Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The importance of handwriting

As part of my midlife crisis I have taken up calligraphy (along with a lot of other vices). Like all serious arts, it is trying, hard to master and demands a lot of practice (and yes, that does mean most of modern art is just rubbish, but here I am playing captain obvious) . In fact, it is as much an a craft as art, and one, which requires, if one wants to reach a real mastery, a reasonably good command of watercolor or acrylic painting, as well as of drawing. Of course, it will be a long time before I am able to write a full letter in insular minuscule, and I will probably never have the skill of XVIIth century writing masters such as Maria Strick or Jan Van den Velde, but I feel that learning a craft is a worthwhile effort in and for itself.

There is more to that than merely learning to write in the manner of medieval Irish monks or of Stuart period writing masters. With the rise of word processors and printers, penmanship has become an endangered skill. Writing has been lost in large areas at least twice in our history : after the late bronze age collapse, when writing disappeared from both Greece and Anatolia, and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, when writing was utterly lost in what is now England. In both case it was caused by the collapse of the structures which used writing the most : the palatial economy in Mycenian Greece and the Roman administration and the Catholic Church in Dark Age Britain.

A text in sütterlin
The form of writing can also change beyond recognition, sometimes very quickly. This is what happened in Germany in 1942. Until then Germany used mostly “German script”, based upon the late medieval Fraktur and Swabacher styles. The cursive varieties, kurrent and Sütterlin had grown significantly different from our Latin script, and mutual intelligibility was, at best, problematic. Then, in 1942, Martin Borman, probably relaying an order from Hitler banned Fraktur – yes I know, the idea of Hitler banning “German script” sounds surrealist, but it’s Hitler we are talking about. Fraktur never recovered from it and survives today only among Mennonites and Amish. As a result, contemporary Germans no longer have access to diaries, books and papers anterior to WWII.

This is relevant to the coming energy descent because the form of writing is highly dependent upon technology. Romans used a brush for monumental inscriptions and a sharpened reed for books and informal writings. They also had three distinct scripts. The highly complex Imperial Majuscule was drawn with a brush, mostly in monumental inscriptions, while the informal cursive written with a reed, as was the formal bookhand, the rustica.

The two things happened. First, Christians designed a rounder specific script for their writings, the uncial, probably inspired by Greek. Of course, when the Empire became christian in 313 AD, the uncial became the de facto standard. Second, as the Empire collapsed, Western Europe shifted from reeds and papyri to quills and parchment. While papyrus, being granular, favored angular styles, parchment allowed for more rounded letters such as the uncial and its successors such as the insular minuscule, still used for Gaelic, and the Caroline minuscule, designed by Alcuin of York, mandated by Charlemagne, to replace the various regional scripts which had developed in Western Europe after the dislocation of the Roman Empire.

The Caroline minuscule was a huge success (of course Charlemagne’s armies helped), but with time it became more and more out of touch with the needs of a world where literacy was no longer restricted to monasteries As the dark ages gave way to classical middle age, the aristocracy became more and more literate and universities were founded in large cities. There was a growing demand for books on secular subjects. These books needed to be produced quickly to keep up with demand. Caroline minuscule, though legible, was time-consuming and labour-intensive. Its large size consumed a lot of manuscript space in a time when writing materials were very costly. Hence the need for a quicker and more compact style.

Black-letters emerged during the twelfth century to fulfill that need and became dominant in Germanic countries and northern France, while a specific script, rotunda, was used in Italy.

It was from Italy that came the next revolution, which was by the way, quite reactionary in nature. At the beginning of the XVth century, there was, in Italy, a widespread feeling that humanities should return to the Roman standards – or rather what was thought to be Roman standards. Reforms were initiated by Petrarch in his 1366 essay, La Scrittura, where he defined the three qualities a writing style should have :simple (castigata), clear (clara) and orthographically correct. The trend was continued by Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, who designed the humanistic hand to transcribe recovered Latin manuscripts and by Niccolò de' Niccoli, who transformed it into the quicker italic style, which was adopted as its official script by the Papal chancery.

The invention of printing brought radical things. It made book manufacturing far easier and, more important, created a sharp divide between the book industry and the world of handwriting. For printers legibility was more important than speed of execution, and the clear humanistic hand soon became the de facto standard, leading to its adoption by scribes. Those, however, worked now mostly in law, business and administration and needed a fast, smooth script. This prompted an evolution of the italic toward rounder, more linked, script, which led to the creation of the English Round Hand in XVIIth century Britain, the basis of modern cursive writing. This was made possible by a new technology : the pointed nib. Those were at first hand-crafted from quills, then with the Industrial Revolution and the progress of metallurgy, mass produced in steel. This allowed a new writing style, with the contrast of thick and thin strokes no longer deriving from the angle of the nib but from the pressure applied to it. The poster child for this was, of course the Spencerian script, which was the de facto American business standard until it was displaced by typewriters then word processors.

That is were the problem lies, for the invention of the typewriter, then of the word processor, then of the portable computer, have considerably restricted the domain of handwriting, to the point, even in private writings. This has led to a simplification of cursive styles and to a de-emphasis of the teaching of cursive handwriting in many areas. A number of American states have even replaced it by "keyboard proficiency".

That would not be a problem if computers were here to stay. After all, Latin alphabet had undergone considerable changes since its Etruscan birth and to most of us Roman cursive cursive would look more like some weird variant of Hebrew than like our familiar "Latin" script. The problem is that computers will likely prove a transient technology and so will most of the tool we now use to write.

Computers, of course, requires a dizzying array of rare materials such as tantalum, gold or ultra-pure silicon. They also require, to be of of any use, a continuous supply of electric power. All of these will be less and less available as the capacity of our society to extract high grade net energy from their environment. As the crisis deepens, the infrastructures upon which our computerized society depends will degrade and the domain of computers will consequently shrink, probably both socially and geographically.

Many of our writing instruments won’t prove more durable, as their mass-manufacturing requires a sizable industrial base which cannot be maintained without a continuous inflow of high-grade energy. The ubiquitous ballpoint pen, for instance, was invented during the early XXth century, and is based upon the rolling action of a small sphere, which cannot be manufactured in pre-industrial conditions. You simply cannot have them without the precision manufacturing capabilities of XXth century technology.

Steel nibs, and therefore fountain pens, can be manufactured under pre-industrial conditions, but certainly not at today’s standards and certainly not at the same price. Current designs use stainless steel or gold alloys, which require a relatively large industrial base for their manufacturing. Of course, one can make them with normal steel, but they won’t last long, especially if one uses a corrosive ink, which is likely. They also will be considerably more expensive and reserved to the elite.

Pencils are simple and easily manufactured, but they require graphite, which is not exactly the commonest of material. It is mostly extracted in China and to make thing worse, it has to be beneficiated to be useful, which, without industrial acids or grinding machines, means crushing and screening the ore... by hand. This will make graphite almost as expensive as its crystallized cousin. There is only one place of the world were you can find directly usable graphite : Borrowdale in Cumbria, England. That is why the pencil industry was born in nearby Keswick. That is also why during the Napoleonic wars, the French couldn’t find a high quality pencil to save their life and had to rely on substitutes made of powdered graphite mixed with clay. Those may be available in the de-industrialized future, but don’t expect them to be cheap.

That means that in 100 years from now we may be back to reeds and quills, which will have a dramatic effect upon our style of writing. Add to that the fact that most modern ink will go with the chemical industry and will have to be replaced by carbon (read sooth) based inks or the more permanent, but potentially corrosive, gall iron ink. Neither work very well with modern pens, of course. In fact, gall iron ink will destroy most of them.

As computers become too expensive to be used for private then administrative writings, handwriting will make a comeback. Printing is probably here to stay, as its principles are relatively simple to master, even if the details are more complex. It is impractical for anything but book-making, however, and everything else will have to be done by hand. By that time, of course, the society will probably have drastically simplified, so the warlords of the salvage societies will only have to keep a few secretaries around, not a whole bureaucracy of them.

Where things become interesting is that those secretaries will be the product of the computer and printer age, when only 15 percent of american students wrote their essay answers in cursive, and only 12 percent of american teachers reported having taken a course in how to teach it. Their writing style will most likely derive from block letters (basically humanistic minuscule and imperial capitals) transformed for speed and easiness, with probably considerable regional variations, making all old handwritten documents illegible. If the presumably shrunken printing industry follows, a large a part of our heritage, including important but not immediately useful scientific or technical information, will be made inaccessible.

This is why penmanship, even though it is by nature an evolutive craft, should be preserved, as a hobby in present conditions. Thus, when penmanship becomes a marketable skill again and a new writing tradition develops anew, it will be based, at least in some areas, upon the tradition which brought us up from the monastic uncial to the round hand people of my generation have been taught at school. That will keep a bridge to the past open for the future societies when they will go out of the coming dark age and develop their own modernity.

We can no longer save our civilization, but keeping a part of its heritage may be a worthwhile endeavor.


  1. SIR,

    As usual, your posts highlight a topic which most seem apt to glance over. I really do quite appreciate it. However, on this topic, I have to wonder if there won't be significant places where people's children or grand children simply do not really learn to read and write properly? It already seems well in hand. The writing skills of those of my generation are bad (I'm 25) and the ones of the following generations are even more abysmal. I have very little hope in that respect, then. What do you think?


    1. Well judging from recent trends, "fine handwriting" is one the way out in developed countries. Not so long ago I was told by a cashier that many people had troubles filling checks by hand.

      Of course on the long term it will be revived. It will certainly be important for a twenty second century warlord to have a highly skilled secretary to handle his diplomacy - prestige matters - and legibility will be a crucial issue in what will be left of the administration.

  2. Thank you for the historical overview of handwriting. My own handwriting was never very good, but I nevertheless like the idea of handwriting as an artistic endeavor. Growing up in Germany after WWII, I was taught in school how to do the pre-war cursive script although that was as part of the art curriculum and not the normal language education.
    I now live in America where a significant part of the population is suspicious of education and learning and it may well be that in the future, the ability to read and write will be a skill in lower demand than it is now. Perhaps in a post-industrial future reading and writing will become a specialty like knowing how to integrate differential equations is at present a specialty learned only by science and engineering students.
    Already, school and library budgets are being cut in response to the economic downturn. Assuming that the downturn is a result of declining energy resources, we can expect more education cuts with continuing decline in energy resources.
    Still, the industrial age will leave behind a large collection of books which if anyone cares to read in the future will require the ability to read and hopefully also to write.

    1. Yes, Germany continued to teach "German script" after WWII, but as a secondary script and it was progressively abandoned because it was felt archaic. I doubt many Germans can now read a handwritten letter from, say, 1930.

      In our society basic literacy is vital. You must be able to fill forms and read signpost to function. Of course reading a novel or writing a legible and correctly spelled letter is another matter. In the deindustrial future, however, most jobs won't require literacy and bureaucracy is likely to dramatically shrink. It is likely, therefore that most people won't invest in it. It simply won't be worth the hassle, unless of course they have a non-professional reason to do it. Historically it has been religion.

      Writing may be lost in some areas, but I doubt it will disappear altogether. It is simply to useful for administration and warfare.

  3. As always this is a really interesting post. I'd never even thought about writing and ink, though I have wondered what paint was made of before oil was used for everything. I'm the same as Wolfgang: my own handwriting being not too special, whilst always liking the idea of nice writing. I lived in Japan for some time, and the reverence of the Japanese people for fine writing is enduring. My writing did use to be a lot better before I started typing everything. I still hand-write important letters.

    1. Well, before oil, we used egg yolk, and in fact the number of painting technique has increased since the adoption of oil painting. Watercolor dates from the Renaissance, is quite popular and is probably here to stay. There is also acrylic, but I doubt it will prove durable.

      About the quality of handwriting, one has to remember that what remains from the middle age are deluxe manuscript and relatively formal legal or diplomatic documents. The cursive hand your average monk used to note down the quantity of cheese in his cellar was probably as bad as today Joe average's.

      What we may lose as the domain of handwriting shrinks, is formal handwriting. It will be revived at some point, but on totally new bases, which will make connections with the past more difficult.

      As for Japan, it is true that East Asia has kept its calligraphic tradition alive, while ours had to be revived during the XIXth century, but now their scripts are highly complex, which makes printing less convenient.

  4. Hello,

    Great post you shared here, And I think that writing is one of the most complex tasks that humans engage in, involving both motor and critical-thinking skills. It's not surprising that learning to write is a process that takes years to complete. It also happens in order, with each skill building on the last.

    Thanks for Post.