter pairs, preventing type bars from sticking together when struck sequentially." Thus you and I have to struggle with this relatively inefficient chance system because some dunderhead engineer-type from a century and a half ago wanted the "Q" to the left, the "U" to the right. In any event, we have it better than the early scribes. Monks in the scriptorium of say, 800 A.D. had to make their own paper, usually the skin of a goat or sheep. The hair would be washed off, cleaned with lime, and stretched to dry, then scraped to clean it. Writing was done by means of feathers from geese or swans. The pen had to be prepared with a knife, with a slit for the ink. The monk would retrim his quill, might go through sixty pens in a single day. He would work for six hours a day, in the cold - - - no fire for fear of burning down the monastery. He was required to be accurate, for the monastery "staked their reputations on how accurate their copies were."

    It was tedious, slow work. A typical monk spent some three months - - - all day, every day - - - copying one book.

"Since the world was still primarily oral, the convention, until the ninth century, was to speak while reading". As one monk wrote on one of his manuscripts,

    No one know what efforts are demanded. Three fingers write, two eyes see. One tongue speaks, the entire body labors.
These monks, the author says, often left "feisty and hilarious comments hidden in margins and back pages of the manuscript." One wrote,

    Here ends the second part of the title work of Brother Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order; very long, very verbose, and very tedious for the scribe.

Another wrote, "Now I've written the whole thing. For Christ's sake give me a drink."

Our favorite of all this marginalia is "Pangur Bán" - - - a scribe's ode to his favorite cat, Fair Pangur. It was inscribed in the ninth century by an Irish scribe at Reichenau Abbey. It was written in Gaelic, and in translation by Robin Ernest William Flower, goes

    I and Pangur Bán, my cat
    'Tis a like task we are at;
    Hunting mice is his delight
    Hunting words I sit all night.

    Better far than praise of men
    'Tis to sit with book and pen;
    Pangur bears me no ill will,
    He too plies his simple skill.

    'Tis a merry thing to see
    At our tasks how glad are we,
    When at home we sit and find
    Entertainment to our mind.

    Oftentimes a mouse will stray
    In the hero Pangur's way:
    Oftentimes my keen thought set
    Takes a meaning in its net.

    'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
    Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
    'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
    All my little wisdom try.

    When a mouse darts from its den,
    O how glad is Pangur then!
    O what gladness do I prove
    When I solve the doubts I love!

    So in peace our tasks we ply,
    Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
    In our arts we find our bliss,
    I have mine and he has his.

    Practice every day has made
    Pangur perfect in his trade;
    I get wisdom day and night
    Turning darkness into light.

Ms. Trubek tells us that the professional scribes were paid by the job - - - "the faster they could write, the more they could make." One in Parma claimed he could copy a book in fifty-two hours, so he was named "Velox" which sounds like a present-day copying machine. Perhaps he was, but the word is better translated as "Speedy."

The oldest writings we have are not on vellum, parchment, papyryus or paper. Rather, they are of clay. Trubek says there are hundreds of thousands of these, and they are not necessarily the big lunky ones we would expect, but rather "a few inches square and an inch thick." She held one in her hand, at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. "The clay was cool to the touch. Palm-sized and pale brown, it was full of tiny incisions." It was half the size of an iPhone, and the cuneiform was tiny. (Cuneiform is sign language, made up of triangles, vertical, diagonal and horizontal lines.)

Because it is hard clay, we have so many more of these documents, more than any of vellum or parchment. The problem is that there are so few people who can read cuneiform, and most of the documents are all accounting: "the majority of these that have been excavated and translated contain administrative information." You and I would hope that some document from 1500 BC would be a poem, praise for a god, musings on the ages - - - but no. "Received of Abul dum B'jai, twelve ewes, three goats, five shoats."

Although it is about writing, History has interesting chapters on the invention of printing, and the coming of the typewriter. Gutenberg's press was not all that welcome when it arrived; Martin Luther complained about the surfeit of printed materials 150 years after its invention: "the multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this form of writing." Trubek reminds us that Gutenberg's bible was not all that different from those of the scribes. The beginning of each section of the book started with a red letter, which meant the paper had to be run through the press twice, complete with "rubications," margins and guidelines.

Typewriters? The first of these - - - from around 1860 - - - were not user-friendly. What you had just typed was hidden from view, and it was "a heavy, loud metal machine mounted on a table with a treadle at the bottom." It cost $125 in nineteenth-century dollars.

Finally, Remington (the gun manufacturer) produced one that had a carriage return, and "Underwood rolled out a new model whose keys struck the top of the page so the letters could be seen as they were made." Mark Twain plugged the machine, and Henry James bought one so he could dictate his novels, complaining all the while that his "young typists are mainly barbarians." By 1910, two million typewriters had been sold.

History is a merry if brief volume, and the author has fun with some of the prejudices associated with writing. She points out that reading and writing were not necessarily conjoined: "Reading came first, and writing was not included in all lessons. Many women were taught to read but then not taught to write."

    Those lucky women who were taught to write used their own separate-but-not-equal script. In England they did not use the complicated English secretary hands or the various legal hands. Instead they wrote in what was called Italian hand, a simpler script for the simpler sex.

Martin Billingsley, in a seventeenth-century writing manual, explained women should only be taught Italian hand because "it is conceived to the be the easiest hand that is written with Pen, and to be taught in the shortest time; Therefore it is usually taught to women, for as much as they (having not the patience to take any great paines, besides phantasticall and humorsome) must be taught that which they may instantly learn."

Mark Twain, with his fascination with the typing machine, as always, ends up with the last word. A young man wrote asking for a specimen of his handwriting, and Twain told of his response: "I furnished it - - - in type-machine capitals, signature and all."

    It was long; it was a sermon; it contained advice; also reproaches. I said writing was my trade, my bread and butter; I said it was not fair to ask a man to give away samples of his trade; would he ask the blacksmith for a horseshoe? Would he ask the doctor for a corpse?

--- C. A. Amantea
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