When I’m writing for the web, one of the things I keep in mind is to note the length of my paragraphs. Too long, and readers’ eyes will simply glaze over. We seem willing to focus a little longer on the printed page, but even then, if I see a paragraph that takes up most of a page or slops over to fill up the next one, I kind of assume that nothing is happening–action tends to occur in smaller bursts, dialog in a particular format, and both of those are more likely to advance the plot and develop the characters than a long passage of introspection, description or exposition. Certainly, a skilled author can make those long paragraphs just as compelling, but, visually speaking, they send up a warning. A warning for which, we may have the Emperor Charlemagne to thank.
In most cases, our eyes fall upon a block of text and automatically begin to read. For just a moment, though, I’d like to squint a little bit, and think not about what is being said, but about the visual aspect of the process that conveys information from the author to the reader, much of which began around the time of Charlemagne (c. 742- 814 CE), and possibly at the palace school and scriptorium he founded. Several of the vital elements of clear writing began at this time–exciting innovations like: space between words! initial capital letters! (and, the biggie) the paragraph!
Gah! I”m exhausted already–give that a try yourself (it’s okay, I’ll wait). It was almost impossible not to hit the space bar, wasn’t it? But during the early middle ages, niceties of punctuation, standardized spelling and spacing were rare. Fortunately for those scribes, literacy was rare as well, so most ordinary folks didn’t have to wade through texts like the one above. The writing of the time is also rife with idiosyncratic abbreviations to save time and ink, combined letters or letters left out (as in the habit, in Hebrew, of leaving out the vowels entirely, leading to much consternation as future scholars attempt to interpret what word is meant by a short string of consonants).
A discovery announced just in January of this year suggests that the script associated with Charlemagne, the Carolingian Miniscule, was already in development prior to the great king. There were attempts made in various times and places to clarify text visually, including the use of small symbols to designate paragraph breaks, including the Pilcrow (that little double-lined “P” symbol used in word processing programs for the same function) which may have developed from a Greek approach to paragraphing.
However, it’s under Charlemagne, with his school training students in a more uniform fashion, and his expanding administration, that the structure of writing begins to be codified. Nowadays, with the advent of texting, the habit of leaving out vowels, creating new abbreviations and using obscure symbols to convey a more complete message is returning. Still, as you write your next memo, email, or chapter, take a moment to squint at the text through the lens of history,and give thanks to Charlemagne and those who made our words–a thousand years later–so much more clear.