Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Word spacing, silent reading, and cyborgs

I was thinking about historical studies of how information technology affect thinking and perception, and maybe I was too hasty in saying that well-researched examples are too few and far between. Two more came to mind: Paul Saengers work on word spacing in the middle ages, and Samuel Edgertons work on geometry, perspective, and Renaissance science.

Word spacing is something that we never think about, much less think about having been invented or having a history.The Romans almost never used it: Latin texts and inscriptions on buildings often ran words together (the graffiti-turned-grammar lesson scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian notwithstanding). But Saenger makes a compelling case that its adoption and diffusion in late medival Europe had tremendous ramifications in monastic culture, book history, and eventually intellectual and political history.

Ill talk about Saenger here, and leave Edgerton for a later post.

[This draws on Paul Saenger, “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 13 (1982), 367-414.]

Marshall McLuhan argued that medieval oral culture– which he defined by “discourse and group readings of manuscript books”– had been destroyed by the printing press, replaced by a “visual culture in which men exchanged ideas through the private silent reading of printed books.” (367) Saenger argues that the shift from oral to print culture– or rather from oral to silent reading, with various other attendant changes– was brought on by the adoption of word spacing from the 1100s to 1400s, not the printing press. If this is so, then word spacing deserves to be regarded as an innovation on par with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

Roman authors like Plutarch and Cicero praised reading aloud as an aid to memory, and internal evidence suggests that letters and orations were meant to be spoken rather than read. Further, “books of the ancient Romans were highly unsuited to visual reading and study,” containing “neither punctuation, distinction between uppercase and lowercase letters, nor word separation.” This and other evidence suggests that “silent reading was an uncommon practice in classical antiquity.” (370)

The first Christians inherited from Judaism exegetical practices and mnemonic techniques developed for rabbinical disputation. However, “the evolution of Christianity from a predominantly Hebraic to a predominantly Gentile religion left later Christians unprepared to master the Bible in the traditional manner.” (373-74) These new Christians relied more heavily on “the written text of Scripture,” (374) and the growth of patristic literature increased the need for tools to make cross-references from commentaries into the Bible.

So word separation was adopted “not as the result of conscious paleographic reform but an accidental result of the traumatic contact in Ireland between the ossified literary traditions of late Roman antiquity and the oral culture of the illiterate Celts.” (377) Roman readers were familiar enough to make word spacing unnecessary; but “8th century Saxon and Celtic priests, living on the fringes of what had been the Roman Empire, had a weak grasp of Latin and needed spaces between words to recognize them in order to pronounce liturgical texts correctly as they read them.” (377)

[In his book, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), Saenger identifies a second source for word spacing: “The separated Arabic translations of scriptura continua Greek texts became models for the Latin West, which is indebted to the Arab world for the transmission of the text format as well as for the content of Aristotelianism and other scientific works.” (124) Indeed, “early Latin translations of Arabic scientific works [were the first] to circulate in northern Europe invariably in word-separated form.” Thus “word separation can be regarded as a product of the frontier civilizations that had developed at the periphery of what had been the Roman Empire.” From the 10th century, a “new corpus of scientific knowledge, and with it a new impetus for the adoption of word separation, sprang forth in another linguistic frontier zone, that of Mozarabic Spain.” (123) In addition to preserving the works of ancient natural philosophers, astronomers, physicians, mathematicians, et al., Arabic was written using both word spacing and special letters to indicate word starts and stops. The translation of Arabic works constituted “the most significant prose translation from a separated Semitic language to Latin since Jerome had translated the Vulgate,” (124) and occupied the energies of some of the most notable figures of late medieval intellectual life. Those translators brought word separation across the divides of language, even as they carried the ideas themselves. Thus the use of word spacing became standard at Santa Maria of Ripoll– the leading center of Arabic translation in Spain– by the 1000s, and its works reached into France, Lorraine, and Germany.]

Word spacing began as an aid to reading aloud, but it soon gave rise to two new practices: silent copying and (paradoxically) silent reading. Scribes who copied texts were supposed to do their work in silence. Previously they had developed means of copying in silence: most notably, such as breaking texts into lines of 10-15 characters, which they could remember in their entirety. Adding word spacing “increased reading speed and permitted more rapid copying.” (378) The enforcement of silence became stricter as word spacing diffused through scriptoria, and scribal iconography shifts from showing scribes receiving dictation from angels, to scribes copying from texts.

Reading likewise became a silent activity, we evidenced by changing interpretation of the rule of silence. Before about the 10th century, “oral group reading and composition [were] in practice no more considered a breach of silence than were confession or the recitation of prayers. Cluniac monks were judged to have violated their vows of silence only when a word they spoke was not written in the text.” (383) But later, “silence” comes to mean real silence.

Once reading became silent, the design of spaces for reading– namely libraries– could also change. Carrels had been developed in the early Middle Ages to let monks read aloud or dictate, and few reference books had been needed in a period in which memorization of Scripture was the central intellectual challenge of a life. In the late 13th century, libraries were relocated to central halls, and “furnished with desks, lecterns, and benches where readers sat next to one another. ” (396) Services also changed: lending periods grow, as readers are able to work through books more quickly, and “reference books were chained to the lecterns so that they could always be consulted in the library.” (396)

Silent reading even affects university lectures: by the 13th century professors’ lectures took for granted that their students had access to books, and could follow along in the text with the lecture.

Books that were meant to be read silently differed from those meant to be read aloud: they were more visually complex, and their design could incorporate metadata and visual cross-references that wouldn’t make sense in books that were read aloud. What other scholars have referred to as paratexts– .e.g, “tables of contents, alphabetical glosses, subject indexes, running headings” (408)– only really work in books that you interact with visually rather than orally.

All these changes, marking “the transformation from an oral monastic culture to a visual scholastic one between the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 14th centuries” (405) are first confined to the ecclesiastical worlds, but from the 14th century they spread in lay literate culture.

But the most interesting and elusive consequences of silent reading were psychological. Saenger argues that silent reading “emboldened the reader, because it placed the source of his curiosity completely under his personal control,” (399) and changes the ways in which both heresy and devotion were practiced, making challenges and obedience to heterodoxy more a personal matter. Earlier heretical movements “had popular origins and reflected collective spiritual needs rather than individual intellectual curiosity,” and were communicated orally, rather than through writing. In the 13th and 14th century, private reading becomes a space for “individual critical thinking” that encourages “the development of skepticism and intellectual heresy.” (399) Likewise, spiritual literature in the 14th century was meant to be read alone, turning reading itself into a kind of meditation (that incidentally involved the highest of the senses, sight).

The privacy afforded by silent reading had the same effects in lay society that it did in scholastic circles. It made easier the cultivation of individual opinions and subversive thoughts (“the rebellious brother of Louis XI left in his copy of Cicero’s De officiis underlined passages justifying rebellion and the assassination of tyrants” (412)), and the circulation and consumption of pornography. It also made religious feeling into a more private matter. Indeed, lay readers were supporters first of the mendicant orders, and later of Calvin; this suggests that “the formulation of reformist religious and political ideas and receptivity of Europe’s elite to making private judgements on matters of conscience owed much to a long evolution, beginning in the 12th century and culminating in the 15th century, in the manner in which men read and wrote.” (414)

In other words, word spacing and silent reading help lay the foundations for the Renaissance and Reformation. Now that’s profound.


  1. Wow. This is really fascinating!
    This reminds me of some of the better episodes of “Connections,” in fact.

    It’s also interesting thinking of this in the context of the cyborg material you’ve been citing.

  2. Oops. I forgot a /.

    [Ed: I took care of it.]

  3. I could be wrong about this — been a while since I did any pre-15th-century paleography — but my impression is that the rise of scribal abbreviation coincides with the rise of word-spacing. Coincidence?

  4. Dorothea,

    If I interpret Saenger correctly, he does argue that there are a variety of innovations in the appearance of books, and the manipulation of written texts, that follow word spacing. Scribal abbreviation is one of those; others include

    • Layout on the same page of glosses and commentaries alongside original texts, linked by symbols similar to footnotes;
    • Marks setting off quotations, which eventually evolve into modern quotation marks;
    • By the 15th century, formerly continuous writings were subdivided into chapters and sections; paragraph breaks are used to signal changes in argument, evidence or subject, and capital letters and punctuation marks are used to help readers structure their apprehension of texts and make sense of what they’re reading.

    These are all things that happen to published works; there are also changes in writing practices. These follow not just the introduction of word spacing, but the growing accessibility of parchment, and a shift from the use of wax tablets to parchment for writing drafts:

    • Autographic script for rapid writing on parchment develops in the 1200s, and by 1300 it evolved into a genuine cursive (in which the pen didn’t leave the page for a word). By the 14th century, “the autograph codex supplanted dictation as the most common form of composition.” (387) The physical act of writing also got easier, as writing on parchment replaced wax and membranes.
    • These changes in practice have an effect on the way authors think of themselves: not as dictators (i.e., dictating texts to someone who copies down their words), but rather as writers (i.e., people who think on the page). This was “vividly documented by medieval illuminations” (388). Until the 13th century, authors are shown being dictated to by divines; later, they are shown copying texts held by angels. The divine inspiration is the same, but the means of communication change.
    • The scholarly study from the 13th century more regularly include desks, which oral composition did not require.
    • “As a result of the new ease in writing, the author achieved a new sense of intimacy and privacy in his work. In solitude, he was personally able to manipulate drafts on separate quires and sheets. He could see his manuscript as a whole, develop internal relationships, and eliminate redundancies in common to the dictated literature of the 12th century.” (390)
  5. This is really interesting. But I’m not understanding why word spacing would either encourage or discourage silent reading. Whether you’re reading out-loud or silently, the effect of absent word spacing would be to slow you down..unless, perhaps, you are reading material that you are already very familiar with.

  6. My guess is that word spacing allows pattern recognition — instead of seeing a collection of sounds to be spelled out (silently or not) in order to determine where meaning lies, one instead sees a stream of symbols (*****

  7. Unusual ideas can make enemies.

    Ed: Comment spam. This comment and the next have the same e-mail address and come from the same IP address

  8. If you save the world too often, it begins to expect it.

    [Ed: Are these names characters from one of those Austin Powers movies, or something?]

  9. I have some questions as follows:
    1. what is the definition of silent reading?
    2. what are the factors involved in reading process?
    3. what is writing ability?

  10. I think it would be hard to read without spaces

  11. Alex Ukrainian said:
    Some 20 years ago I did research on visual stylistic devices in the English language prose. Ever since I have been looking for History of Silent Resding (in German) by J.Balogh (1926). Do you happen to have any leads to this text?

  12. Alex, I’m afraid not. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the book, only
    references to it.

  13. I read your notes about space between words and loved them. I am a mexican researcher and my interest is how children acquire written conventions (from a psycolingüistic paradigm). I am particullarly interested on how they approach punctuation as it is a very difficult writing aid. To understand the criteria behind children´s use of punctuation, I´ve had to look back in time. Of course, space and punctuation have coexisted ever since the irish monks introduced such revolutionary writing device with one aim: ensuring the best interpretation of the written message.
    If yo happen to have references to this topic (punctuation) and/or want to make comments, I shall be more than pleased.

  14. Consider the analog in deaf sign language. Finger spelling words l-e-t-t-e-r by letter has a fundamental speed limit that has to do with the time it takes to form the hand shapes. Concept or word signs take little longer to make than a few letters, no matter how sophisticated the thought being conveyed. Its much much more efficient. Even common word endings like -ing and -ation become one fluid hand motion that is made and recognized as a unit.

    Fascinating topic. Thanks for the blog and the comments
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