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Midway through the Confessions, St. Augustine recalls how he used to marvel at the way Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, read his manuscripts: "His eyes traveled across the pages and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and tongue stayed still." Scholars have sparred for decades over whether Augustine's offhand observation reveals something momentous: namely, that silent reading--that seemingly mundane act you're engaged in right now--was, in the Dark Ages, a genuine novelty. Evidence abounds that ancient and medieval readers relished giving voice to their favorite texts in order to appreciate more fully the cadences of Homer and Lucian. Of course, we equally enjoy reading poetry aloud. The question is: Could the earliest readers literally not shut up?

Paul Saenger thinks so--but his argument for the onetime dominance of the spoken word doesn't rest on Augustine. Saenger, a medieval-manuscript expert and a curator of rare books at Chicago's Newberry Library, believes that reading aloud wasn't a mere preference for the ancients, but a practical necessity. His explanation is simple: Ancientandmedievalmanuscriptslookedlikethis anditwaseasiertoreadthemaloud. In his provocative new book, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford), Saenger argues that the practice of transcribing Greek and Latin manuscripts without spaces, or in scriptura continua, made reading silently a mind-bogglingly difficult task. "It wasn't literally impossible to read silently," Saenger says, "but the notation system was so awkward that the vast majority of readers would have needed to sound out the syllables, if only in a muffled voice." Saenger's book asserts that only at the end of the seventh century, when Irish monks introduced regular word separation into medieval manuscripts, did swift, silent reading become feasible.

Why is it so hard to read text without spacing? Just imagine how difficult it would be for your computer's spell checker if you wrote a document in scriptura continua. The program would initially have to determine which syllables to slice into words, and then proceed with its main task. The human brain, fortunately, is more dexterous than a word processor, but the burden of breaking strings of letters into words is, nonetheless, a laborious first step. And therein lies Saenger's thesis: "There is a correlation between a propensity to read orally in both past and contemporary cultures and the duration of cognitive activity needed to achieve lexical access in that culture's script."

Saenger, who has a Ph.D. in medieval history, backs up his claims with cutting-edge scientific research. (To his delight, he discovered that psychologists had been testing adult abilities to read English versions of scriptura continua for decades, "without being aware of its real-world precursor.") Clinical tests reveal that the brain processes the reading of spaced text--in which words are essentially digested whole--differently from the syllable-by-syllable decoding of continuous script. In fact, different parts of the brain handle these two tasks: Studies of brain-injured Japanese patients demonstrate that, depending on the site of a cerebral lesion, a person may lose the faculty for reading kanji ideographs, but not Japanese phonetic script, which lacks regular word separation--and vice versa. The implication is that, even if early medieval readers of scriptura continua somehow managed to keep their mouths shut, they were performing a mental task fundamentally different from that of contemporary readers.

To modern eyes, the benefits of word spacing seem obvious. What took so long, then? Actually, word spaces can be found in ancient Hebrew manuscripts, as well as in a few of the very earliest Greek papyri. But Saenger doubts those word spaces engendered fluid silent reading at the time. After all, he notes, these manuscripts were all written without vowels, making the use of word spaces a virtual necessity for any kind of deciphering. In any case, following the Greeks' swift incorporation of Phoenician vowels in the ninth century b.c., scribes began crushing all the words together and writing in scriptura continua. Indeed, the entire Greek literary canon, from The Iliad onward, was written down this way.

Why? Were the scribes trying to save paper? Saenger offers an explanation for this baffling step backward. "The ancient world did not possess the desire, characteristic of the modern age, to make reading easier and swifter," he writes. "Those who read...were not interested in the swift intrusive consultation of books." The canon was small, and prized texts were typically memorized. Who cared, then, if it was hard to slog through a manuscript the first dozen times? And let's not forget the inherent elitism of Greek and Roman readers. "The notion that the greater portion of the population should be autonomous and self-motivated readers was entirely foreign to the elitist literate mentality of the ancient world," Saenger writes.

Fortunately, this situation didn't last forever. While an ambiguous text format "enhanced the mystery and power of clerics," Saenger notes, such awkwardness served no purpose in a scholarly universe in which readers began "to grapple with highly technical concepts" of science, law, and theology. Starting in the fifth century, scribes began to speckle manuscripts with spaces. As Saenger writes, "The introduction of word separation reflected a mentality in which reading was primarily a visual process for which the stylistic virtue of mellifluous sound was subordinate to rapid access to meaning." Most classicists have decried sporadic spacing as a sign that medieval monks didn't fully understand what they were transcribing. But Saenger sees it as a "great leap forward. It allowed the brain to find its bearings." He's even coined a new term, "aeration," to describe such manuscripts.

Having spent the past fifteen years combing medieval manuscript libraries on both sides of the Atlantic, Saenger identifies the first properly spaced Latin manuscript as the Irish Book of Mulling, an illuminated translation of the Gospels dating from around 690 a.d. Indeed, he notes, the Irish soon adopted the the verb videre, "to see," as a way to describe reading. In a similar spirit, an Irish monk compared the activity of reading to a cat silently stalking a mouse.

Why Ireland? For one thing, Irish monasteries were home to a select collection of Syriac-language biblical texts from late antiquity, all of which featured word spacing (but no vowels). Moreover, the Celtic-speaking monks approached Latin as a foreign language, and word separation greatly aided readers struggling with the vocabulary. (The French, in contrast, didn't think of their vernacular language as particularly different from Latin.) In the end, muses Saenger, "people at the frontiers have always been more open to linguistic innovation and combining things in new ways."

Over the next couple of centuries, this Irish innovation spread to other countries--first to England, then to the Low Countries and the rest of Europe. By the twelfth century, reports Saenger, murmuring monks had become a relic of the past. (There's no precise date available, alas, for the first appearance of a SILENCE, PLEASE! sign.) As reading became a silent activity, new types of manuscripts that took advantage of this intimacy were produced, from pocket prayer books to erotica. More important, the intellectual orthodoxy enforced by group readings of manuscripts melted away as scholars retired to private rooms for quiet study.

Saenger's book is sure to meet some strong resistance. Many simply refuse to believe that the ancients didn't learn to read scriptura continua silently. In a classic 1968 article, "Silent Reading in Antiquity," Bernard Knox wondered sarcastically, "Are we really to imagine that Aristarchus read aloud all the manuscripts of Homer he used for his edition?" Last year, Russian classicist A.K. Gavrilov dug in his heels, insisting in Classical Quarterly that "the phenomenon of reading itself is fundamentally the same in modern and in ancient culture."

Why are some scholars so opposed to the idea that scriptura continua would impose limits on the ancients' reading abilities? "It's funny," laughs Saenger. "Mathematicians have no problem seeing the importance of notation. Newton's contribution in the Principia was both intellectual and notational, with all its symbolic innovations. But classicists refuse to accept that reading has anything to do with the page it's printed on." Of course, classicists aren't the types eager to jump on the interdisciplinary bandwagon. "These folks tend to be tremendously conservative by orientation," Saenger muses. "They tend to be frightened by modern things like psychological research. At one conference, after I laid out my ideas, some classicists called me a Freudian."


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