Blog post

How the Carolingian dynasty changed how we read

Learn how the Frankish noble family helped popularise and standardise written text as we know it now.

Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne at a table receiving a letter
Hannah Johnson (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Having spaces and punctuation might seem indispensable in any text today, but in the Middle Ages these were seen as major innovations in writing and reading. Learn how the Carolingian dynasty helped popularise and standardise written text as we know it now

Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne at a table receiving a letter, with a partial border and a foliate initial 'O'(r dist)

The Carolingian period (9th century) had a huge influence on the intellectual culture of Western Europe because of the reforms enacted during that century, and especially under the rule of the emperor Charlemagne himself. These reforms impacted not only how people were taught to read, but also how written texts were produced across his empire, which extended from Hamburg (present-day Germany) down to Rome (present-day Italy) and Barcelona (present-day Spain).

Before the Carolingian reforms

A few developments in how we wrote and read in the 8th century helped lay the foundation for the Carolingian reforms. The first — and perhaps most noticeable change — was the introduction of spaces between words. This trend seems to have originated in the scriptoria of Irish monks during the 7th and 8th centuries and made its way to the continent via manuscripts circulating between different monasteries and churches.

Whereas previously manuscripts were produced in the Greek/Roman style without spaces between words (scripta continua), the European-wide shift to writing with spaces between words (scripta discontinua) spread rapidly.

Below: On the left, example of 9th century scripta discontinua composed by Irish monks - the spaces are not very pronounced yet. On the right, example of late 10th century scripta discontinua - the spaces are significantly more pronounced.

We're not sure why this shift happened: there is no evidence to suggest that it was because it was hard to read Latin texts without spaces, nor that it fostered a shift from reading and writing aloud to silent reading and writing (see Public and Private Reading). Nevertheless, scripta discontinua writing quickly became the norm.

Another key contribution to writing in the 8th century was the introduction of regulated punctuation. Periods and commas started to be used consistently (though they looked slightly different and served opposite functions from those they serve today).

The Carolingian reforms

Charlemagne was a great patron of learning.. Under his reign he saw to the creation of new schools in cities across the Frankish empire, adding to the number of important schools already founded during the preceding Merovingian period (such as the schools in Autun and Lyon). Production and preservation of manuscripts in key monasteries (such as the monastery at Corbie) continued to proliferate under Charlemagne’s rule as well.

Manuscript with a list of monk names which place it at Corbie in the 9th century

Above: List of monk names which place this manucript (BnF Lat. 12957 f. 99v and f.100r) at Corbie in the 9th century.

The Carolingian period also saw significant changes to how texts were written and read. For example, while the Merovingian period saw the standardisation of the punctus (which is similar to the period) and the comma, question marks were created and came into use during the reign of Charlemagne. Scribes also began to use the inverted semi-colon and expletives (for example in French: et, si) to affect emphasis in their written productions.

Charlemagne also affected sweeping educational reforms in which a key player was the English missionary Alcuin of York. Both Charlemagne and Alcuin felt that the quality of education in monasteries was slipping. For Alcuin, improvement hinged upon a reform of how Latin was taught and used. He was appalled by the general use of a less 'correct' Latin and focused his educational reform efforts on rigorous implementation of a more 'classical' usage of Latin. Under his guidance the Carolingian period saw a revival of classical Latin.

Alcuin was also instrumental in the transmission of texts across borders. Movement of texts from place to place spread and increased knowledge and contact with more textual forms, augmenting the educational experiences of pupils in the schools.

Alcuin and Charlemagne's reforms and investments in monastery schools and education had a huge impact on how people wrote and read during the Carolingian period. To this day, we have the Carolingians to thank for the legibility of our texts, for the widespread use of question marks, and for so much more.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.