How Upper and Lower Case Letters Changed the World



by Suzanne Purkis

When I was studying European history at university, I had to write a paper about the Carolingian empire. You won’t be surprised to learn that I chose a language-related topic. These days, as my six-year-old learns to read and write, I’ve been thinking about that paper. Today, I’d like to revisit it.

As you may know, people didn’t always use upper and lower case letters—also known as majuscule and minuscule. In Rome, manuscripts from the 7th and 8th centuries were written entirely in majuscule. Around the same time in Ireland, monks began doing something ground-breaking in their manuscripts. Important passages were marked with a large and elaborate first letter. But all the other letters were minuscule—and most of them were strung together with little or no spacing between words.

In 781, the Carolingian emperor, Charlemagne, brought the English scholar, Alcuin of York, to his court in Aachen. Now, Charlemagne had his faults (a love of warfare and a hatred of pagans—especially the tree-worshippers, for some reason), but he supported education and wished all his subjects could learn to read and write. Alcuin was appointed director of the palace school, and he quickly got to work.

In 783, the very first manuscript to use what is now known as Carolingian minuscule was completed. It is called The Godescalc Evangelistary and it’s a beautiful work of art (written in silver and gold ink on purple parchment). But it was also the first step toward making reading accessible to everyone.

Carolingian manuscripts are some of the clearest and most legible hand-written documents from history. Why? Because they use majuscule and minuscule, they put spaces between words, and they even use punctuation.

Although the Carolingian script fell out of use over the next several centuries, it was rediscovered in the early 1400s by Poggio Bracciolini, a secretary of the papal court, who added capital letters with straight edges to the curvy Carolingian minuscule. His friend, Niccolò Niccoli, also liked the Carolingian script, but adapted it by sloping the letters slightly and allowing some of them to touch, which made writing more comfortable (and inspired what would become cursive writing).

In 1470, the French printer Nicolas Jenson created a type face based on Bracciolini’s script, which he called roman. Then, in 1501, the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius created a type face based on Niccoli’s script, which he called italic. Now isn’t that cool?

By the way, do you know why we call them upper and lower case letters? The letters for printing presses were stored in cases (often built into the press). The minuscule letters, which were used more often, were stored in the lower case—and the majuscule letters were stored in the upper case.

So the next time you’re reading a good book, or encouraging your child to put spaces between their words, or trying to decide if that word needs to be in italics, think about how thrilled Charlemagne would be that so many of us can read thanks to his love and support of education.



Guest post contributed by Suzanne Purkins, blogger at Apoplectic Apostrophes. She is a writer, editor, mother, step-mother, dog owner, sleep-deprived, tea-drinking chaos-magnet. Check out more of her articles and posts.

13 thoughts on “How Upper and Lower Case Letters Changed the World

  1. I should show this to my older son: he is struggling a bit with the rule that in German all nouns are starting with upper case letters… quite difficult if one is used writing in English. I told him “if you can touch it, it is written with an upper case letter”. Of course there are abstract nouns that you cannot touch and still need their upper case letter, but this simple rule covers quite a a bit. 😉


  2. Schools for the lowly in the middle ages? I do not think so! The schools were at the monastries. Richer people employed a scribe or sent some of their children to learn at a monastry.

    Yes, Chalesmagne WANTED a school for all and sundry but he did not put that to reality. And that is what counts.

    You are right about his invention of a common scripture. It is just compulsory education he did NOT put in place. Plans alone do not teach children.

    Dick and Tilda did not learn how to read and write for a long time.

    According to the Talmud (tractate Bava Bathra 21a), which praises the sage Joshua ben Gamla with the institution of formal Jewish education in the 1st century AD, Ben Gamla instituted schools in every town and made formal education compulsory from the age of 6 or 7. But that covered only Jewish parents and children.

    The next to follow were the Aztecs, in 1428 to 1521.

    Under the influence of Strasbourg in 1592 the German Duchy Pfalz-Zweibrücken became the first territory of the world with compulsory education for girls and boys. The South German Duchy Wuerttemberg installed a compulsory education already in 1559, but for boys only.
    France and the United Kingdom did not, until the 1880s, introduce compulsory education. The American Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the first state to pass a compulsory education law which occurred in 1852. These laws continued to spread to other states until finally, in 1918, Mississippi was the last state to enact a compulsory attendance law.

    Maybe Charlesmagne should have invested less money in christening the pagans and more money into his school plans.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Interesting post! For some reason I thought capitalization had always been around. Thanks for sharing!
    Btw: Where would you get purple parchment? Seems like a painstaking process to dye it….


  4. It reflects the move from oral to written culture. Early scripts did not need punctuation as they were religious scripts that monks knew, so text was an aide memoire, not as source of a priori information. The Irish monks were the first to be non latin speakers, so had to learn latin from script, hence they needed punctuation.

    Liked by 1 person

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