The Evolution of Abbreviations and Punctuation

From Medieval Manuscripts to Modern Texting

Throughout this term, a recurring theme that has come up in our class discussions is how the evolution of book technology can be seen through the comparison of writing methods and sentence structure from medieval manuscripts to our modern day context in a digital age. The class on abbreviations and punctuation was very intriguing when relating ancient methods to our own modernized versions, because there are both similarities and distinct differences that define the technology and culture of the time period. 

From the assigned readings for this week, the chapters on “Punctuation”, “Abbreviation”, and “Numerals” from the Oxford Handbook for Latin Paleography stood out to me. This particular reading provided insightful perspective into the usage of abbreviation and punctuation in medieval manuscripts. One point from this reading that I personally found quite interesting was the fact that almost all manuscripts dated before the 6th century supposedly did not have punctuation written in the original copy and was added later by the reader. This is fascinating  because adding punctuation in certain places of a sentence can change the entire meaning all together. So there is a possibility that the meanings of different texts from antiquity to the 6th century could have very well been misinterpreted due to the later addition of punctuation. This point also brings up the functionality and purpose of medieval punctuation and if adding punctuation would truly change the meaning of a text.

Seeing how orality was more common due to literacy and language barriers I can see how punctuation’s purpose to direct the reader by telling them when to pause, or start a new sentence would have been integral to medieval documents and especially to texts used for public speaking such as church readings and liturgies. The functionality of punctuation persists into our digital age, and in some ways it is not so different. We use things like commas and periods to indicate pause and sentence ends similar to the way medieval punctuation was used. However, we live in a society where orality is more uncommon than silent reading, so the use of punctuation has changed to some extent. We commonly see punctuation used in different ways constantly, with meanings attached to separate uses. One point made in our class discussion revolved around the different ways to write the word “Ok” and the different meanings around these options. Writing Ok and Okay more or less gives a similar effect to the initial intention of the word meaning agreement, but when we get into writing it like “K.” or “okay…” we see a new meaning attached. By shortening it to just “K” and adding a period, it now represents an angry or dissatisfied agreement, and adding an ellipsis to the end of the word creates the effect of a confused or questioned agreement. We also see the use of things like emojis in our modern context, being pictorial displays of emotion or whole sentences which begin to blur the line between modern abbreviation and punctuation.

The readings also emphasized on the use of abbreviations in medieval texts. A point that we touched on in class that is also discussed in the readings is what dictated the use of abbreviation in medieval texts and how do we dictate abbreviation in our modern context? Well, in the readings we learned that one main use of abbreviations was to cut down the time and effort needed to copy large texts, which makes sense. This seems to be one of the main reasons for abbreviation, and is still one of the reasons we do it today. In casual digital conversation whether that is through text messaging or social media, we tend to abbreviate long words or phrases like “talk to you later = ttyl” or “On my way = omw”. It seems like medieval scribes would do this for the same reason, considering the immense number of different Latin abbreviations displayed in the readings. A point that we touched on in class discussion which I found interesting was how the context of the manuscript could dictate the use of abbreviation, implying that over-use of abbreviation might reduce the quality or dignity of the text. This can be related to how scholarly and academic writing is seen in our own lives. The majority of academic writing follows certain guidelines that discourage the use of abbreviation, contraction, and colloquial language. The question I am still wondering about is whether medieval scribes had their own guidelines which defined a quality piece of writing or whether the over-use of abbreviation might cause confusion and defeat the purpose of their use in the first place. 

I think relating medieval practices to our own uses can help us form a deeper understanding of their methodology and usage and in turn, help us understand and decode our own folios better. Understanding the purpose of either familiar or unfamiliar symbols, punctuation or abbreviations can also give us insight into the culture, economics and origin of these texts and the working process that went into producing these folios. Overall I was pleasantly surprised by this topic, originally thinking it was going to be rather boring, I was able to take away some interesting and valuable information.

“I Read the Audiobook”: Grappling with Digital Text

       On October 14th we were discussing digital books in class. It was obvious that everyone had an opinion whether they prefer digital books over tactile hard copies. If there was a point that came out of that discussion that was anywhere close to consensus it was this: we all use digital books. I think it’s safe to assume that everyone attending a Canadian university in the space year two thousand-twenty-one uses digital books and, barring some apocalyptic solar weather, everyone will be using them for the foreseeable future. On the topic of apocalypse, the point was raised that our studies have been able to continue through this ongoing pandemic due to the happy miracle of digital file sharing technology. What a (lucky?) time to be alive.

I Don’t Buy It, But I’ll Buy a Copy

        Are digital books just a cheaper way to sell a commercial product? Are we being bombarded by a ceaseless torrent of easily consumable audiobooks and self published conspiracy theories because they cost nothing to produce and they’re easy to sell? Again, the discussion was lively and varied while we explored these questions. There was concern from my peers regarding the authenticity of information – more specifically, how does one verify that information comes from a reputable authority in the digital age? The sheer volume of information alone makes it difficult to discern fact from fiction. Spend ten minutes on social media and you’re likely to come across either clickbait so absurd you willingly fall for it, or a political take so hot and spicy you forget the meaning of Poe’s law – probably both.

       I think we agreed that authority is possible to establish but only if verifying authority is important to the reader. Since almost anything can be self published with a facade of authority it really becomes the readers responsibility to verify as much. Since there is so much information available and a literate public ready and eager to consume the individual has the power, for better or worse, to “choose” his or her own narrative based on his or her needs or desires. We live in a sort of digital democracy of ideas and through our choices we can broaden our literary horizons or choose to hunker down in our comfort zones. It is all too easy to curate one’s own little discourse community and hide in an echo chamber.

       Words are also cheap these days. The majority of contemporary books can be purchased with the proceeds of a single day’s labor, either in physical or digital format, on Canada’s incoming federal minimum wage. For those lucky enough to have a computer or a smartphone, congratulations! You own the means of textual production. All of us writing for university have access to devices that allow us to produce text documents at little to no extra cost. Paragraphs are free – tuition is not.

       We discussed how the reverse was true of the medieval period in a few particular ways. During the middle-ages literacy was alive and well but not anywhere close to universal and what was recorded was dictated by the literate minority. In the past it was largely up to the elite, those who fought and prayed, to determine what was worth recording and, more importantly, conveying what was important to the working majority. One required the authority, wealth, and access to resources to determine what was recorded and saved. Today, all one requires is the ubiquitous smartphone.

The Good, The Bad, and The Smutty

       Who determines what is saved? What should be saved? The subjective questions are my favorite to explore. What makes a book valuable to one person or worthless to another and how does the medium factor?

       During our discussion someone brought up the volume of smutty erotica that exists and lamented the amount of time, space, and resources it took up. “They shouldn’t exist,” was the expressed conclusion. Being a contrarian by nature I joked about curating a library of smut. It was mildly amusing at the time, but it made me think about the personal nature of physical books. There was something deeply amusing in the image of a grand library of harlequin romances and Twilight fan fiction. When I imagine reading erotica out loud to an unsuspecting audience, I’m performing my best Gilbert Gottfried impression with a hot glue bound paperback in my hand. Why not an e-book?

       When it comes to contemporary book preservation, I think we should first reflect on how we curate the physical objects in our lives. If it isn’t purely functional, we keep objects that hold meaning or give us emotional satisfaction. We hold onto relics of our grandparents, parents and other ancestors or buy things that we connect with. I think that physical books retain this sort of value where digital books cannot. When we use things, books, tools, toys, and the like we imprint upon them. Wear, tear, and damage give objects an anthropomorphic character – physical things can become an extension of ourselves, and keepsakes can connect us to the past emotionally. An old book can be sentimental or compelling simply because it is old and esoteric. If it’s esoteric, taboo, or explicit – if it’s something that means something – keep it under the pillow or up in the attic and not on a hard drive – heaven forbid. The bottom line is, we should be grateful to be literate and free enough to choose what is important in our own lives.

T(ablet)-1001: Judgement Day

       As a parent a particular point brought up in the classroom struck a chord with me. Social learning is being, at least in part, supplanted by digital media. My kids have had more stories read to them by machines than live human beings (a trend I’ve actively worked on reversing over the last few weeks). My oldest son learned the alphabet almost entirely from computers and online videos. For some reason this concerns me, but that may be a manifestation of my own anxiety living through this liminal phase of textual culture. I have vivid memories of my parents and phonics flash cards mixed with feeling of both frustration and accomplishment. The thought of my children missing that experience is a little melancholy.

       What of the medieval perspective? What would a scribe think of the copy paste function? Would he resent the simplicity, or would he envy the convenience? Would he be too amazed by the notion of self illuminated OLED displays to care?

       What did I learn? Upon reflection I learned that I rely on digital text far more than I knew I did. Digital text and electronic books are pervasive and inescapable. However, I don’t think the physical book is about to disappear. As long as human beings have emotional needs, I think physical books will remain tucked away on shelves and in desk drawers … and occasionally hidden in basements and under baseboards.

Rubrication and Illustration

Colour illustration and art are a natural part of human existence. From the Paleozoic era to the 21st century, all aspects of life have been reliant on expression through visual elements. Colour in the Medieval world, helped script makers shape how various scripts were perceived. In many scripts, folios, and written works, colour and illustration, were used to add meaning, emphasis, and highlight various aspects of written work. While many used colours to highlight letters, at the start of new paragraphs, pages, or chapters, others used it to create worlds within their text. This involved having artwork in the margins, descriptive paintings, or even organizing text with various colours. While there are various reasons why a scribe may have used colour and illustration, we will be analysing colour through various schools of thought, to explain the origins of various types of illustration. 


First, we will be looking at rubrication and illustration through the lens of class. When printing was a new form of technology, much of the written work that was created was a product of commission. As printing became more accessible and common, every day individuals were able to commission and purchase written works. From studying the history of books throughout history, we can infer that much of the most intricate and detailed artwork was only present in those books commissioned by the upper class. While much of the artwork in written work was anonymous, as printmaking evolved, some artists found they could find work in creating work in books. For example, in 1380, artist Alan Strayler supplied portraits of kings, popes and benefactors to the catalogue of the benefactors of St.Albans Abbey, BL, MS Cotton Nero D.vii and included a portrait of himself accompanied by inscriptions (Decorating and Illustrating the Page, Martha Driver and Michael Orr, 115). From this, we can infer that the upper classes commissioned great artists to put illustrations in texts they frequently consumed. 


Furthermore, because being literate was still relatively uncommon for many of the middle and lower classes, artists may have preferred to have their work in books where individuals could interpret their work fully. However, this can be read as a classist practice, as those who were illiterate, may have relied on artwork to understand various information. While oral learning would have allowed them to understand some aspects of a book, having illustrations would have helped them understand the academic world, in an accessible way. 


When looking at the quote:

“The manuscripts themselves reveal that one of the most significant aspects of the working practices of the lmners was collaboration, even in completing the illustration and decoration of individual books. This collaboration occurred between craftsmen within a lining shop, that is, between the master and assistants or apprentices and between independent liners or workshops.” (Driver and Orr, 118)


This quote can be read as how book making evolved with technological advancements. As individuals began to realize the importance of illustration in selling books, as well as the impact these works would have, collaborations became more popular. Not only did this assist in reducing classism in education but shows clear ties of the guild system. It further shows how much of society was beginning to progress towards a collaborative social system.


Many books operate under the assumption that the world of pictures and text, function ​​simultaneously and conjointly. Images and colour often guide a reader to important passages, and act as markers for key messaging in a story. While images and colours are important, beautiful tools, not every illustration is created equal. Various colours hold different meanings, both in English literature and historical analysis. Even variations of a shade can alter the meaning and significance of an artwork. 


For example, red lead and matter ink, while both shades of red, had different appearances and meanings. For example, red lead has a more orange tint and is now known to be harmful to humans. While extremely toxic, it was widely popular until vermilion became popular in the 10th century. Madder would likely be a more expensive pigment, due to its long processing time and its ability to be drunk as tea. As such, it is likely that the inks that were higher quality, and safer for human interaction, were seldom used in work for the masses. Furthermore, gold leaf and purple pigments were likely also used sparingly. This is likely due to the connotations these materials had to royalty. 


Art and colour are of the utmost importance when analysing a text, as these symbols transcend languages. As the world evolves, languages, the meaning of words and letters, change. Unless well documented and studied, it can be difficult to understand what a written work means. However, having a strong presence of colour, illustration and symbols, can allow one to put themselves inside the work they are studying. This can also shed light into the era, and location a work was created, to further help with a historians understanding. Because art styles, and colour, often varied by region, studying a text by looking at the art that existed within it, will allow one to have increased knowledge about a region at a specific time. 


When looking at a book from this  point of view, we can argue that art, colour and illustration, can be more important than the written work itself. While text can often have different meanings, as the meaning of words can vary by region, artwork often captures a moment in time. It shows the true meaning of a script maker’s work, and thus can be read as the true meaning of a text. Although a lack of centralized procedures of illustration, in the early days of works, have caused gaps in our knowledge of some historical eras, these stages shed light into the evolution of images and illumination (Driver and Orr, 104). 


To conclude, art in the medieval world had many layers. Both in the way artwork was perceived and accessed. Despite this, in the modern world, we can look at artwork as a version of a photograph or polaroid. This meaning, images and graphics that were of the utmost importance to the creator, were captured in time, to preserve an idea. As such, when we study and consume art, we can see into the past and learn from the worlds that preceded us. 

Manuscript Culture: Slow and Intentional

Over the course of the past three classes, which focused on substrates and inks, page layout and scripts, two themes repeatedly came up over the course of our discussions: how meticulous the planning and creation of medieval manuscripts was, and the reciprocal relationship between modes of production and design.

During our first session working on our folio reproductions in the book arts lab, many of us were struck by the difficulty mapping our folio layouts onto a blank sheet of paper. I’d been fairly comprehensive with my measurements, calculating not only the space between each line but also the dimensions of each text block and historiated capital. Even so, there was at least one measurement I neglected to take: the empty space between lined text blocks.

Fortunately, I’d made sure to measure the average height of letters without ascenders and could thus calculate this distance, which was roughly the size of two letters. This was something that I was only able to do because of the larger size of my folio. For other students working with smaller, text-heavy pages, variations of even a millimeter or two threw off their entire formatting. These measurements would have been even more important centuries ago when scribes were working with costly vellum.

This materiality also impacted design elements. Codexes were artisan-made luxury items which were created in an “assembly line” fashion, requiring multiple collaborators with different specialty skills. One monk might rule the page and indicate where capitals or illustrations would be placed, a scribe would be responsible for transcribing text from exemplars, and an illuminator would add in illustrations. Because a single text would be created in stages, it had to be carefully planned so that all of the component parts would fit together into one complete whole.  

Even elements as innocuous as marginalia – which are frequently described as the doodles of bored scribes – were frequently copied out from exemplars. Professor Saurette spoke to early “stencils” used by scribes, in which needles were poked through a pattern onto the substrate below, leaving dots that could then be connected into an outline. Despite my Googling I’ve yet to find any images of such stencils, but we will be using them during a later session in the book arts lab.

The careful mise-en-page of medieval manuscripts left little room for improvisation. While glossed versions of text were common (with the commentary of prominent thinkers or theologians added to help clarify meaning), these commentaries were part of the production process rather than annotations added at a later date. Other more organic annotations are frequently written interlinearly rather than in discrete columns on either side of the text, potentially cluttering the page.

When we created quills out of goose or duck feathers and attempted calligraphy, it stressed how laborious the physical action of writing was. While to some extent our class’s difficulty can be explained by a skill gap, even experienced scribes would have had to spend much more time writing each individual letter than we do using modern technology such as ballpoint pens. Otherwise, their script would be inconsistent or would leave spatters or blotches of ink on the page. Adding in the need for consistency further slows the writing process. This suggests that even career scribes probably took much longer to finish a medieval manuscript than we might expect. This once again underscores the need for careful formatting in medieval manuscript culture.

The physical act of writing – which was limited by both the quills and inks available at the time – impacted various forms of script. As Professor Saurette pointed out, the intricate lining within floriated or historiated initials can in part be attributed to not having the technology to write large letters with a single stroke: instead, an outline would have to be drawn and then filled in.

I attempted to recreate a capital from my folio in the book arts lab. This took me approximately 40 minutes, but I was working with modern tools such as a fine tip marker, watercolours, watercolour pencils, and a gel pen.

This material impact cannot be understated: the need to work carefully to avoid messes may have impacted the development of Gothic script, which is made up of discrete strokes. Each letter is separate and ornate, making for a more laborious transcription process. This particular script is strongly identified with ecclesiastical texts, which were created “for the glory of God” rather than being motivated by sheer utility. 

Other forms of handwriting evolved to suit these more utilitarian purposes. In Stefano Zamponi’s “Late Gothic” chapter of the Oxford Handbook of Latin Paleography, he discusses how different scripts were typically identified with specific kinds of manuscripts. Cursiva scripts tended to be used in commercial, legal, or university settings, where the ability to quickly record information was essential. While the resulting scripts are aesthetically unique, their appearance stems from the mode of production: dropping serifs and linking letters together as a result of writing quickly.   

Living in a digital age, we choose fonts for documents based almost solely on an aesthetic basis. But in the Middle Ages, the use of a specific script was informed by utility. It was only with the popularization of the printing press that the choice of text become a solely aesthetic decision: it takes no longer to frame a press to print in Gothic font than it does to print in Rotunda, even though one is more expedient to write in by hand. But by the time the printing press was popularized, centuries of these scripts’ identification with specific types of document created cultural associations that gave some fonts more perceived authority or prestige. 

Material Culture and the Evolution of Ideas

The seminar that Josh Skelton and I led explored the material element of medieval manuscript culture. Our two readings for the week were Orietta da Rold and Laura Velte: da Rold’s chapter focused on parchment, inks, and the introduction of paper to the British Isles in the 14th and 15th centuries, while Velte’s discussed sepulchral inscriptions.

My discussion group focused primarily on the da Rold chapter. This was not intentional, and in retrospect I would have loved to discuss funerary architecture as a textual source. The only time we really touched on Velte’s reading was in talking about material hierarchies: something carved in stone or engraved in metal has more permanence than something written on paper or parchment, which can lend the preserved text more prestige. After all, information that is encoded in a way that is harder to destroy (not to mention more costly and time-consuming) must be important to warrant the extra effort.

Velte also suggests that this material element of epitaphs being painstakingly carved into stone means that the information recorded on them may be more accurate than that recorded on paper or parchment, as scribes occasionally made errors during transcription. She cites the discrepancy between the recorded death date on Queen Matilda of England’s epitaph vs. the information given in Oderic’s Historia Ecclesiastica.

This idea of a medium impacting the fidelity of the information stored on it or the way in which it is transcribed was one element of our discussion. We discussed scribal abbreviations and the use of shorthand, which could vary greatly from scribe to scribe before the printing press led to greater standardization of the English language. The contemporary analogue of both emojis and textspeak (e.g. “lol”, “rofl”) came up as a modern-day equivalent born of the need to communicate emotions through a textual medium or to save time when texting on a mobile device. One can imagine how puzzled someone who wasn’t familiar with texting culture might be when reading texts 300 years from now after that cultural context is lost. This may be a challenge that some of our class will face when analyzing their folio documents, some of which undoubtedly make use of scribal shorthand.

The introduction of paper to the British Isles in the 14th and 15th centuries became a major part of our discussion. While paper may have initially been more expensive because it was imported through trade routes with China or the Middle East, it was prepared in batches (unlike parchment, which was an artisanal product). As the world became more globalized, it became more economically feasible to use paper than parchment. Even so, medieval literary culture was initially hesitant to embrace paper. It gradually gained acceptance as a substrate after first being adopted by guilds (i.e. being used for business rather than leisure).

Professor Saurette suggested that this too had its analogue in the present day with the shift to a paperless bureaucracy (e.g. filing taxes through the CRA’s website, using the cuScreen QR codes on campus for COVID screening). While many students in our class professed to preferring a physical book for leisure reading, all of us admitted to using digital technology for convenience when it came to work or school.  It may be that we too are in a liminal period as our society moves entirely to a digital landscape.

And yet, the material element of books lends them a certain mystique or appeal. One classmate mentioned owning multiple copies of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in both physical and digital formats. She professed a preference for her hardcover and antique Victorian copies of the book even though they all contain the same text. The physical experience of reading the book however changes with the version read.

One also wonders how much digital reading impacts one’s ability to really focus on the content. While this is purely anecdotal, I definitely have struggled with class readings in a digital format during remote learning. I would suggest that we are culturally conditioned to use digital technology for quick consumption or ease of access (e.g. using search engines for quick access to questions), meaning that the reading experience is different from sitting down with a physical book in part because of a cultural concept.

One final aspect of our discussion was what impact material culture (specifically, the use of ink or a specific substrate) had for us in the present day as historians analyzing source documents. Changes in the ink used in a codex can tell us whether or not part of a document had been altered or added to by a later scribe.

Following our discussion, we moved to the book arts lab where we were given a brief presentation on the development of paper and the implications for preservation. Earlier rag paper made from cloth fibre holds up better than paper made from tree pulp, as it doesn’t contain ligmen (a naturally-occurring acid that gradually degrades the quality of the paper). This means that parchment and ragpaper are sturdier than earlier paper (which was produced before advancement in technology led to changes in the chemical process to produce a more refined paper with less ligmen).

Main takeaways? A cultural idea or practice (such as the use of paper as a standard substrate or the use of shorthand) is often inspired by a purely material cause, such as a desire to save money or time because of the effort of writing. Cultural ideas or developments are often rooted in a material cause rather than originating as ideas and then making their way to the page or screen. This can lead to interesting affectations or throwbacks to earlier times, such as formatting early printed folios in the style of manuscripts or incorporating imitation “weaves” into contemporary paper.