This blog is written in partial fulfillment of an MA in Creative Media. Over the next two years I hope to explore the many innovations that medieval scribes brought to communication of the written word, and investigate whether any of their genius can be applied to current practices of content delivery in the digital age.

An image of Scriptio continua ("Continuous script"). Text is rendered in all capitals with no word dividers or spaces.

Scriptio continua (“Continuous script” in Latin; also scriptura continua) is a style of writing without word dividers, that is, without spaces or other marks between words or sentences.
In the West, the oldest Greek and Latin inscriptions use word dividers, but these are rare in the later periods when scriptio continua becomes the norm (in Classical Greek and late Classical Latin).

While much research has been done on medieval Irish scribes from an historical, archaeological and literature-based perspective, little if any has been executed with a view to linking their practices to contemporary design/visual communication processes.

I believe their technical innovations such as the development of the lower-case alphabet and their creative practice of not merely translating Latin texts verbatim but imbuing them with a cultural context that made greater sense to their contemporaries, define Irish scribes as designers interested in not only informing, but communicating.

In her book Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth, Ilana Snyder states “Irish scribes…

“were not passive recorders of history” but actively engaged with the texts they were recording.”

In the broader context of the relevance of this subject to contemporary design practice, I further hope to draw a correlation between their practices and the skills necessary to produce and communicate effective digital content in the digital age.

Ilyana Snyder notes:

“In the age of manuscripts, when scribes frequently altered what they copied, the distinction between authors and readers was not so significant.”

I believe this gave rise to a sort of hypertext, although it was not recognised as such at the time. The following passage taken from a website developed by Professor Kathleen Coyne Kelly of Northeastern University, which aims to be a hypertextual discovery of The Táin, describes best the direction I see my project taking (at this moment):

“Instead one might consider the ways that a hypertextual reading echoes and works with scribal practices and readings. Hypertextual readers are, in a sense, like scribes; they actively construct the text they are reading/writing. Because “hypertext reading requires the reader to make deliberate choices about which path to take” it “gives permission to readers to insert themselves into the meaning construction process and ‘write’ a text in a way that is often different from what the author foresaw. Hypertext makes us conscious of the blurring of the reader/author role” (Patterson 76-77). In showing the ways hypertext reading has an “openness” that softens the distinction between author and reader, Nancy Patterson aligns hypertext with medieval scribal practices, which also made “the boundaries between author and reader” indistinct (78). Likewise Ilyana Snyder notes that “The move from ‘writer’ or ‘reader’ to the ‘writer-reader’ of hypertext involves a negotiation and redistribution of traditional hierarchical power arrangements. With the loss of an authoritative and untouchable authorial identity comes a new sense of dialogic identity, created by the sense of being perpetually in dialogue with other texts and other writers” (79).”

I am not entirely sure what shape the deliverable will take. At the moment I am veering towards an installation that will merge traditional publishing with digital publishing, a book (or books) about the book – a sort of ‘meta-book’. I see the final product comprising of ‘open-ended content’ or being a ‘living book’ if you will, one that viewers/users can interact with, perhaps walk through and change – turning viewers into readers-authors, much like our scribal ancestors.

A page from the Cathach that shows use of a lower case alphabet.

According to the paleographer Lowe, the Cathach (a late 6th century Irish Psalter) “represents the pure milk of Irish calligraphy”. And, while it is generally conceded to be the earliest specimen of national script in Ireland, it already announces in its integrity, its clarity and the concreteness of its detail, the great works (more colourful if no less intense) to come after it.

An example of insular miniscule from 'The Book of Kells'

“The monks of Ireland had been converted to Christianity during Roman times, and they continued to use a distinctive script that rounded the Latin letters. It is generally called insular majuscule because it is isolated on an island and the letters were all one size. Insular majuscule is familiar to modern eyes as the writing in famous works such as The Book of Kells. The letters were round, decorated and frequently elongated or tied together with ligatures. The Irish monks also developed a minuscule script with lowercase letters. Insular minuscule had defending stroked in letters like g and q. Both these Irish scripts went to England, influenced Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, and then were copied in other European monasteries.”
From ‘All Things Medieval: An Encyclopedia of the Medieval World: An Encyclopedia’ … By Ruth A Johnston

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