Oct 28, 2013

Punctuating Manuscripts

Have you ever considered what a text would look like without punctuation? In what way would an author ensure that they successfully conveyed the appropriate meaning to their audience and how would the audience identify meaningful units, or senses, within a text? Punctuation is, and always has been, a useful way of dividing text into smaller units of meaning, dispelling ambiguity and developing a specific meaning. In approaching text as a model of information it is important to consider not only how information was encoded but also how it was decoded – a process in which punctuation has been, and continues to be, a powerful tool.

Today, punctuation is determined and inserted by the author in order to render, or encode, a specific meaning. The role of the reader is to properly decode that meaning using the cues provided by the author, including punctuation. However, during the Middle Ages punctuation, more accurately referred to as pointing, was not prescribed by the author and was sparse and inconsistent. Rather it was the scribe, or even the reader, who was responsible for the insertion of points. Consequently, the pointing practices present within a manuscript actually reflect the personal interpretation of the scribe or reader as opposed to that of the composer.

In contexts where it was important to maintain a single, unambiguous meaning, such as church liturgy, the use of pointing was more precise and consistent; however, scribes were often given the freedom to insert or correct points if and when they saw fit. The relatively liberal use of pointing encouraged the reader to ruminate over the many potential meanings and to insert their own points based on their unique understanding of the text. Therefore it is possible for the same text to exist with multiple layers of points. In the excerpt from the Junius 11 manuscript above two different systems of pointing are present, reflecting two different approaches, or ways of decoding, the same text.

Are we also, as readers, unintentionally shaping the meaning of texts through our various attempts to decode them?
It is tempting to designate the author as the “encoder” of a text and the reader as the “decoder” but an examination of pointing practices in medieval manuscripts shows that, by inserting their own punctuation, it was actually the reader/scribe who encoded the information in the manuscripts we are trying to decode today. Are we also, as readers, unintentionally shaping the meaning of texts through our various attempts to decode them? This also raises relevant questions for editors today who are attempting to create translations and digitized versions of manuscripts. To what extent should punctuation be added and in what ways might we be unintentionally altering the meaning of texts by inserting punctuation?

The next time you read a book article or journal consider what it would have been like without any punctuation the careful study of punctuation within medieval manuscripts has the ability to teach us about more than just the development of punctuation over time but also the ways in which medieval scribes and readers shaped decoded and experienced text

Jennifer Mainprize


O’Keeffe, K. Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Parkes, M. Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. California: University of California Press, 1993.

Mitchell, B. “The Danger of Disguise: Old English Texts in Modern Punctuation.” The Review of English Studies, New Series 31.124 (1980): 385-413.

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