ofrunningwordstogether and began separating them with spaces–with unforeseeable consequences. That’s the thesis of a new book, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading, by Paul Saenger, curator of rare books at the Newberry Library. “I was fascinated with the late medieval world and why it was so different from the early medieval world,” says Saenger, who has a PhD in Renaissance history from the University of Chicago. “I came to the conclusion it was, in part, because of the accessibility of books–which had nothing to do with printing. These changes in the page long predated printing. You begin to wonder, when did this happen? Yet nobody knew.”

Prior to the Roman Empire most Mediterranean languages were written with word spaces, but that changed when the Greeks introduced vowels to the Phoenician alphabet. “The Romans were intoxicated by Greek culture,” says Saenger. “They wanted to have books that looked more Greek, so they developed scripts that looked vaguely more Greek and a page that looked Greek, without any spaces.” Reading at the time was done aloud, largely by Roman slaves; later that task fell to church priests.

Saenger pored over medieval parchments, trying to see when spaces between words began to appear. “There is no Latin word that unambiguously means ‘word,'” he says. “The vocabulary for the word only comes out of the Irish and Anglo-Saxon experience in the eighth century. Ireland was beyond the limits of the old empire–there was no indigenous Roman culture. Monks there found Latin to be a very strange language.” Those monks composed grammars for teaching Latin and transcribing ancient texts, and sometimes they scribbled remarks in their vernacular Celtic in the margins–the words separated in an irregular, informal fashion. They may also have followed the practice of separating words that they found in Syriac texts. At any rate, the first Latin texts in which Saenger found consistently separated words were written by Irish monks, and he believes the practice spread from Ireland to the rest of Europe.

Separating words with spaces made texts much easier to read, which allowed individuals to read silently and on their own. It also seems to have enabled authors to be less ambiguous, to express complexity better, to make subtler distinctions–and that permitted a blossoming of writing that went beyond the standard slavish copying of liturgy. Saenger says that scientific texts in Arabic began to be widely translated. Mathematical and musical notation advanced measurably. Calendars of holy days could be calculated faster. Reference books became feasible. By the 12th century there arose “the possibility of a new intimacy linking author, text, and reader.” And in the 13th, “an explosion in the quantity of logical writings.”

All this change also brought challenges to Christian orthodoxy. No longer could church specialists monopolize God’s word, because people could now have their own prayer books. Silent reading of these and other texts, Saenger argues, fostered the growth of a late-medieval individualism. “There’s no doubt that by the end of the Middle Ages, when reading had become private, the rigor of orthodoxy had become more imperiled, because there was private circulation of texts.” –Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): book page; First century Greek manuscript photo Bill Stamets; Paul Saenger photo by Bill Stamets.