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Script Meets Tech: Responses to materiality in some ancient and medieval letterforms

Another title for this talk could have been: “A Rendezvous between Palaeography and Type Design”, or Materiality, Creativity and Legibility”. How and why do new scripts emerge? The evolution of writing is often described as styles morphing in a void, not taking into account the technical, cultural or cognitive parameters, in short: the changing balance between the constraints of writing and reading. Shifts in the materials, tools, scale and functions of writing have produced slow-motion revolutions via empirical adaptation by multitudes of scribes but also expert creative decisions at definite points in time. Palaeography has highlighted the importance of processes leading from set, formal scripts to more cursive forms in common writing, and much less the opposite course of formalisation, whereby scribes or stonecutters create formal letterforms out of common writing, through experimental decisions similar to those of a type designer stabilising a font. In response to specific needs, particular trades even created their own remarkable scripts, some of which were hardly legible for outsiders.

Individual experiments in ancient and medieval letter design will be illustrated mainly by focusing on a selection of unusual inscriptions in stone or metal, from expertly crafted lettering, in response to particular material or cultural contexts, to abnormally deformed outcomes. The latter belong to artisans competent in their materials but often less familiar with writing, including some who were clearly illiterate. By relying on a simplified visual/geometric perception of texts handed to them in a common script, and adapted to their materials according to their own ideas of a solemn epigraphic style, they produced some really intriguing letterforms, sometimes almost illegible — thus offering not only exciting cognitive challenges in decipherment but also food for thought about individual creativity (and its limits?) in the development of new scripts.

Marc Smith
Speaker

Marc Smith

Marc Smith trained as a historian and palaeographer at the École des chartes, he holds a doctorate in history from the École Pratique des Hautes Études and is a former member of the École Française de Rome. After an early career as an archivist at the Archives Nationales, he was elected professor of palaeography at the École des chartes (1999), henceforth specialising in the history of writing. Since 2013 he has also held a chair at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and in 2015 he was elected president of the International Committee for Latin Palaeography. He has published extensively and frequently lectures in the fields of history, art history, palaeography (and occasionally type) especially in Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States.
His research focuses on the history of writing in the Roman alphabet from Antiquity to the present in its material, social, cultural and cognitive contexts; particularly, in recent years, on European writing masters and their engraved calligraphy manuals from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, with support from the Singer-Polignac Foundation, the Newberry Library (Chicago) and Harvard University. His latest project, as a visiting scholar at Cambridge University, investigates the history of paper in Renaissance Britain.