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The story of handwriting in 12 objects
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It’s believed that many alphabets have their origins in writing from Egypt and Mesopotamia, such as this Uruk clay tablet (Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum)
A new exhibition traces the remarkable evolution of writing. Cameron Laux picks 12 highlights offering insights into one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
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The latest exhibition at the British Library, in London, is formidably ambitious. Writing: Making Your Mark charts the development and variety of the human scribble across the globe over a 5,000-year span and through more than 40 systems, represented in around 100 objects. The exhibition takes us from Mesopotamian clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform from around 3000BC to the evanescing digital communication of the present.

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To mount the show, the British Library has drawn on its own vast collection, which reaches all the way back to Chinese oracle bones engraved with early Chinese characters in the late Shang Dynasty between 1300BC and 1050BC, and similar historic objects carrying script far removed from the ‘books’ one expects to find in libraries. These have been supplemented by the British Museum and Petrie Museum collections in London, which for example have provided the 2.2m-high Mayan limestone stele that could never have a home in the British Library collections – much as readers would enjoy having it heaved up to a reading room so they could run their fingers over its glyphs.

In the Shang Dynasty, questions to deities were carved into bones as part of divination (Credit: British Library Board)

In the Shang Dynasty, questions to deities were carved into bones as part of divination (Credit: British Library Board)

The far-reaching exhibition has been put together by a team of five curators, including Emma Harrison, the British Library’s Curator of Chinese Collections and an expert in east Asia. She tells BBC Culture how writing “starts off with incising, carving, and impressing, in materials such as copper, stone, wax, and clay. And then there’s inks laid on to surfaces of paper by hand, and then there is printing, with mechanical processes, and then typing and computing.”

Rare samples of calligraphy by Emperor Shōmu and Empress Komyo, AD750 (Credit: British Library Board)

Rare samples of calligraphy by Emperor Shōmu and Empress Komyo, AD750 (Credit: British Library Board)

From the 5th Century AD, when writing came to Japan from China, calligraphy was regarded as one of the highest art forms in Japan – and has been ever since. The exhibition includes an example of the calligraphy of Japanese Emperor Shōmu and Empress Kōmyō, which survives from the mid-8th Century AD. Both are extracts from Buddhist sutras (‘sutra’ is a Sanskrit word meaning religious teaching): one the sutra of ‘The Wise and Foolish’, the other the ‘Lotus’ sutra. The emperor and empress were pious Buddhists: late in life he would become a Buddhist priest, while she became a Buddhist nun.

The Diamond Sutra is the world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book (Credit: British Library Board)

The Diamond Sutra is the world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book (Credit: British Library Board)

The Diamond Sutra, which was found in a cave at Dunhuang in China and dates to AD868, is printed on paper and bears the distinction of being the oldest dated, complete printed work in the world. It was created using the woodblock printing method, the first method of printing to emerge. (The oldest known example of woodblock printing of text, as such, was found in Korea and dates to AD704-51.) The Diamond Sutra was so called by the Buddha because it “cuts like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to illuminate what is real and everlasting”. The scroll was made from seven sections, each printed from a single block and stuck together to create a scroll more than 5m (16ft) in length.

This Mayan limestone stele with writing from Belize is dated to AD647 (Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum)

This Mayan limestone stele with writing from Belize is dated to AD647 (Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Mayan stele, mentioned earlier, is startling. As Harrison observes, “We wanted to show the diversity of writing in all the places it is believed to have independently originated, and one of these places is Meso-America”. The 112 low-relief, block-shaped glyphs with which one of the stele’s faces is covered are made up of closely arranged bulbous forms – logograms (pictures of things and concepts, in the manner of Chinese characters) and syllabic markers that help with pronunciation. The purpose of the stelae was to celebrate Mayan kings and their associates, like stone billboards, or perhaps rather like the public statues dotted around cities today. The example in the exhibition dates from AD600 to AD800 and was brought to the British Museum from Pusilhá, Belize, in 1929. The text it bears hasn’t been entirely deciphered (which is not unusual for Mayan text), but we know that it relates to the reign of the Ruler K’ak’ Uti’ Chan, and that it tells us of his lineage, his rise to power, and some of the historically significant events during his reign (including warfare).

Gutenberg’s Papal Indulgence is thought to be the earliest piece of printing with movable type in Europe (Credit: British Library Board)

Gutenberg’s Papal Indulgence is thought to be the earliest piece of printing with movable type in Europe (Credit: British Library Board)

The earliest complete printed book in Europe was Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible, which was printed in Mainz (Germany) in 1455 with the moveable type technology (the printing press) that he pioneered. (In Europe, before this time, books could only be reproduced by manually copying them out.) The exhibition includes one of Gutenberg’s printed papal indulgences, produced for Pope Nicholas V, and believed to have been completed before his Bible. As Harrison points out, “Indulgences were intended to reduce the amount of time that someone would have to spend in purgatory. They were sold and filled in with the details of the person who bought them.” Thus they were among the earliest examples of the standard blank forms we know and dread today. The funds raised in this case went to defending Cyprus from Ottoman attacks.

William Caxton was the first to print a book in English (Credit: British Library Board)

William Caxton was the first to print a book in English (Credit: British Library Board)

By 1480 there were presses across Europe, enabling an important acceleration in the sharing of knowledge. In London around 1477, William Caxton used the printing press to print Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the first major book printed in England. Caxton was a publisher, editor, and translator who employed skilled workers from continental Europe. The book uses a set of type, Caxton Type 2, that he developed based on handwriting in the best Flemish manuscripts. The large red initials were inserted by hand. It is thought that around 600 copies of the book were printed, of which 38 copies survive around the world, most only as fragments. The copy in the British Library is one of the few that is still complete.

Florence Nightingale nursed soldiers during the Crimean War, insisting on cleanliness (Credit: British Library Board)

Florence Nightingale nursed soldiers during the Crimean War, insisting on cleanliness (Credit: British Library Board)

In Florence Nightingale’s notebooks, says Harrison, through her handwriting “we see the extraordinary in the everyday; we see a person we know, but through a different lens”. Nightingale, a social reformer from a cosmopolitan English family, became legendary for transforming medical care during the Crimean War (1853-6), and is thought of as the founder of modern nursing.

Nightingale also required nurses she was training to write diaries recording their daily tasks (Credit: British Library Board)

Nightingale also required nurses she was training to write diaries recording their daily tasks (Credit: British Library Board)

The pages here show Nightingale recording her activities and expenses for the week 24 to 30 June 1877. Such practices have been less common since the 1980s, with the steady rise of personal computers and keyboards. To post-millennials and digital natives, the idea of a handwritten diary, including a jotted account of finances, might seem as strange and remote as the oracle bones.

The petition against the first partition of Bengal in 1905 was a protest against a government decision unprecedented in the history of the Raj (Credit: British Library Board)

The petition against the first partition of Bengal in 1905 was a protest against a government decision unprecedented in the history of the Raj (Credit: British Library Board)

The petition against the partition of Bengal in 1905, Harrison observes, provides “a very important glimpse into a moment of history”. It is a large object, which contains over 60,000 signatures. The British colonial government was proposing to divide Bengal along religious lines, with a Muslim east and a Hindu west. The partition, a ‘divide and rule’ policy, went ahead, although it caused so much outrage and unrest that the British government had to reverse it in 1911. The signatories wrote in English or Bengali - whichever language and script they were most comfortable in. The petition is also an example of the political and symbolic power of signing one’s name; the written signature as a profound expression of one’s identity, a role that is fading in the era of computerised administration, facial recognition, and biometrics.

The Double Pigeon typewriter lacks a keyboard: users select a character and press a lever to ink and type it before returning it to its place (Credit: British Library Board)

The Double Pigeon typewriter lacks a keyboard: users select a character and press a lever to ink and type it before returning it to its place (Credit: British Library Board)

Harrison’s favourite object, of the 100-odd in the exhibition, is the Chinese ‘Double Pigeon’ typewriter. (Double Pigeon is a brand name. The British Library’s example was made in Shanghai, China, in 1975.) It is an extraordinary device, with a fascinating history. Because Chinese is a pictorial language (the characters designate things and concepts directly), it is necessary to know at least 2,000 characters for basic literacy, and at least 6,000 for literary language. In total, there are more than 50,000 characters. While the entire Roman alphabet and most everyday symbols fit comfortably onto a Western Qwerty keyboard, a workable Chinese typewriter would need to manipulate thousands of characters. As Harrison notes, the Double Pigeon sums up “almost a century of experimentation, and different approaches to the particular problem of distilling the Chinese writing system into typewriter form”. It comes with a tray bed containing 2,418 pieces of moveable type, organised according to structural similarities and frequency of use. In case this isn’t enough, the typewriter comes with two additional boxes of type containing 1716 characters each. A typing rate of 20 characters per minute is considered good.

The French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed has created a work inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s tombstone inscription “I am alive like you” (Credit: Tony Antoniou)

The French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed has created a work inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s tombstone inscription “I am alive like you” (Credit: Tony Antoniou)

What will the future bring for writing? “Five hundred years ago in Europe, the use of moveable type opened up different opportunities that were seized upon by a hungry readership… [leading to] a transformation in the self-understanding of many people in European countries,” writes design professor Ewan Clayton in the book accompanying the exhibition. “It is undeniable that today we are living through another of those seismic shifts in the order of the written word.”

It’s believed that many alphabets have their origins in writing from Egypt and Mesopotamia, such as this Uruk clay tablet (Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum)

It’s believed that many alphabets have their origins in writing from Egypt and Mesopotamia, such as this Uruk clay tablet (Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum)

Increased digitisation is inevitable, though handwritten script seems unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Harrison, for her part, says that she is happy “to use a combination of different technologies. I would call myself neither a technophile nor a traditionalist. I hop between the two.” One kind of calligraphy that certainly hasn’t lost its potency – especially its political potency – is graffiti, an example of which has been created for the exhibition by the politically radical French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed, whose work blends traditional Arabic notions of beauty and form in the art of writing with the practice of graffiti and street art. The piece quotes the poet Kahlil Gibran’s tombstone: “I am alive like you”. While the users of the British Library may spend most of their time handling printed and digital script, it seems that the age-old art of calligraphy is alive and well.

Writing: Making Your Mark is at the British Library until 27 August 2019.

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