What is Digital Literacy? How Coding Languages Parallel Scribal Practice

By Jesse McDowell

Coding languages have been around since the late 1950s (arguably), yet many new coding languages have sprung up since the beginning of the twenty first-century. What has caused the proliferation of these languages? Most digital users may only have a cursory knowledge of coding languages, much less how to use them or what they were meant for. Moreover, coding languages are just in this decade serving average users via online open-source tutorials outside an industry setting. For most of their existence, these languages have been developed by computer scientists in companies for the benefit of developing a product or building systems that serve the private or financial sectors. For the most part, the coding language has been used as an industry practice in some sort of governmental or financial context. Even now as ‘average’ users learn a coding language, it is to create a digital product that is very profitable for the coder. By knowing any number of coding languages, whether object oriented (Java, C++, etc) or of a multi-paradigm or multi-platform language, the presence of this knowledge on a resume highly boosts one’s marketability in a number of entry-level jobs. But coding languages are no longer for those interested in money. Artists, historians, and digital humanists all use coding languages that were developed by coders in another industry (more often than not). The number of people who know any one of these languages at a proficient level pales in comparison to the number of people who don’t, no matter what their career might be. And then there are people like me: those who don’t know any coding language but feel very inclined, almost obligated, to learn one because of its many benefits. What is the significance of this dichotomy, and does it parallel another period in the history of literacy?

Literacy and Labor: 

I’d like to draw our attention to how this reality parallels the role of scribal practice throughout the middle ages. Because this topic is large and overarching, let’s take a step back use one example. Consider the script Carolingian minuscule as an example of how a hand emerged and developed over time. As seen in a previous post, we know that this script emerged in the ninth-century for the purpose of educational books. Codex production subsisted in monastery scriptoria almost exclusively in the early middle ages. Monks tried their hands at certain scripts for the purpose of translation and copying, and found that they could prioritize certain scripts for certain types of books. For instance, a Psalter or liturgical book would have a different script than a copied version of St. Jerome’s or Gregory’s writings. More often than not, it simply came down to how much room was on the vellum folio compared to how much content needed to be created. The kinds of books that were translated varied sometimes drastically in the same scriptorium, yet in their varying purposes books had a role in society: either to educate the literate or to educate the masses. Thus not only can one identify manuscript age based off script, but one can also hypothesize as to its role in the community it came from.

Though script hands emerged in the early middle ages after literacy’s advent, it became codified and varied by the later middle ages. The monastic setting for textual production became less prevalent as scriptoria outsourced the labor of certain parts of the book to secular illuminators and scribes who were considered professionals in a given script hand. Carolingian minuscule was out of use almost completely around the year 1200 as other more used hands came to use c.1200 onward. On a large scale, what happens is that secular workers take over the division of labor more and more as years progress.

Why does this happen? When monastic scribes outsource labor, does this mean that they fail as the gatekeepers of sacral knowledge? Indeed, the written word was considered a sacral agent. Saint Francis of Assisi was known to salvage any bit of textual fragment he found in his travels because text mimicked the holy signification of words that occurs by Scripture.

Monastic scribes practiced translation and composition in scriptoria across England and the continent up to and past the days of the first printing press. We can safely say that the shift of textual production from monks to secular scribes and writers was an economic rather than purely ideological development. Like major shifts in history, certain anxieties to lost practices may come to our awareness years or centuries after the change or loss occurs. With the case of Carolingian minuscule, the hand was at its most prevalent usage in the ninth to tenth-centuries, waning to obsolescence by the time when we see gothic scripts like the textura family being used for books (as opposed to legal documents).

Once the labor of literacy was outsourced, the number of literate persons increased. Secular scribes took on the practice as an industry. This industriousness–young apprentices training with masters in shops outside the monastery–deeply contradicts the environment that housed the written word in earlier centuries. Yet it should be known that scribes and learned persons were considered Christian just as much as they were considered ‘literate,’ as the written word still meant that one was ‘within Christendom.’ But now script hands become more varied than ever before, and clever scribes could even experiment with composing in their own native tongue, as opposed to Latin, Greek, or any other language they were tasked to copy in. Composing in one’s own native language certainly had been prevalent throughout the early middle ages, yet in the later centuries scribes outside the monastery composed texts that were in their own language that were not necessarily considered sacral.

The Script Hand and the Coding Language:

As Carolingian minuscule exited the picture in 1200, this date also marks the emergence of secular scribal services. A good scribe knows his (or her) script hand well enough to advertise it, to ‘get the word out,’ as it were, that they could indeed translate a book or small bible exactly as the script hand calls for. What would be their resumé would definitely list the hands they could copy in.

A scribe in the industry knew that if he didn’t know his hand well enough, he might not be able to keep getting paid for his trade. And the prevailing idea behind script hands in the setting of manuscript production was efficiency and functionality, much like how coding languages operate today. Parchment was considerably rare depending on what region one lived in. Completed codices, fully ruled, composed, and bound, were very expensive and took more than one person to make. This is why we often see multiple bodies of work bound together in one codex (the Nowell Codex, containing Cotton Vitellius A. xv, or, the Beowulf ms, is a book bound with Judith, a copy of the Soliloquies, and Wonders of the East). Medieval books utilized space on the folio page as much as possible, depending on the context of the translating or composing project. This is why it is significant when blank spaces are left on the bound manuscript leaf (did the illuminator drop off the project? Was the project incomplete or abandoned?).

Functionality was the goal when copying; functionality paired with ornateness. As book production became more prevalent in the later middle ages, more scripts emerged for varying purposes. Law documents demanded different scripts than liturgical books, and small bibles usually came with a specific nuanced hand in the gothic family. New and used hands arose and scribes became practiced in them. Still, to be able to translate a text from Augustine for a priory or to copy a prayer book (also known as a Book of Hours) for a church or noble family took a considerable amount of relatively new knowledge.

Think of a coder today: if it’s a person who actually uses code in their everyday work setting, they try to explain what a coding language is and how it works by means of functionality and analogy, simply because any folks who haven’t used it before haven’t mentally conceptualized its goal. A coder working on video casting software for a company might try to explain the language he is working with by the goal he is getting at: quick and clear video picture from one user to another in a professional industry setting. A free-lance web designer may explain their coding language with the goal of aesthetic satisfaction in mind, a digital curator who digitizes artifacts or books will, if they know code, explain it with the goal of archiving in mind. For those who aren’t literate in the coding language, we can begin to conceptualize what coding languages are by means of their end product, much like how scribes could maybe only explain what they do by means of the product they are creating: a prayer book, a Psalter, a book of heraldry. A professional coder who went to MIT and who now works in the field or an average-joe who studies one on his own will both put the languages they know on a resumé, and can both get jobs that use coding languages in drastically different ways. In centuries to come, our ‘New Media’ will be as archaic as the script hand enclosed by centuries of dust in a medieval library.