The Luttrell Psalter (ca. 1500)

Anne Trubek’s account The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting is more than the title suggests. That alone could make do with a modest pamphlet. Instead, the book is a history of all writing and printing, internet included. Even so, it is terse enough for a brief but absorbing volume.

Writing, and with it history, begins at Sumer (today’s southern Iraq), some 5,000 years B.C. This was cuneiform, i.e., wedge-shaped incisions of varying depth on small clay tablets serving legal or business purposes, signed by intaglio from small stone cylinders worn around the neck.

Much later came the Egyptians, writing on papyrus made from plants in hieroglyphs, arguably the most beautiful form of writing ever devised. Also, however, very difficult and slow to be learned. Thus it was limited to an aristocratic elite, or specially trained, expensive scribes, although some simpler forms of writing also existed.

By the time of the Greeks, vellum, made from animal skins, supplanted the inferior, plant-derived papyrus. So too the invented calamus was a better implement than the previous stylus. But the Greeks, exemplified by Socrates, who inveighed against it as inferior to oratory, rarely put anything into writing—barely more than did other such totally nonwriting illuminati as Buddha, Moses, and Jesus. Even Aristotle conceded only that letters were “invented so that we might be able to converse with the absent.” Homer’s memorized epics had to wait for centuries to be committed to writing. Something like that prevailed also in Rome, where nonetheless the book was invented: loose pages strung together with string between two solid boards.

Medieval monks were veritable writing machines.

Medieval monks were veritable writing machines, toiling away through the daylight hours in strictly supervised scriptoria. They produced beautiful pages mostly in solid capitals, albeit without paragraphs and spaces between words, let alone nonexistent punctuation. A book transcribed would take about three months; a page, as many as sixty sharpened pens a day. There were occasional grievances in the margins from these anonymous copyists, as when one scrivener complained that Brother Thomas Aquinas was “very long, very verbose, and very tedious for the scribe.” Sometimes the scribe was humorous, like the one copying a Roman text, who was scratching his body because the Romans were pagans then regarded as dogs, and dogs scratched themselves. Another wrote: “Now I have written the whole thing. For Christ’s sake give me a drink.”

Details of this backbreaking work fascinate, including red or even illuminated capitals (no lower case yet), in many different scripts, with French monks favoring Merovingian, Spanish ones Visigothic, and Italian ones Lombardic. Long prominent was Humanist, a fairly faithful reinvention of Carolingian Minuscule, itself a reinvention of Capitalist, and an improvement on Gothic (Blackletter). Today specialists in one script may not be able to read others: paleographers specialize in manuscripts, epigraphers in inscriptions on stone.

In England, Secretary, “a cramped, almost illegible hand,” took hold in the sixteenth century, and was widely adopted, even by Shakespeare. Until the seventeenth century, Trubek writes, “people wrote down words in any way they heard them, so even Shakespeare spelled his name in various ways.” But a century later this practice was deemed archaic and used less and less.

Interestingly, women, considered inferior in many societies, were often relegated to a simpler script for “a simpler sex,” and wrote in what has come to be called a fine Italian hand. University-bound students, “enrolled on a different track, were taught the round hand of gentlemen,” but “the more educated and illustrious they were, the more they made a point of having the worse handwriting, to prove their superiority” in such things. This, Trubek says, still survives today: “Perfect handwriting could mark one as a parvenu.”

Of special interest to us is the history of handwriting in America. First there was Platt Rogers Spencer (1800–1864) of Lake Erie, a drunk until his wife, Persis Duty [!], sobered him up. He created the Spencerian script, full of swirls and curlicues like the Coca Cola logo. If you could handle it, you were considered a good Christian, educated and proper, becoming thus a better person. Spencer believed in whole arm movement, with pupils trained in the use of elbows and shoulders, what with good penmanship even an engine of social mobility.

Spencer was succeeded by A. N. Palmer, whose script was adopted by the 1920s by many schools. This required studies in arm movements for three to six weeks before picking up a pen. But with the invention of the typewriter, even the fastest Palmerites could not keep up. Though Palmer was still taught here and there, typing joined the high school curriculum and eventually became universal, symbolizing the post–Civil War religion of capitalism.

The Remington Corporation took over writing, and even Mark Twain, after first refusing, subsequently became its shill. Paradoxically, the tidiness of the typewriter stimulated students to become better penmen, not worse. In 1888, Frank McGurrin invented touch typing, which was taught in schools,with the typewriter setting standards even for handwritten neatness.

Calligraphy and lettering hang in, but their future is uncertain.

Contests in speed typing were popular, Stella Willins’s 264 words a minute becoming the apogee. But still it was handwriting that made you unique—indeed by analyzing it one could discover the individual psyche. A French clergyman, Jean-Hippolyte Michon, invented the alleged science of graphology, with signatures analytically concentrated on. Stylometrics became the study of repeated words and syntactical tics, and such matters as overreliance on the semicolon. Sentence length, the use of prepositions, and unusual words constituted a writer’s “fingerprints.” By now, sophisticated digital tools like computers can study sturdy copies rather than fragile originals. Volunteers enjoy crowdsourcing of pages to their couches for study at home. Greater accessibility “will alter our understanding of history,” Trubek opines, “as calligraphers are trained in traditional western scripts while letterers create new ones.”

William Morris’s Kelmscott Press was a major influence on writing, and London in 1921 had the first Society of Scribes and Illuminators. Such groups often call themselves guilds as a tribute to their medieval roots. “Muslims and Jews” we read, “still hire experts to create copies of their religious texts.”

Handwriting has its beneficial influence on the brain, but cursive is no longer part of the high school curriculum. Nor are most children taught handwriting at home. Does handwriting make us smarter? Trubek wonders. Certainly students who take notes in class come out ahead of those who don’t. There is now a new invention by Donald Thurber in the 1970s, D’Nealian, a stripped-down script taught in a few schools. In some others, handwriting is taught in art classes. Calligraphy and lettering hang in, but their future is uncertain.

Trubek’s book deserves reading, and its color photographs provide helpful illustrations. There are scattered forces afoot promulgating cursive, but many others are digitalizing it out of existence. Which tendency will win out is anybody’s guess.

An Oberlin professor, Trubek quotes a line by Shakespeare (she doesn’t identify it as from Titania to Bottom) that a woman has tattooed on her arm: “Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.” But a typo turns “arms” into “army.” It would be wonderful if adherents of cursive could wind slaves of the Web into an army of defenders of handwriting.