Tag Archives: communication

Okay, only some people read

I’ll show myself out…

Let’s take a breath. This flowering of learning and culture wasn’t for everybody. Literacy—reading and writing—was doing fantastic in the monasteries, schools, colleges and universities. Outside those buildings, the literacy rate for regular shmoes was depressingly low. Mediæval Europe had a rigid class system—feudalism—with 3 classes: nobility, freemen and serfs. The economy was all about land. The nobles owned land; the freemen rented land (or lived in a town); the serfs farmed someone else’s land (in exchange for protection and a portion of the harvest).

Most people didn’t know how to read or write. The schools I talked about earlier were for the sons of nobles, or freemen who made a nice living. The nobility were either knights (military) or clergy (church). Clergy definitely needed to read and write to understand the Bible. Of the well-off freemen, merchants learned how read, write and do math because they needed to keep records of merchandise bought and sold, like the Phoenicians did. Lawyers and doctors needed to read and write. But most people—low-income freemen and serfs—couldn’t afford literacy. Papyrus is cheap but doesn’t last very long away from the desert. Parchment is expensive. Books written by hand are expensive. If you were a serf, forget about going to school. The very last thing nobles wanted was their cheap labor going to school to learn stuff. They even made it illegal. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/parliament-rolls-medieval/november-1391

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_no_one_rid_me_of_this_turbulent_priest%3F

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Higher education

Colleges popping up!

These things don’t happen all at once. First schools—colleges—popped up, to teach the trivium and quadrivium (the liberal arts). Next, there were specialized schools that taught medicine or law or divinity. In late eleventh-century Bologna (that’s in Italy) somebody got the idea to gather together schools that taught specialties and the liberal arts under one philosophical roof and call them a university. ‘University’ comes from the Latin word universitas that means ‘whole, the sum of all things.’

Side bar: these terms for higher learning institutions are used differently in different countries. In Spain, ‘college’ sounds a lot like their word for high school. In Italy, ‘liceo’ (lee CHAY oh) means high school, but in Great Britain or the US, a lyceum is a hall where people give lectures or concerts.

https://www.medievalchronicles.com/medieval-life/medieval-schools/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_European_universities
https://www.britannica.com/topic/university
https://www.medievalists.net/2011/08/medieval-university/
https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2018-02-14/understand-the-difference-between-a-college-and-university-in-the-us
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/lyceum

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Charlemagne’s culture boom

Your books will ship in 1-2 business days!

All of Charlemagne’s and Alcuin’s hard work paid off. The scriptoria were busy cranking out books using Alcuin’s new Carolingian-style letters (did you know Charlemagne’s sister Sister Gisele ran a scriptorium?) and choirs were singing those beautiful polyphonic hymns. Charlemagne’s push for education and culture inspired collections of schools to become universities—who clamored for even more books.

Sister Hildegard would do just about anything to improve the lighting in her scriptorium.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolingian_Renaissance
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chelles_Abbey
https://thenewinquiry.com/blog/women-scribes-the-technologists-of-the-middle-ages/

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Polyphony

A bewigged quartet of musicians I drew for my pals at the good ol’ Renaissance & Baroque Society of Pittsburgh some years ago. Did Alcuin have any idea his invention would eventually come to this?

It wasn’t long before musicians figured out they could use notation to write several tunes into the same song: tunes that harmonize with or play against the main tune and enrich it. This is called polyphony.

Alcuin’s invention makes it possible to write fugues and symphonies and operas with parts for an entire orchestra of musical instruments and many human voices. Other cultures nowadays may write and perform symphonies, but they couldn’t do it without Alcuin and Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.

Here are a couple of quick explanations of how musical notation works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN41d7Txcq0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFaKNR7eeJk
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphony
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/dec/17/polyphonic-music-fragment-origins-rewritten
Mediæval music manuscripts are a lovely combination of lettering and notes. https://sites.google.com/a/umich.edu/from-tablet-to-tablet/final-projects/music-in-medieval-manuscripts
https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=44459
Here are the Mediæval Bæbes to show us what the Middle Ages sounded like—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXrdfTSLWCY
Likewise Carlo Gesualdo (he’s the composer; I can’t find who performed the Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday in this recording)—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjXQeuO0fLw
You sure can’t beat the Tallis Scholars—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4VoKso5ERI
Girls could play the game, too. In the 1100s, divinely-inspired Sister Hildegard von Bingen created this music—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YTOiJ-zjP0
Eventually (ad 1700s—see the sketch above) we got Johanne Sebastian Bach writing stuff like this. I believe the bottom staff has the main tune while the top staff has all the deedle-deedle-deedle (I don’t know how to read music so maybe a musically-literate reader can help me out): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCL5Zvnt0TU
A couple centuries later—you can hear and see the different lines of music played here, in Khachaturian’s gorgeous adagio from Spartacus (this piece brings me to tears every time): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXsDsLHasWo
Here’s what 20th-century New York City sounded like. This is a 1940s Hollywood recreation of the 1924 debut of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but that sure looks like Paul Whiteman at the podium. The piano plays the main tune; the orchestra plays the variations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAuTouBhN5k

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Alcuin solves the problem

This guy, Alcuin. Not only did he run Charlemagne’s palace school, standardize calligraphy throughout the Holy Roman Empire, invent punctuation (like the question mark), set up the way Latin ought to be pronounced in church—he invented musical notation, too.

It got under Charlemagne’s skin that the Empire’s churches and monasteries sang the same hymns but each church gave a hymn a different tune. Charlemagne was relentless in his campaign to standardize everything. He put Alcuin in charge of making sure every choir sang the same tune. So Alcuin invented musical notation.



Musical notation was meant simply to record the tune of a song. Each note represents a particular pitch, depending on where it sits on a scale. The scale is horizontal lines—it’s a frame of reference. Notes at the top of the scale are sung higher than notes at the bottom of the scale. Thanks to Alcuin, choirs throughout the Empire knew exactly what tune to sing just by looking at the written musical notes.

Here are a couple of quick explanations of how musical notation works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN41d7Txcq0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFaKNR7eeJk

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Same words, different tune

Charlemagne had a problem. He had an empire full of churches and no two of them sang a hymn the same way. They knew the words, but it was tough to remember the tune for every hymn. Remember, there was often a lot of distance between churches. Communication of words was made easier with the standardization of writing. Tunes you had to memorize. Maybe by the time a monk got from one church to another he might forget the tunes to all the hymns and te Deums and requiems and responsories. So they made ‘em up. One church might sing a hymn to a particular tune:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60euxXvw5aA
And another church would sing the same hymn but with an entirely different tune:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0EN_Hmq534

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The Style Book of Alcuin

Alcuin’s style book is probably waiting to be discovered in a church basement somewhere

Something that’s intrigued me for many years: besides standardizing written Latin, did Alcuin standardize its pronunciation, too? I’ve been told that Alcuin instituted a policy of one consonant = one sound only, or one vowel = one sound only. I don’t know if a style guide by Alcuin exists. It’s hard to believe he didn’t write one. It would be such an Alcuin thing to do.

I suspect we have ecclesiastical (church) Latin because that’s the pronunciation Alcuin made official. Ecclesiastical Latin is why around Christmastime we sing “in eks SEL sees Dayo” and not “in eks KEL sees Dayo.” We use a soft palatal s or ch sound instead of the hard gutteral k sound the old Romans would have used. My own personal theory is that Alcuin was English, that’s the way they pronounced Latin in England, so that’s the pronunciation that got his stamp of approval. Who knows?

Angels We Have Heard on High:

From a few years back. I idiotically informed everyone that Alcuin was Irish: https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/western-civ/

This guy gets into the weeds a bit but he’s well worth the listen:

Embrace your inner Latin nerd! This is what the internet was built for. When I was a kid you’d have to go to college to hear a great lecture like this:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/cambridge-classical-journal/article/abs/english-pronunciation-of-latin-its-rise-and-fall/A0860C6625BE5A0E45FD58A18797E6FB
https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/philosophy-and-religion/roman-catholic-and-orthodox-churches-general-biographies/alcuin
https://latin.stackexchange.com/questions/13984/how-old-is-ecclesiastical-latin-pronunciation
https://www.fisheaters.com/latin.html

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Lettering as sweet as the dew on the vine, so it is

You can still find the uncial style of writing every March on Saint Patrick’s Day cards and furniture-sale advertisements. Uncial style looks Irish. It was popular with the Irish monks.

Uncials

The old-style square-cap Latin was written in all capital letters, as if the ‘caps lock’ button were on the whole time. It reads like you’re being yelled at (maybe that was the idea).

In Alcuin’s day, monks wrote on parchment. Parchment isn’t cheap and all-caps takes up a lot of space. The monks learned to conserve space by making the first letter of a sentence a big capital letter and writing the rest of the sentence in small letters. The small letters were only an inch high—an ‘uncia’ in Latin—so this style of writing is called ‘uncial’ (OON se al).*

Uncials. Look how round they are compared to the Latin square-caps.

The small letters are called miniscules. The monks formed them with pens, so they became more round in contrast to the chiseled-in-stone letters of the old days. The miniscules grew tails, like ‘d’ or ‘p’ which extended up or down. They look different from capital letters.

The big capital letters are called maguscules MAH-juss-kyoolz). In time the maguscules became large versions of the miniscules.

This is the style Alcuin updated to Carolingian and promoted across the Holy Roman Empire. Latin translations of Arabic texts would be written in the Carolingian style. Alcuin dreamed up an additional feature: punctuation. Thanks to Alcuin you can tell when sentences end and new ones begin because they’re marked with a period. You can tell if the writer is asking a question, because there’s a question mark at the end. I’m personally grateful for the M-dash—which I probably overuse.

*…or maybe the monks shouldn’t be taken too literally. ‘Uncial’ may have been their jokey way of saying the letters are small.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/uncial
https://www.britannica.com/topic/uncial
http://www.designhistory.org/Handwriting_pages/Uncials.html
http://www.designhistory.org/Handwriting_pages/Carolingian.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/majuscule
I wanted to get a take on uncials from a calligrapher. Here’s that wonderful lady who makes her own ink. She says it’s St Jerome’s fault they’re called uncials. She shows you how to write them:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU-dHTEkAx0&t=335s
You weirdos who’ve been loyally following this blog will no doubt remember this post:
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/07/04/measuring-distance-in-rome/

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We’re going to need more books

Charlemagne wanted to promote a culture of learning throughout France and then the Holy Roman Empire. He didn’t have tv or the internet to spread this learning around, so Charlemagne would need to use books. Many of those old books from classical times (during the Greek & Roman Empires) were hard or impossible to find.

° Bad news: Charlemagne was made aware that many original manuscripts of ancient writers and philosophers had been lost or destroyed—like when the library at Alexandria got torched. Probably Alcuin and the other teachers told him.
° Good news: Charlemagne was made aware that copies of these ancient manuscripts existed in the Near- and MidEast, translated into Arabic. Probably Alcuin again.
° Plan of action: Charlemagne and Alcuin began an empire-wide program of finding the Arabic copies and translating them into Latin.

As I mentioned a few posts back, written Latin had taken on a different character in every different kingdom—it didn’t look like the square-cap Latin chiselled into a column that Julius Caesar would have recognized. Copying and translating these Arabic manuscripts would be a golden opportunity to standardize writing—get everybody in the empire writing the same way. Here’s the thing: instead of making all the monks go back to square-cap Latin, Alcuin had a different idea. He noticed that a lot of those regional writing quirks made Latin easier to read.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25669.How_the_Irish_Saved_Civilization
https://omniglot.com/writing/latin2.htm
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory/chapter/charlemagnes-reforms/

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