How Upper and Lower Case Letters Changed the World

The Godescalc EvangelistaryWhen I was studying European history at university, I had to write a paper about the Carolingian empire. You won’t be surprised to learn that I chose a language-related topic. These days, as my six-year-old learns to read and write, I’ve been thinking about that paper. Today, I’d like to revisit it.

As you may know, people didn’t always use upper and lower case letters—also known as majuscule and minuscule. In Rome, manuscripts from the 7th and 8th centuries were written entirely in majuscule. Around the same time in Ireland, monks began doing something ground-breaking in their manuscripts. Important passages were marked with a large and elaborate first letter. But all the other letters were minuscule—and most of them were strung together with little or no spacing between words.

In 781, the Carolingian emperor, Charlemagne, brought the English scholar, Alcuin of York, to his court in Aachen. Now, Charlemagne had his faults (a love of warfare and a hatred of pagans—especially the tree-worshippers, for some reason), but he supported education and wished all his subjects could learn to read and write. Alcuin was appointed director of the palace school, and he quickly got to work. In 783, the very first manuscript to use what is now known as Carolingian minuscule was completed. It is called The Godescalc Evangelistary and it’s a beautiful work of art (written in silver and gold ink on purple parchment). But it was also the first step toward making reading accessible to everyone.

Carolingian manuscripts are some of the clearest and most legible hand-written documents from history. Why? Because they use majuscule and minuscule, they put spaces between words, and they even use punctuation.

Although the Carolingian script fell out of use over the next several centuries, it was rediscovered in the early 1400s by Poggio Bracciolini, a secretary of the papal court, who added capital letters with straight edges to the curvy Carolingian minuscule. His friend, Niccolò Niccoli, also liked the Carolingian script, but adapted it by sloping the letters slightly and allowing some of them to touch, which made writing more comfortable (and inspired what would become cursive writing).

In 1470, the French printer Nicolas Jenson created a type face based on Bracciolini’s script, which he called roman. Then, in 1501, the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius created a type face based on Niccoli’s script, which he called italic. Now isn’t that cool?

By the way, do you know why we call them upper and lower case letters? The letters for printing presses were stored in cases (often built into the press). The minuscule letters, which were used more often, were stored in the lower case—and the majuscule letters were stored in the upper case.

So the next time you’re reading a good book, or encouraging your child to put spaces between their words, or trying to decide if that word needs to be in italics, think about how thrilled Charlemagne would be that so many of us can read thanks to his love and support of education.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of writing and printing, or about Charlemagne and Alcuin of York, here are some articles to get you started:

Image credit: The Godescalc Evangelistary, from Google Images

14 thoughts on “How Upper and Lower Case Letters Changed the World

  1. Okay, this was *way* more interesting than the speech I presented to the class when I was in 7th grade on the invention of the printing press. I think – no I *know* – I put everyone to sleep – including myself, I think. 😀 Thanks for this!

    1. You are very welcome, Ellie! Thanks so much for reading.

      I have to say, I do not miss having to do speeches like that. Although it reminds me of this great teacher I had in Grade 3 who let us tell a story instead of doing a speech. That was fun. 🙂

  2. The more I learn about how haphazard and nonstandard writing was earlier in history, the more I wonder that *anyone* managed to be literate. Great tidbit about the upper and lower *cases* — I never heard that!

      1. It really is! I’m picturing someone’s great-great-great-etc.grandfather saying, “You think you have it bad, not having enough TIME to read, p’shaw. You should have tried it in my day, back before the words and the letters and the spaces were standardized. I’m telling you, it was uphill, both ways!”

  3. HI Suzanne! Per your earlier permission, this article is scheduled to be featured as a guest post on March 16th. As usual, it includes your credit, bio, link to your blog. Thanks!

  4. Just saw this now. Experienced a frisson of delight when I read “written in silver and gold ink on purple parchment”. Also glad to have the explanation for upper and lower case. Thank you, Suzanne – you’ve made my day!

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