Feb 20, 2015

Reading with spaces in Anglo-Saxon England

Boisil teaching Cuthbert. Image: British Library.
In the Life of St Cuthbert composed by Bede c 721, there is an episode in which Cuthbert asks his mentor, the saintly Boisil, to recommend a book that can be read in one week. Boisil suggests the Gospel of John, and provides a copy consisting of seven quires (codex habens quaterniones septem), which the two of them read together, one quire a day, until Boisil, as he has predicted, dies at the end of the seven days.

[Image: London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 26, fol. 21r, detail. Durham, late 12th century. Miniature from Bede's Vita Sancti Cuthberti.]

Whether or not this story can be entirely accepted as historical fact is perhaps doubtful; it occurs in a text that is concerned more with promoting the saintliness of Cuthbert than with what we might consider historical accuracy, and I suspect that Bede wants us to see a parallel between the seven days of reading, after which Boisil goes to his eternal rest, and the biblical seven days of creation, at the end of which God rested. As well, we might wonder at Boisil’s recommendation of the Gospel of John as a book it would take a week to read; in a modern English translation this text is about the length of a longish short story, and a skilled modern reader could easily read through it in an hour or two. Each quire (quaternion) in Boisil’s manuscript would be the equivalent of 16 pages, but Boisil expected Cuthbert to take a day to read each quire. What is even more striking is that Bede considers a week’s time to be a quick read of the Gospel of John; he implies that ordinarily it would have taken longer. Medieval people must have been slow readers.

Well, yes, by evidence such as this, medieval people were slow readers by our standards. But to discover why, we have to consider the evidence more carefully.

One question to ask is whether there were mechanical or physical reasons why reading a book would have been more difficult in the early Middle Ages. For example, reading would have been much more easily done during the daylight hours, because there was no source of artificial lighting at the time comparable to electric light today; reading by candlelight or lamplight is notably more difficult than reading by daylight. Also, the text read by Boisil and Cuthbert would almost certainly have been in Latin, a secondary language for anyone in the Middle Ages but much more so for a couple of Northumbrians whose primary language, English, was only distantly related to Latin. So a great deal would have depended on Cuthbert’s own proficiency in written Latin.

Although the actual book that Boisil and Cuthbert read is now lost, it is likely that before 661, which is about when Boisil died, the text would probably have been written in uncial, a very clear and readable script. Now whether that script would have employed canonical word separation, the insertion of spaces as word boundaries in the way we separate words with spaces in printed text today, is unknowable but possible. Word separation was being introduced to Latin text by Insular (Irish and Anglo-Saxon) scribes at the very time when Boisil and Cuthbert were reading. Paul Saenger suggests that the earliest surviving word-separated manuscripts in the medieval West were Irish, from the late 600s, but by the time the Anglo-Saxon Bede wrote his De orthographia, c 700, he was assuming word-separated text. The question of word separation arises because, as Saenger has argued, it increased the speed of reading and thus made possible the kind of rapid, silent reading that we consider the norm for skilled readers today. However, even if we suppose that Boisil’s copy of John was not word-separated (i.e. was written in scriptio continua, unseparated script), the lack of word separation alone is not sufficient to explain the extremely low reading speed of Boisil and Cuthbert. And if it was word-separated, why did they still read so slowly?

It has been demonstrated, in the case of skilled readers of modern scripts, both those that are conventionally word-separated and those that are not (such as Thai or Chinese), that word separation does indeed increase reading speed. Faster reading is therefore one potential result of word separation. However, this does not mean that it is the reason why word separation was introduced. It is very easy to fall into a kind of teleological fallacy whereby we imagine a scribe in the 7th century saying to his fellow monks, ‘This scriptio continua really slows me down when I try to read it; let’s put spaces between the words so that we can read faster.’ But Insular monks in the 7th century could not have known that word separation would result in faster reading speeds. They introduced word separation for a different reason – one that placed more emphasis on reading slowly and carefully.

A couple of men and a dragon, fighting over participles. Image: Trinity College, Cambridge.

[Image: Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.51, fol. 90r. Canterbury, 11th or 12th century. Priscian, Institutiones grammaticae, beginning of book 11.]
their dominant model for reading was ‘grammatical’

When early medieval English writers describe the process of reading, it is overwhelmingly clear that their dominant model for reading was what we might call ‘grammatical’. This may have been partly a result of the fact that they were learning to read a foreign language, Latin, but the grammatical mode of reading went far beyond language learning: it was a methodology that formed the basis of and influenced all other ways of acquiring knowledge, and thus grammar became, throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, the foundation of medieval formal education in general. Early medieval English readers learned Latin grammar from ancient grammarians, for whom the word was a basic unit of grammar and meaning; so, for them, a crucial aspect of reading was the ability to recognise and understand words. We see this in the tools they developed to help them read Latin grammatically: word separation by space, interlinear and marginal lexical glossing, and especially glossaries, which include some of the very earliest records of writing in English that we have.

To understand a word, however, meant more to an early medieval reader than simply knowing its part of speech (‘word class’ in modern linguistics) or its equivalent in one’s own vernacular language. Reading grammatically in the Middle Ages meant being aware of the multiple possible meanings of a word in the immediate context and in other texts, understanding its implications for one’s own cultural and personal context, and, most importantly, meditating on its spiritual significance. Grammatical reading was profoundly analytical, approaching the text as something multilayered and polysemous. Meaning lurked in every layer of textual structure. Martin Irvine paraphrases an example from a 9th-century treatise on the symbolism of the alphabet: ‘the letter “A”, written with three strokes, is an image of the Trinity; it is the first letter, after the name of the first man, Adam, and anima and angelus, which were before time began’ (Irvine 1994, p. 103). This ‘reading’ of the letter ‘A’ may seem strange or even absurd to us, but it is a natural consequence of medieval grammatica.

A cow reading, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours. Image: British Library.
One of the most common metaphors for reading in the early Middle Ages was rumination: the act of a cow or similar animal chewing its cud. This is an image of a prolonged, repetitive action, of masticating a small portion of material over and over again in order to extract from it as much sustenance as possible. It is as far removed as I can imagine from the idea of speed reading, which assumes that the purpose of reading is information transfer and the faster you read, the more information you can pack into your brain. For a speed reader, you get more out of a text the faster you read it. But for a medieval ruminant reader, you get more out of a text the slower you read it. In fact, Bede says it took Boisil and Cuthbert a quick seven days to read the Gospel of John because they ‘dealt only with the simple things of the “faith which worketh by love” and not deep matters of dispute’ (quia solam in ea fidei quae per dilectionem operatur simplicitatem, non autem questionum profunda tractabant; trans. Colgrave); knowing that Boisil had only a week to live, they didn’t chew over the text as much as they ordinarily would have. Even then, we can reasonably surmise that Bede meant us to imagine not Boisil and Cuthbert getting through the text as quickly as they could, but reading many passages multiple times, stopping frequently to comment and to question and to discuss, comparing passages with other passages or other texts – in other words, reading grammatically.

Thus the spaces between words in early English manuscripts tell us something about how Anglo-Saxons read, but to understand their significance we must not confuse the effect with the cause. Word separation was introduced by Insular scribes in the 7th and 8th centuries not because they wanted to read more quickly, but because they wanted to read analytically, which in many cases would have meant reading slowly. They did not want to drive their eyes across the page, but to break up the text into little bits so that they could chew on it. Word separation made it possible for medieval people to read more quickly, but that did not mean they actually did so, at least not at first. The rapid reading that we think of as normal did not develop because scribes began putting spaces between words, but because the purposes and methods of reading changed – but that’s another story.

Yin Liu

References and Further Reading

Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert is edited and translated by Bertram Colgrave, Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert (Cambridge UP, 1939; rpt. New York: Greenwood P, 1969). The episode involving Boisil and Cuthbert reading the Gospel of John is chap. 8 of Bede’s Life, pp. 182-183 of Colgrave.

For historical accounts of the lives of Boisil and Cuthbert I have consulted the entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, by Alan Thacker for Boisil, and by David Rollason and R. B. Dobson for Cuthbert.

Paul Saenger’s book on word separation is Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997). On the earliest word-separated manuscripts and Bede’s evidence, see pp. 83-87.

On the history of the book in early medieval Britain, see Michelle P. Brown, The Book and the Transformation of Britain c. 550-1050 (London: British Library, 2011).

A comprehensive account of the scope and implications of grammatical method in the early Middle Ages is Martin Irvine, The Making of Textual Culture: ‘Grammatica’ and Literary Theory, 350-1100 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994).

For grammatica and its influence on the encoding of text in early medieval England, two essays by M. B. Parkes are especially helpful: ‘Changing Attitudes to the Written Word: Components in a “Grammar of Legibility”,’ which is chapter 2 of Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Berkeley: U of California P, 1993), 20-29; and ‘Rædan, Areccan, Smeagan: How the Anglo-Saxons Read,’ Anglo-Saxon England 26 (1997): 1-22.

On the ‘digestion-rumination metaphor’ for reading, see Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008), pp. 202-212, where you can find the intriguing concept of ‘prayer as spiritual flatulence’.


  1. On shared reading in the context of early medieval monasticism, including the master-disciple relationship, see Micol Long, 'Monastic Practices of Shared Reading as a Means of Learning,' in The Annotated Book in the Early Middle Ages: Practices of Reading and Writing, ed. Mariken Teeuwen and Irene van Renswoude (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 501–528.

  2. On slow reading, there is an excellent article by Sinéad O’Sullivan, 'Reading and the Lemma in Early Medieval Textual Culture,' in The Annotated Book in the Early Middle Ages: Practices of Reading and Writing, ed. Mariken Teeuwen and Irene van Renswoude (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 371–396.