Did people always read silently?
THE SILENT READERS
In AD 383, almost half a century after Constantine the Great, first emperor of the Christian world, was baptized on his death-bed, a twenty-nine-year-old professor of Latin rhetoric whom future centuries would know as Saint Augustine arrived in Rome from one of the empire’s outposts in North Africa. He rented a house, set up a school and attracted a number of students who had heard about the qualities of this provincial intellectual, but it wasn’t long before it became clear to him that he wasn’t going to be able to earn his living as a teacher in the imperial capital. Back home in Carthage his students had been rioting hooligans, but at least they had paid for their lessons; in Rome his pupils listened quietly to his disquisitions on Aristotle and Cicero until it came time to settle the fee, and then transferred en masse to another teacher, leaving Augustine empty-handed So when, a year later, the Prefect of Rome offered him the opportunity of teaching literature and elocution in the city of Milan, and included travelling expenses in the offer, Augustine accepted gratefully.1
Perhaps because he was a stranger to the city and wanted intellectual company, or perhaps because his mother had asked him to do so, in Milan Augustine paid a visit to the city’s bishop, the celebrated Ambrose, friend and adviser to Augustine’s mother, Monica. Ambrose (who, like Augustine, was later to be canonized) was a man in his late forties, strict in his orthodox beliefs and unafraid of even the highest earthly powers; a few years after Augustine’s arrival in Milan, Ambrose forced the emperor Theodosius I to show public repentance for ordering a massacre of the rioters who had killed the Roman governor of Salonica.7 And when the empress Justina requested that the bishop hand over a church in his city so that she could worship according to the rites of Arianism, Ambrose organized a sit-in, occupying the site night and day until she desisted.
According to a fifth-century mosaic, Ambrose was a small, cleverlooking man with big ears and a neat black beard that diminished rather than filled out his angular face. He was an extremely popular speaker; his symbol in later Christian iconography was the beehive, emblematic of eloquence.3 Augustine, who considered Ambrose fortunate to be held in such high regard by so many people, found himself unable to ask the old man the questions about matters of the faith that were troubling him because, when Ambrose was not eating a frugal meal or entertaining one of his many admirers, he was alone in his cell, reading.
Ambrose was an extraordinary reader. “When he read,” said Augustine, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”4
Eyes scanning the page, tongue held still: that is exactly how I would describe a reader today, sitting with a book in a cafe across from the Church of St. Ambrose in Milan, reading, perhaps, Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Like Ambrose, the reader has become deaf and blind to the world, to the passing crowds, to the chalky flesh-coloured facades of the buildings. Nobody seems to notice a concentrating reader: withdrawn, intent, the reader becomes commonplace.
To Augustine, however, such reading manners seemed aufficiently strange for him to note them in his Confessions. The implication is that this method of reading, this silent perusing of the page, was in his time something out of the ordinary, and that normal reading was performed out loud. Even though instances of silent reading can be traced to earlier dates, not until the tenth century does this manner of reading become usual in theWest.s
Augustine’s description of Ambrose’s silent reading (including the remark that he never read aloud) is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature. Earlier examples are far more uncertain. In the fifth century BC, two plays show characters reading on stage: in Euripides’ Hippolytus, Theseus reads in silence a letter held by his dead wife; in Aristophanes’ The Knights, Demosthenes looks at a writing-tablet sent by an oracle and, without saying out loud what it contains, seems taken aback by what he has read.6 According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great read a letter from his mother in silence in the fourth century BC, to the bewilderment of his soldiers.7 Claudius Ptolemy, in the second century AD, remarked in On the Criterion (a book that Augustine may have known) that sometimes people read silently when they are concentrating hard, because voicing the words is a distraction to thought.8 And Julius Caesar, standing next to his opponent Cato in the Senate in 63 BC, silently read a little billet-doux sent to him by Cato’s own sister.9 Almost four centuries later, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in a catechetical lecture probably delivered at Lent of the year 349, entreated the women in church to read, while waiting during the ceremonies, “quietly, however, so that, while their lips speak, no other ears may hear what they say”10 -a whispered reading, perhaps, in which the lips fluttered with muffled sounds.
If reading out loud was the norm from the beginnings of the written word, what was it like to read in the great ancient libraries?The Assyrian scholar consulting one of the thirty thousand tablets in the library of King Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BC, the unfurlers of scrolls at the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum, Augustine himself looking for a certain text in the libraries of Carthage and Rome, must have worked in the midst of a rumbling din. However, even today not all libraries preserve the proverbial silence. In the seventies, in Milan’s beautiful Biblioteca Ambrosiana, there was nothing like the stately silence I had noticed in the British Library in London or the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The readers at the Ambrosiana spoke to one another from desk to desk; from time to time someone would call out a question or a name, a heavy tome would slam shut, a cartful of books would rattle by. These days, neither the British Library nor the Bibliotheque Nationale is utterly quiet; the silent reading is punctuated by the clicking and tapping of portable word- processors, as if flocks of woodpeckers lived inside the book-lined halls. Was it different then, in the days of Athens or Pergamum, trying to concentrate with dozens of readers laying out tablets or unfurling scrolls, mumbling away to themselves an infinity of different stories? Perhaps they didn’t hear the din; perhaps they didn’t know that it was possible to read in any other way. In any case, we have no recorded instances of readers complaining of the noise in Greek or Roman libraries-as Seneca, writing in the first century, complained of having to study in his noisy private lodgings.11
Augustine himself, in a key passage of the Confessions, describes a moment in which the two readings-voiced and silent-take place almost simultaneously. Anguished by indecision, angry at his past sins, frightened that at last the time of his reckoning has come, Augustine walks away from his friend Alypius, with whom he has been reading (out loud) in Augustine’s summer garden, and flings himself down under a fig-tree to weep. Suddenly, from a nearby house, he hears the voice of a child-boy or girl, he can’t say-singing a song whose refrain is tolle, lege, “take up and read”.12 Believing that the voice is speaking to him, Augustine runs back to where Alypius is still sitting and picks up the book he has left unfinished, a volume of Paul’s Epistles. Augustine says, “I took hold of it and opened it, and in silence I read the first section on which my eyes fell.”The passage he reads in silence is from Romans 13-an exhortation to “make not provision for the flesh” but to “put ye on [i.e., ‘like an armour’] the Lord Jesus Christ”. Thunderstruck, he comes to the end of the sentence. The “light of trust” floods his heart and “the darkness of doubt” is dispelled.
Alypius, startled, asks Augustine what has affected him so. Augustine (who, in a gesture so familiar to us across those alien centuries, has marked the place he was reading with a finger and closed the book) shows his friend the text. “I pointed it out to him and he read [aloud, presumably] beyond the passage which I had read. I had no idea what followed, which was this: Him that is weak in the faith receive ye.” This admonition, Augustine tells us, is enough to give Alypius the longed-for spiritual strength. There in that garden in Milan, one day in August of the year 386, Augustine and his friend read Paul’s Epistles much as we would read the book today: the one silently, for private learning; the other out loud, to share with his companion the revelation of a text. Curiously, while Ambrose’s prolonged wordless perusal of a book had seemed to Augustine unexplainable, he did not consider his own silent reading surprising, perhaps because he had merely looked at a few essential words.
Augustine, a professor of rhetoric who was well versed in poetics and the rhythms of prose, a scholar who hated Greek but loved Latin, was in the habit-common to most readers-of reading anything he found written for sheer delight in the sounds.’3 Following the teachings of Aristotle, he knew that letters, “invented so that we might be able to converse even with the absent”, were “signs of sounds” and these in turn were “signs of things we think”.14 The written text was a conversation, put on paper so that the absent partner would be able to pronounce the words intended for him. For Augustine the spoken word was an intricate part of the text itself-bearing in mind Martial’s warning, uttered three centuries earlier:
The verse is mine; but friend, when you declaim it,
It seems like yours, so grievously you maim it.15
Written words, from the days of the first Sumerian tablets, were meant to be pronounced out loud, since the signs carried implicit, as if it were their soul, a particular sound. The classic phrase scripta manes, verba volat-which has come to mean, in our time, “what is written remains, what is spoken vanishes into air”-used to express the exact opposite; it was coined in praise of the word said out loud, which has wings and can fly, as compared to the silent word on the page, which is motionless, dead. Faced with a written text, the reader had a duty to lend voice to the silent letters, the scripta, and to allow them to become, in the delicate biblical distinction, verba, spoken words-spirit. The primordial languages of the Bible-Aramaic and Hebrew-do not differentiate between the act of reading and the act of speaking; they name both with the same word. 16
In sacred texts, where every letter and the number of letters and their order were dictated by the godhead, full comprehension required not only the eyes but also the rest of the body: swaying to the cadence of the sentences and lifting to one’s lips the holy words, so that nothing of the divine could be lost in the reading. My grandmother read the Old Testament in this manner, mouthing the words and moving her body back and forth to the rhythm of her prayer. I can see her in her dim apartment in the Barrio del Once, the Jewish neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, intoning the ancient words from her bible, the only book in her house, whose black covers had come to resemble the texture of her own pale skin grown soft with age. Among Muslims too the entire body partakes of the holy reading. In Islam, the question of whether a sacred text is to be heard or read is of essential importance. The ninthcentury scholar Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal phrased it in this manner: since the original Koran-the Mother of the Book, the Word of God as revealed by Allah to Muhammad-is uncreated and eternal, did it become present only in its utterance in prayer, or did it multiply its being on the perused page for the eye to read, copied out in different hands throughout the human ages? We do not know whether he received an answer, because in 833 his question earned him the condemnation of the mihnah, or Islamic inquisition, instituted by the Abassid caliphs.17 Three centuries later, the legal scholar and theologian Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali established a series of rules for studying the Koran in which reading and hearing the text read became part of the same holy act. Rule number five established that the reader must follow the text slowly and distinctly in order to reflect on what he was reading. Rule number six was “for weeping…. If you do not weep naturally, then force yourself to weep”, since grief should be implicit in the apprehension of the sacred words. Rule number nine demanded that the Koran be read “loud enough for the reader to hear it himself, because reading means distinguishing between sounds”, thereby driving away distractions from the outside world.18
The American psychologist Julian Jaynes, in a controversial study on the origin of consciousness, argued that the bicameral mind-in which one of the hemispheres becomes specialized in silent reading- is a late development in humankind’s evolution, and that the process by which this function develops is still changing. He suggested that the earliest instances of reading might have been an aural rather than a visual perception. “Reading in the third millennium BC may therefore have been a matter of hearing the cuneiform, that is, hallucinating the speech from looking at its picture-symbols, rather than visual reading of syllables in our sense.”19
This “aural hallucination” may have been true also in the days of Augustine, when the words on the page did not just “become” sounds as soon as the eye perceived them; they were sounds. The child who sang the revelatory song in the garden next door to Augustine’s, just like Augustine before him, had no doubt learned that ideas, descriptions, true and fabricated stories, anything the mind could process, possessed a physical reality in sounds, and it was only logical that these sounds, represented on the tablet or scroll or manuscript page, be uttered by the tongue when recognized by the eye. Reading was a form of thinking and of speaking. Cicero, offering consolation to the deaf in one of his moral essays, wrote, “If they happen to enjoy recitations, they should first remember that before poems were invented, many wise men lived happily; and second, that much greater pleasure can be had in reading these poems than in hearing them.”20 But this is only a booby-prize tendered by a philosopher who can himself delight in the sound of the written word. For Augustine, as for Cicero, reading was an oral skill: oratory in the case of Cicero, preaching in the case of Augustine.
Until well into the Middle Ages, writers assumed that their readers would hear rather than simply see the text, much as they themselves spoke their words out loud as they composed them. Since comparatively few people could read, public readings were common, and medieval texts repeatedly call upon the audience to “lend ears” to a tale. It may be that an ancestral echo of those reading practices persists in some of our idioms, as when we say, “I’ve heard from So-and-so” (meaning “I’ve received a letter”), or “So-and-so says” (meaning “So-and-so wrote”), or “This text doesn’t sound right” (meaning “It isn’t well written”).
Because books were mainly read out loud, the letters that composed them did not need to be separated into phonetic unities, but were strung together in continuous sentences. The direction in which the eyes were supposed to follow these reels of letters varied from place to place and from age to age; the way we read a text today in the Western world-from left to right and from top to bottom-is by no means universal. Some scripts were read from right to left (Hebrew and Arabic), others in columns, from top to bottom (Chinese and Japanese); a few were read in pairs of vertical columns (Mayan); some had alternate lines read in opposite directions, back and forth-a method called boustrophedon, “as an ox turns to plough”, in ancient Greek.Yet others meandered across the page like a game of Snakes and Ladders, the direction being signalled by lines or dots (Aztec).21
The ancient writing on scrolls-which neither separated words nor made a distinction between lower-case and upper-case letters, nor used punctuation-served the purposes of someone accustomed to reading aloud, someone who would allow the ear to disentangle what to the eye seemed a continuous string of signs. So important was this continuity that the Athenians supposedly raised a statue to a certain Phillatius, who had invented a glue for fastening together leaves of parchment or papyrus.22 Yet even the continuous scroll, while making the reader’s task easier, would not have helped a great deal in disentangling the clusters of sense. Punctuation, traditionally ascribed to Aristophanes of Byzantium (circa 200 BC) and developed by other scholars of the Library of Alexandria, was at best erratic. Augustine, like Cicero before him, would have had to practice a text before reading it out loud, since sight-reading was in his day an unusual skill and often led to errors of interpretation. The fourth- century grammarian Servius criticized his colleague Donat for reading, in Virgil’s Aeneid, the words collectam ex llio pubem (“a people gathered from troy”) instead of collectam exilio pubem (“a people gathered for exile”).23 Such mistakes were common when reading a continuous text.
Paul’s Epistles as read by Augustine were not a scroll but a codex, a bound papyrus manuscript in continuous writing, in the new uncial or semi-uncial hand which had appeared in Roman documents in the last years of the third century. The codex was a pagan invention; according to Suetonius,24 Julius Caesar was the first to fold a roll into pages, for dispatches to his troops. The early Christians adopted the codex because they found it highly practical for carrying around, hidden away in their clothes, texts that were forbidden by the Roman authorities. The pages could be numbered, which allowed the reader easier access to the sections, and separate texts, such as Paul’s Epistles, could easily be bound in one convenient package.25
The separation of letters into words and sentences developed very gradually. Most early scripts – Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform, Sanskrit-had no use for such divisions. The ancient scribes were so familiar with the conventions of their craft that they apparently needed hardly any visual aids, and the early Christian monks often knew by heart the texts they were transcribing.26 In order to help those whose reading skills were poor, the monks in the scriptorium made use of a writing method known as per cola et commata, in which the text was divided into lines of sense-a primitive form of punctuation that helped the unsteady reader lower or raise the voice at the end of a block of thought. (This format also helped a scholar seeking a certain passage to find it with greater ease.)27 It was Saint Jerome who, at the end of the fourth century, having discovered this method in copies of Demosthenes and Cicero, first described it in his introduction to his translation of the Book of Ezekiel, explaining that “what is written per cola et commata conveys more obvious sense to the readers”.28
Punctuation remained unreliable, but these early devices no doubt assisted the progress of silent reading. By the end of the sixth century, Saint Isaac of Syria was able to describe the benefits of the method: “I practice silence, that the verses of my readings and prayers should fill me with delight. And when the pleasure of understanding them silences my tongue, then, as in a dream, I enter a state when my senses and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.”29 And in the mid-seventh century, the theologian Isidore of Seville was aufficiently familiar with silent reading to be able to praise it as a method for “reading without effort, reflecting on that which has been read, rendering their escape from memory less easy”.30 Like Augustine before him, Isidore believed that reading made possible a conversation across time and space, but with one important distinction. “Letters have the power to convey to us silently the sayings of those who are absent,”31 he wrote in his Etymologies. Isidore’s letters did not require sounds.
The avatars of punctuation continued. After the seventh century, a combination of points and dashes indicated a full stop, a raised or high point was equivalent to our comma, and a semicolon was used as we use it today.32 By the ninth century, silent reading was probably common enough in the scriptorium for scribes to start separating each word from its encroaching neighbours to simplify the perusal of a text -but perhaps also for aesthetic reasons. At about the same time, the Irish scribes, celebrated throughout the Christian world for their skill, began isolating not only parts of speech but also the grammatical constituents within a sentence, and introduced many of the punctuation marks we use today.33 By the tenth century, to further ease the silent reader’s task, the first lines of the principal sections of a text (the books of the Bible, for example) were ordinarily written in red ink, as well as the rubrics (from the Latin for “red”), explanations independent of the text proper. The ancient practice of beginning a new paragraph with a dividing stroke (paragraphos in Greek) or wedge (diple) continued; later the first letter of the new paragraph was written in a slightly larger or upper- case character.
The first regulations requiring scribes to be silent in the monastic scriptoriums date from the ninth century.34 Until then, they had worked either by dictation or by reading to themselves out loud the text they were copying. Sometimes the author himself or a “publisher” dictated the book. An anonymous scribe, concluding his copying sometime in the eighth century, writes this: “No one can know what efforts are demanded. Three fingers write, two eyes see. One tongue speaks, the entire body labours.”35 One tongue speaks as the copyist works, enunciating the words he is transcribing.
Once silent reading became the norm in the scriptorium, communication among the scribes was done by signs: if a scribe required a new book to copy, he would pretend to turn over imaginary pages; if he specifically needed a psalter, he’d place his hands on his head in the shape of a crown (in reference to King David); a lectionary was indicated by wiping away imaginary wax from candles; a missal, by the sign of the cross; a pagan work, by scratching his body like a dog.36
Reading out loud with someone else in the room implied shared reading, deliberate or not. Ambrose’s reading had been a solitary act. “Perhaps he was afraid,” Augustine mused, “that if he read out loud, a difficult passage by the author he was reading would raise a question in the mind of an attentive listener, and he would then have to explain what it meant or even argue about some of the more abstruse points.”37 But with silent reading the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal. The reader had time to consider and reconsider the precious words whose sounds- he now knew-could echo just as well within as without. And the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.
Some dogmatists became wary of the new trend; in their minds, silent reading allowed for day-dreaming, for the danger of accidie- the sin of idleness, “the destruction that wasteth at noonday”.35 But silent reading brought with it another danger the Christian fathers had not foreseen. A book that can be read privately, reflected upon as the eye unravels the sense of the words, is no longer subject to immediate clarification or guidance, condemnation or censorship by a listener. Silent reading allows unwitnessed communication between the book and the reader, and the singular a refreshing of the mind”, in Augustine’s happy phrase.39
Until silent reading became the norm in the Christian world, heresies had been restricted to individuals or small numbers of dissenting congregations. The early Christians were preoccupied both with condemning the unbelievers (the pagans, the Jews, the Manicheans and, after the seventh century, the Muslims) and with establishing a common dogma. Arguments digressing from orthodox belief were either vehemently rejected or cautiously incorporated by Church authorities, but because these heresies had no large followings, they were treated with considerable leniency. The catalogue of these heretical voices includes several remarkable imaginations: in the second century the Montanists claimed (already) to be returning to the practices and beliefs of the primitive Church, and to have witnessed the second coming of Christ in the form of a woman; in the second half of that century the Monarchianists concluded from the definition of the Trinity that it was God the Father who had suffered on the Cross; the Pelagians, contemporaries of Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose, rejected the notion of original sin; the Apollinarians declared, in the last years of the fourth century, that the Word, and not a human soul, was united with Christ’s flesh in the Incarnation; in the fourth century the Arians objected to the word homoousios (of same substance) to describe the stuff of which the Son was made and (to quote a contemporary jeu de moss) “convulsed the Church by a diphthong”; in the fifth century the Nestorians opposed the ancient Apollinarians and insisted that Christ was also a man; the Eutychians, contemporaries of the Nestorians, denied that Christ had suffered as all humans suffer.40
Even though the Church instituted the death penalty for heresy as early as 382, the first case of burning a heretic at the stake did not occur until 1022, in Orleans. On that occasion the Church condemned a group of canons and lay nobles who, believing that true instruction could only come directly from the light of the Holy Spirit, rejected the Scriptures as “the fabrications which men have written on the skins of animals”.4l Such independent readers were obviously dangerous. The interpretation of heresy as a civil offence punishable by death was not given legal basis until 1231, when the emperor Frederick I decreed it as such in the Constitutions of Melfi, but by the twelfth century the Church was already enthusiastically condemning large and aggressive heretical movements that argued not for ascetic withdrawal from the world which the earlier dissenters had proposed) but for a challenge to corrupt authority and the abusive clergy, and for an individual reckoning with the Divinity. The movements spread through tortuous byways, and crystallized in the sixteenth century.
On October 31, 1517, a monk who, through his private study of the Scriptures, had come to believe that the divine grace of God superseded the merits of acquired faith, nailed to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg ninety-five theses against the practice of indulgences -the selling of remission from temporal punishment for condemned sins-and other ecclesiastical abuses. With this act Martin Luther became an outlaw in the eyes of the empire and an apostate in those of the Pope. In 1529 the Holy Roman emperor Charles V rescinded the rights granted to Luther’s followers, and fourteen free cities of Germany, together with six Lutheran princes, caused a protest to be read against the imperial decision. “In matters which concern God’s honour and salvation and the eternal life of our souls, everyone must stand and give account before God for himself,” argued the protesters or, as they were later to be known, Protestants.Ten years earlier, the Roman theologian Silvester Prierias had stated that the book upon which the Church was founded needed to remain a mystery, interpreted only through the authority and power of the pope.42 The heretics, on the other hand, maintained that people had the right to read the word of God for themselves, without witness or intermediary.43
Centuries later, beyond a sea that for Augustine would have been at the limits of the earth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who owed his faith to those ancient protesters, took advantage of the art that had so surprised the saint. In church, during the lengthy and often tedious sermons which he attended out of a sense of social responsibility, he silently read Pascal’s Pensees. And at night, in his cold room in Concord, “covered with blankets to the chin”, he read to himself the Dialogues of Plato. (“He associated Plato,” noted a historian, “ever after, with the smell of wool.”)44 Even though he thought there were too many books to be read, and thought readers should share their findings by reporting to one another the gist of their studies, Emerson believed that reading a book was a private and solitary business. “All these books,” he wrote, drawing up a list of “sacred” texts that included the Upanishads and the Pensees, “are the majestic expressions of the universal conscience, and are more to our daily purpose than this year’s almanac or this day’s newspaper. But they are for the closet, and are to be read on the bended knee. Their communications are not to be given or taken with the lips and the end of the tongue, but out of the glow of the cheek, and with the throbbing heart.”45 In silence.
Observing the reading of Saint Ambrose that afternoon in 384, Augustine could hardly have known what was before him. He thought he was seeing a reader trying to avoid intrusive visitors, sparing his voice for teaching. In fact he was seeing a multitude, a host of silent readers who over the next many centuries would include Luther, would include Calvin, would include Emerson, would include us, reading him today.
Also published on Medium.