History31 Dec 2007 03:06 am
Historical revival has a habit of begetting unique new forms and institutions—an excellent example would be Giuseppe Bardi’s attempt to resurrect Classical drama that, instead, resulted in what we have come to know as modern opera.
The great emperor and founder of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne (742–814), was engaged in a project of revival himself: namely, to recapture the glory and stability of the earlier Roman Empire. Charlemagne came to learning late in life and never attained full literacy; however, he seems to have clearly understood the political value that a standardized system of writing would carry in his freshly conquered imperial lands. Early in his reign, several local efforts were made to reform the illegible variations of cursive in use throughout most of Western Europe, but it was not until he employed an Anglo-Saxon monk, Alcuin of York, as the head of his palace school and scriptorium that they became successful.
Alcuin hailed from England, and the new style of writing he championed drew on the so-called Insular scripts associated with monastic centers of learning in Britain and Ireland. The letters were rounded, distinct, and largely free from the confusing graphical joins known as ligatures that plagued eariler hands. Most importantly—for his time and our own—Alcuin’s new “Carolingian minuscule” included standardized capitalization and word separation, two innovations that had a revolutionary effect on the efficient transmission of information in the medieval world.
Carolingian minuscule was adopted throughout all of Central and Western Europe, where it flourished for several centuries. Under the direction of Alcuin and those who followed him, the scriptoria of the Holy Roman Empire copied and preserved the body of writing that serves as the foundation for our knowledge of Classical literature (over 7,000 manuscripts from the 8th and 9th centuries are extant). In fact, Renaissance scholars identified Latin texts with the Carolingian hand so closely that they mistook medieval manuscripts for Roman originals. The earliest printers, like Aldus Manutius and Claude Garamond, were full of enthusiasm for anything Greek or Roman and, accordingly, modeled their own typesets on Alcuin’s script—an effort at typographical revival that lives with us today, seen daily in the fonts of our books, our newspapers, and all our print media.
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