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Manuscript Studies
Medieval and Early Modern

IV.vii. Paleography: Punctuation

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Punctuation / "pointing": the word "punctuation" is derived from the Latin word "punctus," translated "point"; punctuation is literally the use of "points," and, until the sixteenth century or so, the English word for punctuation was "pointing." Pointing was originally done in liturgical manuscripts as an aid in reading aloud, especially by those whose knowledge of the language which they were reading might be less than perfect; thus, pointing for reading aloud tends to correspond quite closely to marking "pauses for breath," and it may, in fact, owe much to musical notation for "breaths." It also tends to be much more thorough in Biblical and liturgical manuscripts (from which readings aloud were done regularly in churches and monasteries) than in secular texts. However, M. B. Parkes, in his article on "Pause and Effect" in Medieval Eloquence (later expanded into a book, Pause and Effect), warns that there is little consistency in scribal choices of when and how to point a passage: "Medieval scribes and correctors punctuate when confusion is likely to arise (if their Latin is sufficient to recognize the fact) and do not always punctuate where confusion is not likely to arise, even when they are concerned with the sententia literae ["literal meaning"]. ․ . ․ Elements which may have a similar syntactic function or convey similar meaning, and which are punctuated in one context, need not be punctuated in another when the context ensures that confusion is not likely to arise" (pp. 138-139). Furthermore, manuscript pointing may be added by anyone at any time: it might be authorial, intended to clarify the author's intended meaning, or added by a scribe or a corrector, and some manuscripts show considerable punctuation added at various times by various readers as part of their response to the contents.

There is little literature on medieval punctuation, partly because there is so much evidence which needs to be studied, and partly because editors of texts have considered the effort needed to be a waste (since usually the pointing is not authorial anyway). However, as Parkes's studies show, much can be learned about scribal practices by studying the punctuation used in a manuscript.

Generally, manuscripts tend to be more lightly and less consistently pointed than printed books (and with the exception of the punctus, virgule, and the blank space, almost all of our modern marks of punctuation have come into use only since the thirteenth century). Modern punctuation, designed to clarify syntactic structures rather than to indicate breathings, is largely a Renaissance invention, developing during the first generations of the printing press, and codified in the eighteenth century (about the same time that capitalization and spelling became fixed in more or less their current form). Among the earliest works showing "modern" punctuation is Francis Bacon's Essays. An interesting early discussion of the nature of modern punctuation can be found in Ben Jonson's English Grammar (composed ca. 1617, printed posthumously in 1640). Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century punctuation practice varies considerably, but tends to be "heavy"; current "light" punctuation is largely the invention of H. G. and F. G. Fowler, The King's English.

The use of layout (putting each "line" of verse on a new line, using indentations, etc.) to punctuate verse is an invention of the later Middle Ages (probably introduced to the English by the French, from whom the English learned rhyming and stanzaic forms, these being characteristics of French verse forms, not of native English verse). Early English poetry (Beowulf, for instance) is written as prose, filling each writing line to the margin before beginning a new line. Such "prose-like" poetry also tended to be punctuated in much the same way that prose was, except that the ends of poetic lines (and, in Old English verse, the ends of half-lines) were usually marked with some sort of punctuation symbol. In later Middle English manuscripts, when layout comes to be used to punctuate verse, it was often considered to be all the punctuation that was necessary. Thus, with the introduction of the use of layout as punctuation, other punctuation marks become less common in verse, with several notable exceptions: a virgule is often used to mark caesura within the line, the paragraphus or capitulum is used to mark the beginning of stanzas, and a punctus elevatus at the end of the line often indicates an unexpected continuation (enjambement) of the sensus into the next line rather than an "end-stopped" line. [This paragraph is a summary of a portion of M. B. Parkes's article.]

Littera notabilior: an enlarged letter (often in a "display" script) which is used to mark the beginning of a new section (chapter, paragraph, sentence, stanza or line of verse, etc.); can also be used for any "capital" letters.

Punctus (. or ‧): the placement (which could be at the baseline, in the middle, or at the headline) was, according to a system elaborated by Isidore of Seville (Etymologies I.20), significant: in early punctuation systems, it was placed at the baseline to mark a pause in the middle of a sentence (roughly like our comma), in the middle for a longer pause between clauses (roughly like our semicolon), and at the headline for a long pause at the end of a sentence. With the development of minuscule scripts, however, such relative heights are hard to judge, and this set of distinctions is largely abandoned in the later Middle Ages, and ․ and ‧ are more or less interchangeable (usually used for a final pause, to mark the end of a sentence). The punctus is the ancestor of our modern "period."

Punctus versus (which looks like a small "7" over a period; it can look like a modern semicolon): usually used for a final pause, to mark the end of a sentence (equivalent to a punctus).

Punctus elevatus (which looks like an inverted semicolon, with the tail going up and to the left): used from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, and usually used to indicate a major, medial pause (roughly equivalent to a modern comma or semicolon), usually where the sensus is complete though the sentence is not (as, for instance, between clauses of a sentence). It fell out of use in the fifteenth century, though it has obvious connections with the modern semicolon. The modern semicolon (Elizabethan "comma-colon" or "subdistinction") is a late sixteenth-century development, as is the modern colon.

Punctus flexus (which can look like a tilde or a small "u" over a period): a tenth-century invention, though it never came into common use; it was used to mark a minor medial pause where the sensus is not complete (equivalent, then, to a comma when separating phrases within a clause).

Punctus interrogativus (which sometimes looks like a tilde or just a squiggle above a period): used to indicate the end of a question (rising intonation). First appearing in the eighth century, it was not commonly used, since questions were easily recognized from their syntax. The modern form (?) and usage is a seventeenth-century invention.

Virgula suspensiva (/): in common use from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. Often used for short pauses (such as the caesura in the middle of a line of poetry), but sometimes was used as equivalent to the punctus. It could be made increasingly emphatic by doubling or even tripling. The comma as we know it is a sixteenth-century development (the first known use in England was in a book printed in 1521).

Colon (:): unusual in English manuscripts before the late fourteenth century; it is used to mark either a full or a medial pause. Parkes indicates that, from the late thirteenth century, the punctus elevatus is seen in some European scripts without its ascending tail, and so takes on the appearance of a colon. The use of this mark to indicate the end of a rhetorical "colon" (which gives the modern mark its name) is an early modern development.
Parkes also distinguishes between the colon and the double punctus, which looks similar but has a different origin and different usage. In some early pointing schemes (not widely dispersed nor of long influence, but which can be seen in some manuscripts, including English and Irish manuscripts, of the 9th and 10th centuries) the duration of a pause was indicated by an increase in the quantity of points: one punctus (.) indicated a short pause, a double punctus (:) indicated a longer pause, and a triple punctus (჻) the longest pause (Parkes, Pause and Effect, pp. 28, 42, 49, and Glossary under "colon" and "double punctus").

Hyphen (-): appears in English manuscripts starting in the late thirteenth century; its only common medieval use is to mark words broken at the ends of lines.

Parentheses or brackets: a fifteenth-century invention, to mark parenthetical material; they were curved in the opposite direction from modern parentheses, and were usually accompanied by the underlining of the words between the parentheses: )here are some medieval brackets(.

Underlining: is found in medieval manuscripts to mark quotations, direct speech, or parenthetical material; it is also commonly used to highlight proper names, and can be used as a form of expunction (to mark a word or words for deletion).

Exclamation mark: a modern invention, introduced in the seventeenth-century.

Apostrophe: the modern apostrophe is derived from a medieval mark of abbreviation, a suspension mark indicating that some letters are missing (and therefore we use the apostrophe to mark a contraction).

Quotation marks: an eighteenth-century invention. In medieval manuscripts, underlining was sometimes used to indicate direct speech or quotation, especially for Biblical quotations, but generally quotations were indicated by rhetorical rather than graphic means.

Dash: an eighteenth-century invention.

Capitulum: the Latin "capitulum" means "head," and it gives us the Modern English word "chapter" (the beginning or head of a new section of the work). The chapter marker, a "C" with a vertical stroke, comes to be used not only to mark chapter divisions, but also paragraph divisions (equivalent to the paragraphus, "¶") and sometimes even sentence divisions (which is related to our modern practice of "capitalizing" the beginning of a sentence).

Paragraphus (a "gallows-pole" or upper-case gamma, or § later ¶): used to mark paragraph divisions.

Insertion signals: material missed was added between the lines or in the margin, with the point of insertion marked with a caret (common from the twelfth century on) or, sometimes, various "nota bene" signs, etc. The word "caret" means "it is lacking."

Omission signals: there are several common ways of indicating that a word or phrase was to be deleted: cancellation (crossing out), expunction (dots placed below the words or passage to be deleted), vacation (enclosing passage between the syllables "va" and "cat"; "vacat" = "it is void, empty").

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[ Course Notes: Introduction ] | [ I. Towards a definition of "manuscript studies" ] | [ I.ii. The four branches of bibliographical study ] | [ I.iii. Topics in the social history of texts ] | I.iii.a The "Rescue" of Medieval Manuscripts from Grocers and Fishmongers | [ II. Diplomatics ] | [ III. Codicology ] | [ III.ii. Decoration and Illumination ] | [ IV. Paleography ] | [ IV.ii. Historical Notes ] | [ IV.iii. Writing Implements ] | [ IV.iv. Letter Formation ] | [ IV.v. Special Characters in English Manuscripts ] | [ IV.vi. Scribal Abbreviations ] | [ IV.vii. Punctuation ] | [ IV.viii. Paleographical sample: William Herebert, OFM (early fourteenth-century England) ] | [ Herebert sample, with transcription ] | [ Herebert sample: enlargement of full page reproduced at high resolution ] | [ V. Textual analysis (James E. Thorpe) ] | [ V.ii. Scribal error ] | [ V.iii. Kinds of edition ] | [ V.iv. Examples of over emendation on insufficient grounds ] | [ VI. Linguistic competence (an example): An Outline History of the English Language ] | [ VII. Libraries and archives: ] | [ VII.ii. British Library Manuscript Collections ] | [ VII.iii. Bodleian Library Manuscript Collections ]

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© 1998, 2015 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Created: 2 Dec. 1998; Last revised: 3 Nov. 2017

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