Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Irish Scribal Habits: Scriptio Continua And The Need For Space

A fourth century Latin codex with Scriptio Continua
Early Latin and Greek manuscripts employed Scriptio Continuo, i.e. sentences were written as a continuous line of text without spaces between the words. Tothemodernreaderthisseemsdifficult. Early biblical manuscripts in Greek (and in Latin) were also written in Scriptio Continua. As Greek is a heavily inflected language it is normally easy to know when a word ends and a new one begins, even without spaces. However, on rare occasions Scriptio Continua did cause textual problems. For example at Mark 10:40 ἄλλοις could be read as ("for others"), or it could be divided into two words ἀλλʼ οἷς ("but for those"). Syntactical concord favors the second reading.

As Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire, Latin was a foreign language to the Irish. Their desire to learn and master Latin was driven by primarily theological and pastoral motives. Latin was the language of the western church, in her liturgy, theology, creeds, and scripture. The public reading of scripture in the early Irish church was an important part of theological training and also for the spiritual life of a monastic community.

According to Frederick G. Kilgour,  "For the Irish monk who did not have Latin as a native tongue and was not intimately familiar with its varying forms of declension, conjugation, and inflection, reading an unbroken string of Latin words out loud to others was a formidable task. To facilitate oral reading the Irish scribes used space between words to make them more readily visible. Irish monasteries introduced word separation to continental monasteries, but it was not until the eleventh century that the practice was generally accepted on the continent."

This Irish scribal habit, the use of spaces between words, is probably the most obvious influence of the Irish Scriptoria still in vogue today.

Detail from an Irish manuscript (Book of Kells) showing word division in the Latin text

For more see,

Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, eds. A History of Reading in the West. UMP, 1999.

Frederick G. Kilgour. The Evolution of the Book. OUP, 1998.

Edward M. Thompson. An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography. OUP, 1912.


  1. Dear Anglandicus: I wanted to cite this post in a scholarly article I am writing, but it seems to be impossible to discover from your blog who you are. For the purposes of a scholarly citation, it really isn't appropriate to cite a pseudonymous blog. --Alan Liu, Dept. of English, U. California, Santa Barbara.

  2. Hi Alan, my name is Shane Angland.