Cheap Writing Surfaces and Medieval Bureaucracy Helped Popularize the Alphabet
Judith Flanders Explains Why the Alphabet Was Used on a Whim
In order for systems of organization, whether alphabetical or otherwise, to become pervasive, they had to be needed; for them to be needed, the material that required organizing had to reach critical mass. A single page of entries on no matter what subject rarely demands an organizing principle. Even dozens of pages do not necessarily require organizing, or they may be organized more opportunistically—for example, chronologically.
In the Middle Ages, administrative systems for many courts and states functioned without too much difficulty via tax registers, tenant rolls, charters, and other documents, few of which were maintained in any type of ordering system that enabled them to be easily searched.
The Papal Chancery, which possesses by far the most complete, and complex, archival collection in Europe, was organized almost entirely chronologically. From the 14th century, alphabetical indexes of some of the holdings in the papal camera, the Vatican’s financial hub, were occasionally compiled, but it was not until the 15th century that this occurred with any regularity, and it was always instated retrospectively.
Alphabetical order, when it was used, was the independent inspiration of individuals rather than the bureaucratic norm. For example, John the Saracen, the chamberlain to Louis IX of France (1214–1270), drew up a single list of debtors in first-letter alphabetical order, but he was neither influenced by the ordering methods of Louis’s administration, nor did he influence them.
For the practice to gain a foothold, before all else alphabetical order required the ready availability of a relatively inexpensive writing material: ordering a mass of material via the alphabet can take several drafts to achieve. By the end of the 14TH century, a quire (twenty-five sheets) of paper cost the same as a single parchment skin, and had eight times the writing surface.
And by 1500, the price of paper was a quarter of what it had been a century earlier, and its use in the manufacture of what were referred to as “paper books”—what we call notebooks—made alphabetization accessible to individuals of relatively modest means as well as to wealthy institutions. Some of the earliest paper books to have survived in the Low Countries contain abbreviations and symbols that indicate their owners were clerks in merchants’ offices.
While the ready availability of paper and its relatively low price were elements in the development of alphabetization, this is not to overlook another writing medium that lent itself to multiple drafts, one that has today largely been forgotten: the erasable surface. In the classical period, wax tablets, two wax-covered pieces of wood or ivory, joined with a hinge, were in regular use.
The tablets’ owner incised notes into the wax with a stylus, or metal stick, before folding them closed to preserve the wax surface, which could later be smoothed over and new notes inscribed. This temporary writing system was well known for centuries: one 11th-century Benedictine abbot even wrote poems addressed to his wax tablet and stylus.Even into the 20th century, little plaques made of ivory were used by women to record the names of their partners at a ball.
By the 16th century, the writing table, an updated version of the wax tablets, had been devised. These tables were in fact bound books made using paper coated with size, a gelatinous material that, once dry, produced a matte surface that could be written on with a metalpoint stylus, ink, or even the newly developed pencil, before being wiped or rubbed clean and reused. These writing tables were in use in the Low Countries by the 1520s, and their practicality, ease of manufacture, and consequent low price ensured that they quickly spread throughout Europe.
Even so, a hundred years later they still appeared to be a novelty to the naval administrator and diarist Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), who described seeing “some sheets of paper varnished on one side, which lies very white and smooth . . . and I am apt to believe will be an invention that will take in the world.” So impressed was he that he had some of the paper “made up [into] a little book,” as a gift for his superior, the Commissioner of the Navy Sir William Coventry.
Both the old-style wax tablets and the new writing tables continued to be used for centuries: one scholar has suggested that in the early 17th century, Don Quixote’s librillo de memoria, his “little memorandum book,” in which he plans to write a letter that will later be transcribed “on paper,” was a set of wax or ivory tablets, while as late as the 1840s, the poet Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) assumed that writing tablets would generally be understood to be a metaphor for something impermanent, such as the action of the passage of time: “Ere the parting hour go by, / Quick, thy tablets, Memory!”
Even into the 20th century, little plaques made of ivory were used by women to record the names of their partners at a ball, or their shopping expenses as they went about town.
Sixteenth-century writing tables could also be plain blank books, used for anything temporary: extracts from one’s reading, to be transferred at a more convenient date to a commonplace book; notes on lectures, or sermons; lists of vocabulary. More often, a number of the specially treated pages were interleaved into commercial works such as almanacs, or lists of weights and measures, distances between towns, dates of fairs, how to calculate servants’ wages, or multiplication tables (multiplication was no easy feat using roman numerals).
When bound in leather, with extravagant decoration, writing tables were luxury items; in plain paper covers they were the tools of clerks, used for keeping accounts, for running tallies, for contemporaneous transactions and jottings—and they may well have been used to prearrange material into alphabetical order.
Merchants’ and traders’ account books had originally been kept in chronological order: business transactions that transpired the previous day appeared on the page before those of the current day, and the following day’s transactions would be written on the next page. As trade increased, however, and as businesses became more complex, crossing borders and engaging with a multitude of partners and currencies, so the need arose for a system where assets were no longer recorded indiscriminately alongside liabilities, where suppliers were distinguished from customers and, importantly, where a single client, shipment, or purchase could be located with ease.
The solution was double-entry bookkeeping, a method whereby each transaction is entered at least twice, as a credit or as a debit, in separate columns which must, at the end of the day, reconcile. By the early 14th century some northern Italian merchants, many of them trading in the southern reaches of France, were independently feeling their way to this possibility. Ledgers dating from 1299/1300 and belonging to the Florentine merchant Amatino Manucci, based in Provence, display a clear knowledge of a double-entry system, while surviving account books of the agent to a Florentine banker living in Champagne, and those of a number of Tuscan merchants in Nîmes, show that they too had begun to maintain separate ledgers for their incomings and outgoings.
By 1366, money changers in Bruges were known to order their accounts with assets and liabilities in separate columns on a single page, or on facing pages, a system called alla venezia, indicating that they considered this method to have originated in Italy. By 1383, the merchant Francesco di Marco Datini (1335–1410), who had spent years in business in Avignon, returned to his native Prato in Tuscany, where he dealt in luxury goods, and began to keep his books in rudimentary double-entry style; by the end of the decade, his employees were all versed in this new system.
As with so much to do with organization, it was printing that taught clerks and merchants across Europe how to keep accounts in this manner. In 1494, Luca Pacioli, tutor to the children of a Venetian merchant (and later mathematical teacher to, and collaborator with, Leonardo da Vinci), published a textbook on mathematics and geometry that included a chapter entitled De computis et scripturis, On Computation and Writing, describing double-entry bookkeeping as it was practiced at that period. Within a few years the chapter was published separately as an instructional pamphlet, translated into English, German, French, and Dutch. As late as the 19th century, Russian and American editions were still commercially viable.
Pacioli’s system was laborious but straightforward: the merchant was to begin by inventorying his business, listing all of its assets, whether merchandise, cash currently on hand, or already expended; then he was to list all his debts. After that, each day’s business was to be written out in triplicate: in a memorandum book (sometimes called a waste book), in a journal, and in a ledger.
The memorandum book was to be used by the merchant and his clerks to jot down each transaction as it occurred, one after the other. The journal was also kept chronologically, although arranged more carefully, with the transactions separated into incoming and outgoing, debit and credit, as they were transferred from the memorandum book. The ledger also drew on the information in the memorandum book but was organized by client, supplier, manufacturer, or however best suited the specific business.
Its main function was to take every transaction recorded so hastily in the memorandum book and more carefully in the journal, and establish it as either an asset or a liability. Pacioli called the ledger the quaderno grande, the large, or important, notebook, and instructed bookkeepers to “enter all the debtors and creditors according to the letter with which they begin, along with the sheet [page] number for each,” suggesting that the clerks were expected to create an alphabetical index rather than ordering the entries themselves alphabetically.
Double-entry bookkeeping is a system that takes an undifferentiated mass of small units—in this case business transactions—and systematizes and arranges them so that anyone, not merely the person who oversaw the transactions, but even a person who knows nothing of the business or its processes, can re-create what has occurred. In other words, it is a system of data management, just as alphabetization is. It is a system that divides, subdivides, and recombines, just as the handbooks of distinctiones divided, subdivided, and recombined theological writings in order to help preachers assemble their sermons.
Pacioli was describing a system of bookkeeping that had been used by some of his countrymen for two centuries and was now becoming more widely known, even as alphabetization had, and for the same reason—substantial increases in data, in population, and in the number of people who needed to use the material but who possessed no comparable increase in specialist knowledge.
In the 13th century an account book belonging to one Jehan d’Ays, who may have been a soldier, was kept in approximate and intermittent first-letter alphabetical order—one small exception out of the many thousands that have come down to us that have hewed more usually to geographical or chronological systems.
By the 1440s, the papers of the family of two successive doges of Venice, Marco and Agostino Barbarigo, had been rendered accessible by first-letter alphabetical indexes, and in the same century the ledgers of the Medici in Florence were completely alphabetized: Giuliano de’ Medici appeared under “G,” Avanzi e Disavanzi (surpluses and deficits) under “a.” (Although again, the system we use today, where words we deem irrelevant or minor are treated as though they are invisible, was not yet in place: Una Mandata di panni, a delivery of clothes, was entered under “u,” for “Una.”)
In the same year that Pacioli’s work was published, the household of the Infante Juan, in Spain, was governed by four household books: the Diary, the Book of Everything, the Great Book, and the Book of Inventory. The Great Book used book- keeping methods to reconcile the Diary and the Book of Everything, while the Book of Inventory was a master list in alphabetical order of all correspondence, incoming and outgoing.
Excerpted from A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order. Used with the permission of the publisher, Basic Books. Copyright © 2020 by Judith Flanders.