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Small Peek Into The Past


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As someone whose main work is in Biology, I need to vent in. Humans are -sorry is this disappoints someone and is against the no-religion rule- just animals. And animals only evolve over many (many-many-many) generations (say, many thousands of years).


What I think is that we can say that people of the XVIII-XIX-XX centuries were not different from us in any way. This does not apply to societies, mind you!


So, among those who had learn to write, many (most) would have a writing according to the social standards of their time (i.e. fairly good) -at least when consciously writing-, a few would have amazing hands no matter what, some would specialize as penmen, and a good deal would have unreadable writing no matter what. Think of a Gauss curve where professionals would -by practice- skew (as a rule) to better writing.


The rule thing is important: would you expect doctors' recipes (for instance) to be more readable (generally speaking) then than now? According to Zola, they weren't that different. And they were educated. And they wrote every day.


The genome is an amazing thing: it can rearrange, but rearrangements are more likely the farther away the genes, i.e. genes located nearby will tend to keep associated (not always). So some professions will associate better with math, music, letters, lettering, drawing, whatever... You cannot generalize "every educated person was so and so...".


Who was literate? Highest class people didn't need to write? Sure? How did they keep their positions then? They needed to know a minimum about rulership, about whatever their business/income source was, etc.. so as not to be gullied by the first fraudster/punster to pass by. The Spanish manuscript "Book of the Treasure" was already used to teach nobles in the MIddle Ages (XI Century). Indeed, most would have some training, and many would attend University. Many great scientists were of noble ascent. From the Middle Ages, many Literary works were from noblemen.


How did they write? There are class-note-taking books preserved and digitized from University libraries, you can freely see them and check: there would be those who had a master hand, those who wrote much like anyone else (now or then), and some undecypherable scribbles.


Did professionals write well? There are many literary authors' manuscripts as well. You can see how the Poets, the Literates, the Artists wrote. Some would have secretaries, but many clearly didn't as you can find autographed originals. Mind you, these guys were professional writers, would be making notes, scribbling, blotting, crossing out, copying and pasting (physically, that's the origin of our computer slang) etc... everyday to make their books. And you can find in their manuscripts master hands, running cursives, and unreadable texts.


I'm not a professional paleographer, but even as amateur have seen enough samples of each in almost any epoque to know there is no uniformity.

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Individuals vary. That much is as true today as it has been forever. And there is some variation in writing styles determined by individual differentiation. Writing, though, is also a social construct. What is "appropriate" writing for various social positions (rich, poor, mercantile, leisure, male, female, old, young...) did change over time and across societies. We can generalize based on what was viewed as "appropriate" but then that gets laid over the individual's execution of what was considered the right kind of hand for that person.


While there were writing masters going far back, all evidence I've seen is that the 19th-century was both a time where the number of people who could write grew tremendously (as availability to education by the poor and middle-classes expanded by leaps and bounds), and the number of writing masters and penmanship "styles" or "schools" grew in proportion. It's no coincidence that this growth also coincided with the growth in the mercantile classes through the industrial revolution. At least in the US, the previous century's differentiation between personal handwriting and a business-appropriate handwriting ("he writes like a clerk" would have been an insult to a gentleman) disappeared with the growth of "business writing" systems. This was particularly true in the US where these markers of one's class were less important.


Yet, even with all of this instruction and these many and various attempts at systematizing writing, people still, after school, just went along and managed however they could on their own.


In an 1882 article on the instruction of penmanship, the author says

"At the present time few teachers will have to write their copies, as the country is flooded with "systems of penmanship," all possessed of more or less excellence, all giving very excellent instructions, and few of them ever used in actual business after our school days are over."


[The Somerset Herald (Somerset, PA), 14 June 1882, p. 1]


He also points out that in his penmanship instruction, he strives for a balance of legibility and rapidity.


Many persons claim that writing is a natural gift. I believe that any one can make a legible writer. I do not believe that every one can make an artistic penman. I regard the great thing in penmanship as legibility; next after that I place rapidity. Of the two applicants for position the quick writer with a tolerable degree of legibility, will obtain teh appointment every time over the slow writer with great legibility.




You can see the whole article here: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/4547540/1882_methods_of_instruction/


“When the historians of education do equal and exact justice to all who have contributed toward educational progress, they will devote several pages to those revolutionists who invented steel pens and blackboards.” V.T. Thayer, 1928

Check out my Steel Pen Blog

"No one is exempt from talking nonsense; the mistake is to do it solemnly."


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  • 3 weeks later...

England is the land of class signifiers: no upper-class gentleman would strive for a readable hand (Dorothy L. Sayers uses "fist") because it's a tradesman's skill; if you needed a readable manuscript or letter, your secretary or a hired copyist would produce a "fair copy" for you.


In America, where classes were more permeable and people were proud of their literacy, good handwriting was an attainment. Even Dan'l Boone had a pretty decent hand.

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The discussion of (esp. in England) the general lack of (striving towards) good pensmanship by upper-class males is interesting. I wonder if the 18th and 19th century represents some shifting of attitudes from earlier times.In the early 17th-century it is perhaps notable that both Prince Henry (who predeceased his father, King James VI & I) and his younger brother Prince Charles (as was, later King Charles I), had training from prominent writing masters. Martin Billingsley's The Pens Excellencie, or the Secretarys Delight is dedicated to the writing master's pupil, Prince Charles:




And Prince Henry's had as his writing-master John Davies of Hereford, whose The Writing Schoolemaster, or the Anatomie of faire writing went into several editions throughout the 17th-century. (Davies fancied himself a poet and composed an elegiac poem mourning the death of Prince Henry, his former pupil: The Muses-Teares for the Losse of Henry, Prince of Wales.)


Of course, Charles did of course have a lot of his writing done by secretaries, but the fact that both princes were trained not only how to write but by pre-eminent writing-masters, would suggest that at least there was some ideal in which they would have had well-formed hands. Whether this represents the wider position of elite males in this time period or was a peculiarity of the Stuarts, I don't know, but it's at least suggestive.

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As an American, I'll blame the (King) Georges. Couldn't be bothered to learn a fine hand. 


The letter-writing scene in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is an interesting study that might be of interest. There's quite a bit going on in the interchange between Darcy, Bingley and Miss Bingley. One part of the conversation that is of note for this thread is where Miss Bingley accuses her brother of not writing carefully, 'Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest.'


Bingley tries to defend himself, 'My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them -- by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.'


Darcy sees this for the humble-brag that it is, 'you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting. The power of doing anything with quickness is always much prized by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.'


The sub-text here is that Darcy is a careful and deliberate letter writer, as he is in all things. Bingley is a "bright young thing" who is careless about such things and is rather impulsive. Their respective writing styles reflect the differences in temperament. 


I'm wondering if, along with the development of the view of careful penmanship as "clerkish", we can find a corresponding increase in the value of the casual, careless and insuisiant young man. Women were still expected to have a fine hand, but a certain class of privileged men affected an air of careless abandon, of not taking anything seriously. 


I'm sure someone's studied this somewhere. It would be interesting (at least to me) to read more about it. 


“When the historians of education do equal and exact justice to all who have contributed toward educational progress, they will devote several pages to those revolutionists who invented steel pens and blackboards.” V.T. Thayer, 1928

Check out my Steel Pen Blog

"No one is exempt from talking nonsense; the mistake is to do it solemnly."


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That's a very interesting scene that indeed seems very relevant here.


I still don't have a good grasp on the larger picture - I wonder if 'evolving' Victorian ideas of masculinity play a role.


I agree - someone must have written about this somewhere. (Post "Glorious Revolution", it's hard to know how much the habits of British monarchs matter or are representative of elite classes w.r.t. to penmanship. The only thing I've come across on Georgian-era royal handwriting was something about how George III's handwriting is suggestive of some sort of bipolar disorder.) Early writing manuals do sometimes have suggestions about which "hands" are appropriate for men vs . women (


Of course, expertise in handwriting has likely long had 'clerkish' associations (including "cleric-ish" associations earlier on). But in a way it seems surprisingly that having at least a fine "running hand" would have fallen out of fashion so early. It seems like the sort of thing would have retained associations of cultivation.

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We may have a strong "Hollywoodian" influence in our perception of ancient culture. I remember having seen... yes,--- this




which is a signature by a warlord of the XI century. According to Wikipedia, this wasn't a king, but belonged to the lower nobility, he spent all of his life as a warrior under numerous lords. There are also numerous "Treasure" or "Golden" books from the Middle Ages, used to educate the sons of the nobility, many of them through tales and fables. So, it looks like while there might have been the "stereotypical" illiterate warriors, middle- to high- class members should at the very least know how to read and write, and probably had read a lot during their education... in a time when books were manuscripts that often were written in irregular, quick, not-too-legible hands.


There are many songs and poems by "trouveres", trovatores, goliards or trobadours, from the Mediterranean basin (at least from Portugal, Spain, France, Germany and Italy) that prove that, from knights to kings, it was deemed exemplary to have a refined education.


I know that illiteracy was still high (>75%, at least) when I was a kid, and I would guess it might be similar in the antiquity, specially in the lower ranks where it would provide little to survival, but middle- to high- classes, commerce, notaries, clerks, religious classes, local rulers and many more would still value learning. And likely even many a lower-class person: musicians would need to read compositions and not all kids who entered a monastery would stay for life (judging from goliard songs).


There may have been other reasons for "hand degeneracy": For instance, many a king had to issue laws to control "interested-writing": some collectives had an interest in bad writing, they charged by the page, and scribbled extended letters to increase their charges, and bad writing acted as a tie-in in that if only them could read what was written, they could also charge for "access" to documents. Charlemagne issued laws to uniform writing so everybody could read every one's else.


It's not the only one, but just an example of one of many reasons why unreadable writing may come about (besides others already mentioned).


So, I doubt the image we have been sold of the "Dark Ages" was ever really so dark. At least in some geographical areas.

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So many worthwhile topics have been raised in this thread, which I hadn’t seen before. 


There are no simple answers. The meaning of writing and different styles of script (or hands) changes over time and in different cultures and also varies by class, gender, and profession.


The meaning of handwriting also shifts in relation to the accepted “bookhands” used in manuscript books and, with the emergence of printing presses, the fonts used in printed books. In the Renaissance, the ability to write in a humanist style of script signified a high level of education. The 15th c, humanist miniscule or “littera antiqua” was a conscious throwback to the mansucript books of the Carolingean period and Charlemagne’s educational reforms and a reaction to the later “gothic” and scribal textura.


Thus, Elizabeth I had fine italic handwriting as did the 17th century male Stuart monarchs already mentioned. Michelangelo alternated between “mercantesca” or mercantile script used by his father and the more refined cancelleresca, fully aware of the cultural significance of both. The italic hands of the Renaissance gradually evolve into the “roundhand” scripts of the 18th century.


But in the 18th century, those with merely basic literacy might be able to read the fonts used in printed books without being able to read (or write) any style of handwritten script at all.  “Print” literacy and “script” literacy were different skills but they became widespread educational attainments throughout the course of the 19th century and into the 20th century. When handwriting was a basic skill possessed by any literate person, upper class and professional men (such as doctors) could begin to disdain to write legibly. Meanwhile, the debates over whether to give priority to the teaching of “print” letters, or to cursive, or to keyboarding rage on.


Tamara Thornton’s Handwriting in America  as well as anything by Armando Petrucci are excellent sources. 


P.S. My favorite letter writing scene in Austen’s novels is found in Persuasion:


Captain Wentworth, having sealed his letter with great rapidity, was indeed ready, and had even a hurried, agitated air, which shewed impatience to be gone. Anne know not how to understand it. She had the kindest "Good morning, God bless you!" from Captain Harville, but from him not a word, nor a look! He had passed out of the room without a look!


She had only time, however, to move closer to the table where he had been writing, when footsteps were heard returning; the door opened, it was himself. He begged their pardon, but he had forgotten his gloves, and instantly crossing the room to the writing table, he drew out a letter from under the scattered paper, placed it before Anne with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her for a time, and hastily collecting his gloves, was again out of the room, almost before Mrs. Musgrove was aware of his being in it: the work of an instant!


The revolution which one instant had made in Anne, was almost beyond expression. The letter, with a direction hardly legible, to "Miss A. E.--," was evidently the one which he had been folding so hastily. While supposed to be writing only to Captain Benwick, he had been also addressing her! On the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her.


Captain Wentworth’s hasty, scarcely legible writing is clearly a sign of a strong man almost overwhelmed by secret love. I believe we may assume that his handwriting was much better in his calmer moments!

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@Grayspoole has a lot of good points, not least of which is that Tamara Thornton’s book is definitely worth a look for anyone interested in this topic. 


And another little-known point you bring up is that "literacy" used to be divided into reading literacy, and writing literacy. Just because you could read, did not mean you had been taught to write. The first time I learned about that, it kind of blew my mind. We see them as so intertwined these days because they are taught together, but it was not always so. I understand that a little better with my son's friends who may be able to read something written in a (good) cursive, but cannot write it themselves. My son's cursive still looks like a third-grader's, as that was the last time they were taught to write connected letters (or any letters for that matter). 




“When the historians of education do equal and exact justice to all who have contributed toward educational progress, they will devote several pages to those revolutionists who invented steel pens and blackboards.” V.T. Thayer, 1928

Check out my Steel Pen Blog

"No one is exempt from talking nonsense; the mistake is to do it solemnly."


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