Beyond comprehension: handwriting and identity

I’ve just pushed a couple of article projects as far as I can. They are either now with collaborators, who will proceed to work their own magic, or under consideration by journals. As a result, I have been feeling slightly directionless—simultaneously under pressure to complete my current projects, but without definite things to do. There has been one looming task in need of some attention, which was to refine my ideas for a documentary that my colleagues and I are producing in the upcoming months. So, I took up my note book, and started to produce a ‘mind map’. As I looked upon this plan after its completion, I noticed that I had executed my words in small, neat (for me), block capitals.


These small caps contrast markedly to the rapid notes that I have taken at conferences and meetings previously. In addition, I had underscored the names of my collaborators in solid black lines, and underlined the cities in which I am going to film in carefully-executed, even, squiggly lines. As I thought back on the process of writing, I recalled that I had felt as if I were reaching into my brain and hauling thoughts out. The effort that I had undertaken to produce this plan at 2.30 in the afternoon was reflected in the laborious appearance of my writing, with its unusual regularity and lack of fluidity. Every block capital that I had written represented a painstaking attempt to stay on task. My movements appear carefully controlled, as if I felt that by restricting my body to small, cautious, movements, I would generate similarly deliberate thoughts. In contrast, the notes that I took in a recent meeting with our film makers are the product of the challenging task of concurrently thinking, listening, and writing, which is represented in their indistinct letter forms, and my failure to adhere to the lines.

handwriting 2

My letters jump around the page like drunken bees, despite the controlling influence of my notebook’s ruled lines. Look at the ‘h’ on ‘each’ for example, in which I barely finished its back before rushing on to the arch. I’ve drawn messy boxes around certain words in a rapid attempt to signify their importance. I’ve made weird triangular bullet points, in a desperate endeavour to organise what was clearly becoming an irredeemable mess. I’ve neglected to cross the letter ‘t’ (see ‘Interviews’). In places, I’ve made abortive attempts to write, before hastily crossing them out with double lines. Rather than producing elegantly composed sentences, I’ve scrawled single words and half-baked sentences. ‘Open access’… what is the context of that now, I wonder?

Does this analysis verge dangerously close to graphology, the discipline widely believed to be pseudoscience, which makes sweeping statements about individuals’ psychological traits based on the features of their handwriting? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about that discipline lately, and have an article in the works. Watch this space. However, whether or not handwriting can say anything about psychological traits (the more stable elements of human personality), it should be accepted that it does reflect changeable states (environmental conditions, stress levels, writing implements, mood, whether or not the writer is in a rush etc). Also, handwriting has huge affective power on the reader… the power to promote emotional reactions, for instance. What else brings hoards of visitors to the British Library’s Treasures Gallery, other than the promise of getting one’s eyes less than half a metre away from handwritten lyrics by The Beatles ‘scratched out on scrap paper’ (

Handwriting says ‘unique’ to us, and evokes feelings of being physically proximate to an author or scribe—of peering over their shoulder as they write. So, is it surprising that we want our handwriting to say something about the more subjective notions of ‘selfhood’, to capture a little bit of who we are, or who we want to be?

Given this connection with handwriting—historical, cultural, emotional—it is natural that we are prone to worry about the ‘loss’ of handwriting reading and writing abilities. As we move into the digital age, many are concerned about children abandoning handwriting in favour of keyboards and screens. In a recent article entitled ‘The Lost Art of Reading Other People’s Handwriting’ for the BBC, the author Sarah Dunant recalled her own idyllic strolls around a Florence flea market, unearthing obscure early twentieth-century letters and scrutinizing them for the treasures that they might—or, as it happened, might not— hold. She described the burdensome, but rewarding, task of deciphering the writing, which was ‘tiny with hardly any room between the lines, as if a conscientious ant had climbed out of the inkpot then wound its way across every millimetre of the page’.

The medieval scribe Thomas Hoccleve would have been thrilled with Dunant’s choice of the industrious ant as metaphor for the process of writing. Scribes spent significant time endeavouring to convince their patrons and readers of the tribulations of their work. Hoccleve, in The Regiment of Princes described how the busy scribe must knit together their ‘Mynde, ye [eye], and hand’ and never let this concentration fail (‘noon may from othir flitte’). The persuasive efforts of Hoccleve and company seem to have succeeded in the long term, for today we do associate handwriting with hard work, personalisation, and care. A handwritten birthday card usually goes down well; it demonstrates that you took the time to think of that person, and put pen to paper—a significant and increasingly unusual gesture in a digital world.

Dunant’s article proceeds to exemplify our tendency to associate handwriting with identity—the tendency that drives the field of graphology—by presenting us with a handwritten letter by Charlotte Bronte, written a few weeks before a death. It’s a ‘crossed letter’, written in minuscule handwriting. ‘So much unlived life in those cramped lines’, Dunant declares poetically. With these words, Dunant transforms Bronte’s diminutive handwriting into a metaphor for her truncated life. In contrast, she views the typewritten word as disappointingly devoid of individuality: ‘these days we express ourselves mostly in regimented strokes of various type fonts’. She bemoans the ‘pathetic’ handwriting of her own children, that has ‘got stuck in a stage of arrested development’. ‘They are keyboard communicators’, she states—a short, but powerful, declaration that technology is transforming us… transforming our brains, and who we are. Dunant observes legions of scholars at the British Library, tapping away at their computers (I imagine, with their faces lit up ominously by their screens). She implies that they are oblivious as the centuries-old skills of writing and reading handwriting seep out of their brains. She, alone, sits with her notebook and pencil in hand, a relic of bygone days.

This kind of anxiety is centuries old. In De Laude Scriptorum, the abbot and bibliophile Johannes Trithemius wrote of the all-consuming process of writing, which caused him physical turmoil, yet filled him with desire to write more: ‘my tongue is already sticking to my dry palate, my breathing grows weak, and my pen is shaking. Yet my whole being is filled with the desire for, and the love of, writing’ (transl. from Latin). He was an enthusiastic adopter of the newly-invented printing presses, yet … hypocritically, it might seem… sang the praises of the ‘sacred labour’ of writing by hand. He argued that ‘printed books will never equal scribed books, especially because the spelling and ornamentation of some printed books is often neglected. Copying requires greater diligence’. Trithemius praised the longevity of the manuscript book written on parchment, compared with the printed book on paper: ‘the printed book is made of paper and, like paper, will quickly disappear. But the scribe working with parchment ensures lasting remembrance for himself and for his text’. However, as Jan Ziolkowski has pointed out, his treatise in praise of scribes survives not in manuscript form, but in a printed edition dating from 1497.

The advent of print caused a great deal of anxiety as writers like Trithemius worried about the potential spiritual, cognitive, and cultural, losses that might accompany this technology. Trithemius worried that print might corrode the human ability to absorb and understand information: ‘Every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds [when we write and read] since we have to take our time while writing and reading’. However, though Trithemius held up handwriting as superior, he collected printed works, and his own works were circulated in print. Similarly, though Dunant’s article rhapsodises about the handwritten word, I assume she typed it using her computer, and I did not read it in handwritten form, but through the mediation of digital fonts.

Historically, handwriting has had and maintained its own function in the face of great technological changes in human communication. I confess that, though I love writing handwritten letters, I am very glad of the time-saving ability to take my laptop into the British Library— and maybe Hoccleve, with his aching eyes from hours of staring at blank parchment, would not have turned one down either. Plus, as Rick Godden and Anne-Marie Womak have written in this brilliant article, many students cannot handwrite, so technology makes learning accessible for them. This is certainly the case, for example, for people with task-specific movement disorders such as writer’s cramp, which might render handwriting impossible, but typing achievable. So, though I find handwriting a delightful activity in certain contexts, others might find it burdensome, challenging… impossible. Therefore, I find it more interesting than terrifying to wonder how our relationship with handwriting will develop as we pass through the twenty-first century.

Is the writing on the wall for handwriting? Let’s all wait and see…

Some further reading

 Trithemius, Johannes. In praise of scribes: De laude scriptorum. Ed. Klaus Arnold, transl. Roland Behrendt. Coronado Press, 1974.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. “De laude scriptorum manualium and De laude editorum: From Script to Print, From Print to Bytes.” Ars edendi: 25.


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