Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Scriptio Continua

Early Greek manuscripts were written without word breaks or spaces between the words. This is consistent with writing in many different languages today. Word spaces are not a universal feature of writing or advanced literacy in society. Neither are word breaks a feature which emerged with the printing press.

The evolution of features of writing and writing systems are not unidirectional as Tim Bulkely comments,
The changes in chunking and in extra textual cues have not at all been unidirectional, and are fascinating to track.
In order to provide some context for Tim's remark, I offer these two images. The first is the Cuthbert Gospel, more information here, a 7th century Latin text in the style of the Lindisfarne Gospels. In this Latin text, there are word spaces as well as line spacing which reflects phrasing in the text.

The second is the Khitrovo Gospel, 14th century. In this text, there are no word breaks although there are punctuation marks and other diacritics. It is evident, however, that the lack of word spacing does not reflect a need to conserve paper. It is difficult to draw conclusions about the function of literacy in a society by the presence or absence of word spacing. However, it is safe to assume that as a particular style developed, it became an identifying feature of writing for that culture or subculture.

Note. I had orginally found this image of the Khitrovo Gospel on this site. However, it is no longer there, but I have retained a copy of this image since 2005.


Jan Krans-Plaisier said...

I am sorry Suzanne, but the correct Latin term is "scriptio continua", "scriptio" being a feminine noun. Like your blog, of course.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Jan,

Thanks very much. Its funny how many google results there are for the wrong spelling! I checked with something or other.

Peter Kirk said...

St Cuthbert gospels "discovered very recently"? I don't think so, unless your perspective on history is so deep that 1104 is "very recently"! See my post about this, which also links to my post about our visit together to see the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Gary said...

Per Peter's post, "The seller is “the Society of Jesus (British Province)”, i.e. the Jesuits." I find it a sad state of affairs when a religious order has to sell off relics to make money, even if the efforts are for a good cause. A sign of the times, bad economy, poor church membership and tithing, or people don't much care about either church community or "social justice" causes anymore?

Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks for mentioning that. It was such a wonderful trip. The visit to the British Library was a highlight of my trip.

But I wasn't familiar with the Cuthbert Gospel, although I see it is similar to the Lindisfarne Gospels. The generous use of white space gives it the appearance of poetry.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

I have added a link to Wikipedia. I hope it is accurate.