The spread of writing in Europe

Oftentimes, we forget to realise what a long way it was before we started writing and started writing the way we do now. Today, it seems almost obvious that we use Latin letters in most of Europe but a common writing system was not at all normal, even a few centuries ago.

Now, it is evident that when we start school, we learn how to write. However, the way writing is taught today and the way we learn how to shape our first letters reflect the experience of long centuries. But how did people study a few centuries ago, in medieval Europe? Why is it that medieval Europe was the place where common cursive writing first developed? What impact did the universities have? How did we end up having common routines such as the way we write dates or sign a letter? These are just a few questions to which we can find the answers in István Hajnal’s book The Teaching of Writing at Medieval Universities.

István Hajnal was not only one of the greatest historians of his generation but of all times. However, despite being a very engaged professional, original thinker and excellent writer, he was expelled from the academy together with some of his peers in 1949 and he died in 1956 when he was only 63 years old. This book is the culmination of his life’s work, which ended painfully prematurely. The Teaching of Writing at Medieval Universities was written in Hungarian but it was originally published in French, two years before his death.

The author’s primary hypothesis is that the study of available diplomas confirms the existence of a standard script already in the early Middle Ages with minimal difference between the centre and the periphery in terms of the use of various writing forms. His other hypothesis is that this is completely the result of the Paris-centred organisation of education at the time, for which he finds proof by studying the most important source, diplomas. We’ll now briefly look at how he verifies these hypotheses.

Firstly, it is important to know that a variety of cursive writings developed in old civilisations including in antiquity but they were more widespread in Europe. Nevertheless, there was no standard method for the teaching of writing in medieval Europe; the writing we now learn thanks to our education system was not at all common at the time. In addition, the language was not common either; even French or Italian grammar was not developed and the forming of phonemes was ambiguous, which means there was no suitable writing either.

Medieval diploma

Still, there was a solution “it was easier to master every day and precise use of writing by studying the Latin vocabulary and grammar; the Latin language had a specific and very settled vocabulary and grammar supported by a wealth of very old literature. Consequently, the adherence to the Latin language is not only a traditional impulse but also a dictate of common sense,” - argues István Hajnal.

Writing in those times was taught in schools of rhetoric, schools of psalms, choir schools, cathedral chapter schools, abbey schools, colleges and clerical schools but first and foremost in universities. Universities were vastly different from today’s higher education institutions, whose role is to provide education in sciences and higher disciplines not taught in other schools. It was different in those times as universities offered gradual education under the supervision of a master's. “This is where the study of writing at general levels originated from, which was one of the main attractions of universities.”

Universities did not set the admission criteria we are familiar with today and students were allowed to enrol without any age restrictions for a long time. The University of Paris, for example, did not require their students to have any preliminary studies even in modern times, everybody was admitted. As sources suggest, some students were essentially illiterate thus one of their first assignments was to learn how to write in ink. At Sorbonne, around which a real science district evolved in the French capital, students who reached a certain level in their studies were required to teach and it was not before the 16th century that scholars who were paid for their work first appeared.

Students were also the ones who later drafted diplomas and official documents. It is important because they arrived from distant corners of Europe to study at a university and when they returned to their home country, they also worked as teachers. After having studied an enormous volume of sources, Hajnal concluded that the graphics of diplomas indicate that France could have been the cradle that had the greatest impact. Within France, Paris was likely the intellectual centre whose influence reached even the farthest parts of the continent, partly through universities adopting its system.

It may also be interesting to know about university education that as handwritten textbooks were expensive and as such relatively rare before printing was invented, the simplest way to have them was by the scholar dictating the text, which was also a source of income for them. Students needed this not necessarily for their studies but for their subsequent careers and also for them to be able to teach later.

Handwritten book from the middle ages

One of the top strengths of the book is that it does not only discuss the history of writing and reading but also the evolution of the technical aspects of writing. Hajnal is correct that one cannot address writing technique without discussing feather cutting and the chemistry of ink; a clay tablet is necessary for studies and parchment for recording symbols in a lasting manner. He reckons that the seemingly simplest, “dead” tool such as an iron nail or a tip of a feather reflects a wealth of experience and the slow innovation of generations.

This was an era when “early in the morning when it’s still dark, students hurry to their class holding a candle in their hands, their book in their armpit and their ink in their belt.” But what kind of ink was there on their belt? People in ancient Egypt used soot and tar while the Romans made a brownish-black squid liquid from the secretion of squids found in the Mediterranean. Monks, however, used black ink from China and India, which did not have a European alternative up until the 11th century. This is when it was discovered that gall wasps produce different sizes of galls on the leaves of oak trees, which are particularly rich in tannins.

They extracted the precious material by pulverizing the galls, which later became the raw material for iron gall ink. This ink was later perfected for long centuries as the eventual inventors had to overcome a variety of technical problems and manufacturing ambiguities, which will be discussed in detail in another post.

We at Etelburg work in the same spirit and constantly improve our products. We are confident that our innovative modular pens in combination with our quick-drying, uniquely coloured inks will be used by generations and this way we can help preserve handwriting and European and universal human culture through it.


Finály István: Tus, tinta, ceruza. Természettudomány III. évfolyam 9-10. szám, 1948. szeptember-október. A Magyar Természettudományi Társulat közlönye.

Hajnal István: Írásoktatás a középkori egyetemeken. Gondolat Kiadó, Budapest, 2008. A fordítás alapjául szolgáló mű István Hajnal: L'enseignement de l'écriture aux universités médiévales. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1959. (Első kiadás: 1954.)