Saturday, January 10, 2009

People Actually Wrote By Hand? Who Knew!

It's amazing how literature affects our lives. And I don't mean the latest commercial fiction novel from our favorite author that we picked up on our latest run to Barnes and Noble (guilty! That gift certificate was burning a hole in my proverbial pocket). I mean the classics that we don't even realize have somehow contributed to what we're reading today.

Take Chaucer, for example. I can practically hear you all cringing from here, but believe me, The Canterbury Tales was not that bad. Believe me when I tell you this, since I just had to read nearly all of it, in Middle English no less, for class. Chaucer basically created the standard iambic pentameter that we all associate with The Bard (that's Shakespeare, for those who've forgotten their High School English classes). Yep, ol' Wills didn't come up with that fabulous rhyming strategy all by himself. He knicked it from Geoff. Of course, Geoff wasn't innocent of his own theft. I came across several papers talking about the similarities between Chaucer and The Decameron, an Italian work by Boccacio. But there is a wit and beauty in the words Chaucer chooses that make every piece of literature from his pen strictly his own. And since there were no such things as copyrights... Is it any wonder that all those plots keep being recycled?

Chaucer wrote his poetry on vellum (which, by the way is made from sheep skin) with quill and ink. There were no spell checkers, no delete keys, not even an eraser. He scraped away layers of the vellum to change what he'd written. There were no publishers, no printing presses. Gutenberg was a long way off. Scribes copied author's words in order to distribute literature to the people who could afford to own manuscripts. Because you couldn't just walk into a bookstore - no Ye Olde Barnes and Noble around the corner from Mr Chaucer's house - and purchase a book, you had to commission a scribe to copy it out for you. And so we are left with multiple copies of Chaucer's work, most of which may not even be his own true writings. Because somewhere, somehow, someone thought they could improve on Chaucer, could add or subtract words or even whole lines of text. Even the slightest change in a single word could change the entire meaning of a tale.

So next time you walk into Ye Olde B&N and see the shelves full of glorious paperbacks and hardcovers and bargain priced novelties, think of how ol' Geoff and his pals had to write everything out by hand, wince in sympathy of his cramping fingers, and have a nice White Chocolate Mocha (nonfat, with whip) with one of those tasty pieces of cheesecake. I know I do!

Be Yourself,

Cara Hart
A LOVE IN DISGUISE - Available NOW from
Resplendence Publishing
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Seneca said...

Imagine if you still had to write that way? Or even if you had to use a *gasp* typewriter?

Seriously, I would not even know where to buy a typewriter! lol

Magdalena Scott said...


This certainly makes me think. I "write" a lot of stuff in a day, but how much of it would be worth the effort of putting quill to vellum? To be honest, not much.

These days my handwriting is terrible, because I'm so accustomed to keyboarding. And that, to me, is sad. Maybe I should take one day each week and write only with pen and paper. I definitely have plenty of blank books around here. It might be a good exercise.

Thanks for a very interesting post!

Laura Essendine said...

In a recent power cut I was forced to put pen to paper and ws amazed by how much I got done. Without the distractions of checking emails or reading blogs, I focussed solely on writing. Switching off the computer and handwriting now forms part of my working week!

Laura Essendine
Author – The Accidental Guru
The Accidental Guru Blog
The Books Limited Blog

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