Chapter 1: Words and the Man
In the mid-eighth century, the medium of communication that had once been used by millions across Western Europe was dying. It was not just the replacement of light, cheap papyrus by heavy, expensive parchment that marked the transition. After a thousand cuts from mutations, each region of the former Roman Empire now had its own version of spoken Latin. Increasingly, travelers from one region had diﬃculty making themselves understood in other areas. Meanwhile, with the disappearance of lay schools north of the Alps, knowledge of the Romans’ phonetic writing system there was limited to a few thousand priests and monks. The written vocabulary and grammar were also beginning to diverge from classical Latin, although in diﬀerent ways in each region. Since many monastic houses had their own scripts, even the learned had trouble understanding documents that were exchanged for copying. There were nevertheless some grounds for optimism with regard to the survival of literacy. By the year 780, thanks to the eﬀorts of a gifted tutor, the sounds of the oral Latin of northern Italy had replicated themselves in the brain of the powerful Germanic-speaking king of the Franks. Although Charles himself could not decode the mysterious scratchings of his scribes, he was troubled by the high cost of storing accurately the information required to administer his kingdom. Perhaps the royal power of selection could somehow be used to promote a reform that would make it easier for him and his advisers to recall what had occurred...
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