Yin Liu

Ancient tech in a digital world

For Yin Liu, the history of information technology begins before the invention of the transistor or integrated circuit chip, long before. 

"It really is useful to look at the past when considering issues of the present," said Liu, an associate professor in the Department of English. "Here's a thousand years of research, development and usability testing that we can study and learn from. Why would we not want to look at it?"

That thousand years is the Middle Ages, between the years 500 and 1500 CE. Liu, a medieval scholar, said historians of information technology tend to skip over that period as a time where nothing of import happened.

"The most common narrative I've come across is, ‘well, people in Classical Greece and Rome were really smart'," she explained. "And then there were the Middle Ages and people didn't know anything. Then they invented the printing press and that was the start of the Renaissance, and then they were smart again."

But a lot can happen in 1,000 years. "It's absurd to think that the way people thought and behaved and the way they perceived the world they lived in was the same in the year 1500 as it was in the year 500; of course it wasn't," she said.

By examining the strategies people in the Middle Ages developed to handle information in her project entitled Medieval Codes, Liu hopes to uncover lessons that may inform the present. As for the future, her research so far indicates it is far too early to predict how people will deal with information in the decades to come.

She explained technologies developed during the Middle Ages are in fact still in use today. One, putting spaces between words, was introduced as literacy came to the British Isles.

Latin writing before the 8th century took the form of scriptio continua, where all words were written in continuous lines with no breaks. It required special training not only to write but also to read aloud, which in most cases was its purpose, she said.

"You had people trying to read Latin whose language was not descended from Latin. There were a bunch of Irish monks, then Anglo-Saxons trying to read Latin text. So they grammaticalized it to make it easier to analyze and to read."

Methods to help readers navigate through texts were also developed. Tabs began as physical markers, such as little leather balls that were attached to key pages. Text in different sizes and colours, such as decorated capital letters, also helped navigation.

Liu explained that even the beautifully elaborate, colorful illustrations in many medieval manuscripts had a purpose: they were memory triggers to help the book's owner find a familiar page.

"They're designed to do that, so very often the images are strange or sort of bizarre, striking or amusing in some way. So, you would remember the picture of the funny little blue bird about a third of the way through the book, and it would help you quickly find what you were looking for."

The asterisk had its start as one of a set of symbols called a signe-de-renvoi (literally, sign of return). A precursor to today's footnotes and online hyperlinks, these were used to link comments like margin notes to the passage to which they referred. Some scribes did their page layout with extra space specifically for readers' notes.

"There's a history behind that kind of layout that tells you an awful lot about the way people were expected to read, about how they were expected to use these books," Liu said.

Even a closer look at the much-vaunted printing press reveals the technology may have been revolutionary, but it was a couple of centuries in the making. Liu pointed out that printing required a complex set of skills and a team of workers to arrange every letter and layout the page, ink it, then press it, dry the pages and bind the result into a book.

"When you think about it, that's at least as time-consuming as writing it out by hand," she said, particularly when several trained, professional scribes could be hired to produce multiple copies of a book simultaneously.

"That's a lesson for us as well. The digital age has only just started; I'm not that old, but when I was a student, I typed out my essays on a typewriter.

"There's a lot of energy spent today on what this new digital world is going to look like, but we're barely 30 years into it. I think it's far too early to tell. There've got to be things we can learn about how these technologies were developed that can be useful to us in thinking what kind of technologies we use today. We just have to ask the right questions."

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