Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Roman Literacy Practices

I was rereading Robert Logan's book The Alphabet Effect on the alphabetic writing system because I wanted to check out some of the differences between the 1987 edition and the second edition. While I am still collecting my thoughts on the book as a whole I came across a couple of pages that need to be appreciated by a wide audience. This is from chapter 10, page 49 in the second edition and is posted on Logan's website.

'There is also evidence from a number of literary sources that
Roman schoolboys were taught the art of reading and writing.

"Boys learn in accordance with a written model
(praescriptum); their fingers are held, and they are
guided by the hand of another through the forms
(simulacra) of the letters, then they are told to
copy what is put in front of them and improve
their handwriting by comparison with it"
(Seneca, Epistulae Morales, 94.51)

A more elaborate passage of Quintilian suggests an improvement
on the technique described by Seneca as well as the importance
of penmanship (ibid., p. 25):

"As soon as the child has begun to know the shapes
of the various letters, it will be no bad thing
to have them cut as accurately as possible upon a
board, so that the pen may be guided along the
grooves. Thus mistakes such as occur with wax tablets
will be rendered impossible; for the pen will be confined
between the edges of the letters and will be prevented
from going astray. Further by increasing the frequency
and speed with which they follow these fixed outlines we
shall give steadiness to the fingers, and there will be no
need to guide the child's hand with our own. The art of
writing well and quickly is not unimportant for our
purpose, though it is generally disregarded by persons
of quality. Writing is of the utmost importance in the
study which we have under consideration and by its
means alone can true and deeply rooted proficiency be
obtained. But a sluggish pen delays our thoughts, while
an unformed and illiterate hand cannot be deciphered,
a circumstance which necessitates another wearisome
task, namely the dictation of what we have written to
a copyist".

Another technique apparently employed by the Romans,
according to Quintilian, was the fashioning of ivory letters
to be used as toys by young children to acquaint them with
the alphabet (ibid., p. 25). '

You will understand my fascination with these practices if I explain one of my recent quests. I have been looking for applications which animate the letters and characters of various writing systems. Here are a few. If anyone can add to this list, please do. I have found a couple for the Latin alphabet but, so far, they have not been free.


This post has been edited to add that Logan qotes from M. Hadas, Ancilla to Classical Reading, New York, 1954, p.68.


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