What Modern Society Could Learn from Charlemagne

 In Disfluent by Design, Social Media, The Printed Word

Today, we are faced with a curious phenomenon with regard to media. We have more sources today where we can access news and information, thoughts and ideas, while, at the same time, we’re more able to tune out sources we don’t want. We’re able to create self-sustaining media bubbles filled with voices we want to listen to, regardless of the source’s credibility. But in doing so, we may miss that different media sources use different words as descriptors—the angry mob, excited protesters, concerned citizens, passionate individuals—depending on their take on events and political bent. Extrapolate this over time and words in any society can take on very different meanings to different groups who share little culture. Eventually, whole languages develop and cultures diverge, leading to even greater separation.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, though. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, general literacy among the population of Europe declined. Fewer people could read, fewer still could write. Without these skills, there was a general lack of exchange of knowledge and ideas among nations, regions, and cities. People only learned about their own area and were insulated from outside opinions and ideas. Handwriting, and the ability to read that handwriting, broke down into a range of diverse regional styles and for nearly 300 years, the knowledge of lettering was kept alive mostly by remote religious outposts like cloisters and monasteries where religious texts were copied by educated scribes, calligraphically, one page at a time. As time passed, the regional writing styles evolved to differ greatly. The shapes of characters, use of shortcut ligatures and abbreviations, variation in punctuation and word spacing, changed from one location to another making reading a challenge if one moved locations. For the most part, though, people didn’t read, or move, so, like our modern-day social media bubbles, people could live their entire lives without any influence from outside ideas.

But in the 8th century, Emperor Charlemagne came to rule over the Frankish Kingdom, the precursor to modern France and Germany. As he battled to expand his territory, he also sought to unify his people who were of a variety of cultures. His goal was to create cultural stability so that what had become a fragmented civilization after the fall of Rome could flourish again. To that end, in 789, he ordered a revision of the books of the church so that they could be copied (by hand) and distributed throughout his kingdom. It was not his intent to systematize a writing style, per se, but a court school was established under the direction of Alcuin of York and book production increased so the need arose to codify one style of text. Scholars attribute this style to Maurdramnus, the Abbot of Corbie from 772–781. The style mixed majuscules based on Roman lettering with a regional minuscule style evolved from half-uncial forms. It standardized spacing at the end of words, capitalization at the start of sentences, basic punctuation, and avoided both ligatures and abbreviations to make the script more universally understandable. As such, it was prized for its beauty and legibility. Each letter evolved into a distinct form and, even though movable type was hundreds of years in the future, set the stage for that next revolution. This lettering style became known as Carolingian minuscule and, as intended, it helped to unify Europe and bring it out of the dark ages by fostering religious education.

Today, it seems like American culture has fallen into a kind of dark age. Our differences are not based on geographic isolation as much as they are on ideological separation. Perhaps what we need is a modern-day Charlemagne who can introduce a technological Carolingian minuscule that can unify our society and create cultural stability out of our fragmented country. Perhaps our insular media bubbles need to be pierced by a standard media palate that is balanced and ethical. Facts and truth would need to win out over conjecture and opinion, science over magical thinking. We all might feel uncomfortable at first just like those first readers of early Carolingian minuscule texts must have been. But in the end, our society could emerge into a new golden age—a new Renaissance. Now that would truly be revolutionary.

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