Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.03.04


M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. xvi + 327; 74 plates. ISBN 0-520-07941-8.


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

Punctuation is ubiquitous and invisible. It exercises a powerful influence over the interpretation of a text, but it is rarely discussed. Our modern editions of ancient texts (diplomatic editions apart) impose systems of punctuation on them that are native to our cultures, not to the ones the texts came from. But the old habit of editors of sending a marked-up copy of a predecessor's text to the printer has made old punctuations tenaciously authoritative. I changed a punctuation mark in my text of Augustine's Confessions that to my eye is clearly wrong, but that had been in every edition of the text known to me from the fifteenth century to the present, handed down unthinkingly. The United Bible Societies Greek New Testament is the only critical edition I know that systematically reports a punctuation apparatus, drawn from the vernacular translators of the text. And we are all familiar with the difficulty of reading a Latin or Greek text punctuated a hundred years ago by a German or Italian scholar clearly using rules we were never taught, and we often get caught in the further difficulty that arises when a more recent editor has half-heartedly and inconsistently revised such a system of punctuation, using yet another set of rules that are not our own. I know an edition of Gregory the Great where it would appear that the contemporary editor has merely gone through a three hundred year old edition ejecting occasional commas at random -- I may be doing an injustice to some deep system that escapes my attention, but the result is frustrating. Punctuation has a long and complicated history. Some will already know E.O. Wingo's Latin Punctuation in the Classical Age (The Hague, 1972), and perhaps even R.W. Mueller, Rhetorische und syntaktische Interpunktion: Untersuchungen zur Pausenbezeichnung im antiken Latein (Diss. Tuebingen 1964). Both concentrate on the fragmentary manuscript and epigraphic evidence from antiquity and on what ancients said about their punctuation. The tasks that remain are to address the theoretical issues surrounding the study of punctuation and to chronicle its use. M.B. Parkes makes a start on both tasks in this handsome volume. This book is in three interesting parts:

(1) a summary narrative (pp. 9-61: the pages handsomely printed 8 1/2 by 11 inches on glossy paper) of the history of punctuation in the "west" (by which Parkes means almost exclusively Latinographic Europe with particular emphasis on Britain -- Greek is emphatically not discussed) from classical antiquity to early modern times (from the end of the 16th century to the mid-ninteenth is the last period covered, in a sweeping two pages);

(2) a discussion (pp. 65-96) of "influences on the application of punctuation" (theoretical issues: a discussion covering some of the same ground as the narrative chapters, from a different point of view) supplemented by a chapter on "the layout and punctuation of verse" (pp. 97-114), taking us down more or less to Browning;

(3) 74 plates (pp. 160-297) with discussion designed to display and elucidate the principles and practices described in the text.

The plates alone are worth the price of the book and it was a wise publisher who agreed to them. There are as well notes, appendices, a glossary of terms, and indices of authors and manuscripts cited, but no general index. The bibliography is roomy and interesting, but imperfect inasmuch as the subject is a relative novelty and demands a wide range of competences. I particularly missed discussion of the "construe marks" and such signs added to medieval manuscripts by teachers and readers; since they do not reduce to or resemble any modern system of authorial punctuation (e.g., marking a noun and the adjective that modifies it but is separated from it by a line of text -- just the sort of mark I put in my student editions of Latin texts 25 years ago when a language with more inflections and different rules for word order from mine was a frustrating one), they are easy to overlook. For the issue is what non-alphabetical marks do for reading: they create what Parkes calls a "grammar of legibility".

Parkes, a palaeographer specializing in British manuscripts of the later middle ages, betrays his point of departure throughout, but has thought about the issues and practices long and hard. He distinguishes logical from rhetorical analysis, a tantalizing but sometimes blurry distinction, and shows how differences in purpose lead to differences in practice. Roughly (this is no novel idea), earlier practice emphasized punctuation in the service of one who would read aloud (Alastair Fowler's edition of and commentary on Paradise Lost has some interesting things to say about this in the introduction, and he prints the poem with the original Miltonian punctuation to powerful effect), while our modern practice is to regard punctuation as a way of marking logical structures in a text for the eye of a silent reader.

There are three cautions a reader of this book needs to hear.

First, the author's specialty must be kept in mind. He has worked hard to get beyond his special area to speak authoritatively of the whole range of Latin manuscript and modern printed book history, but the further he gets from his own bailiwick, the more likely he is to rely on secondary literature, not always the newest, and to make factual errors. His treatment of late antiquity, where I am most at home, is based on received generalizations of dubious merit ("Boethius ... regarded it as one of his responsibilities as consul in 510[,] to stimulate intellectual skills which would improve the understanding of the citizens and strengthen the cultural heritage" [16]) and, in a sentence footnoting the present writer, invents a non-existent Pope Agatho.

Second, the construction of the topic is designedly narrow, perhaps too narrow. There is a lot of good and interesting work today on what is called "mise en page", the way in which text, punctuation, ornament, glosses, etc., were arranged on the manuscript codex page to convey a desired impression. For a volume of facsimiles showing and discussing the range of practices, see Mise en page et mise en texte du livre manuscrit edd. H.-J. Martin and J. Vezin (Paris 1990), and for a venturesome theory of how manuscripts were designed to supplement the art of memory, see M. Carruthers, The Book of Memory (Cambridge 1990). To restrict oneself to a specific set of marks, whose functional definition seems to be that they are identifiable ancestors of what we now call punctuation marks, is to leave out of consideration important parts of the question of how the book served the reader's needs and at the same time encouraged the reader to behave as the maker of the book wanted. It is here particularly that confinement to Latin and (so to speak) post-Latin evidence is harmful, because the usefulness of the codex page as a vehicle for information was exploited first in Greek and much of what we take for granted was the result of Latin mimesis. Biblical texts in particular brought with them when they were translated pieces of the practice of copyists in the original languages (such as the habit of abbreviating the nomina sacra or arrangement per cola et commata). In short, the choice of boundaries for the discussion exercises a more than ordinarily restrictive force on the results that can be expected. Similarly, the most interesting issue, both theoretical and practical, that this evidence should raise is that of how reading actually works beyond the most naive notion of an eye digesting one word or punctuation mark at a time.

Third, the facsimiles presented are delightful but have some pitfalls. Of particular value is the decision to show for five works (four patristic and one Richard Hooker) what happens from one version to another (by printing two plates) when one is copied from another. How the punctuation marks are and are not transmitted is thus made clearer than any discussion could have done. Then for three texts, a total of 18 plates show multiple versions of the same texts from different periods, so that the reader can sample the effect of different forms of presentation. Each plate is accompanied by a transcription, translation, and commentary, but (1) there are some errors of transcription, and (2) where there are marks in the text that a palaeographer's eye has determined are of later date than the original MS, those marks are not reported in the transcription. This is particularly unfortunate, because an accurate report of later readers' enhancements of the manuscript would show vividly just what kind of help those later readers thought they needed and would throw light on the evolution of signs and their use to respond to readers' needs. Still, it is easy to spend half an hour with one set of plates making comparisons back and forth.

For all that, the book is handsome, instructive, and thought-provoking. Of first importance, perhaps, is the demonstration that liturgical practice in the middle ages had a strong influence on encouraging the insertion of punctuation in manuscripts, for the public performer needed a manuscript that was easily read at sight. I miss mention of Paul Saenger's work on the growth of silent reading the later middle ages, and here the work of Richard and Mary Rouse offer the necessary bridge between punctuation studies and a wider consideration of how books were being used in the later middle ages to transmit information.

The fairest judgment, then, is that this is several books in one, all of them imperfect, but all of them learned, stimulating, and instructive. To work through the discussion and the plates is almost as good as a video game, and trains the eye to a lasting appreciation for the subtleties of the parts of our texts that aren't words.