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Compared to Rome’s traditional pagan religion, Christianity was altogether a different beast. Whereas paganism relied on oral tradition and its practices varied according to local custom, Christianity instead emphasised conformity and written scriptures.[?] If Judaism had been the prototypical religion of the Book, Christianity embodied this ideal with an unprecedented vigour, possessing a symbiotic relationship with the written word which simultaneously drove the evolution of punctuation and benefited from a concrete, written dogma. After all, the Word of God had to be transmitted with as little ambiguity as possible.[?]
The torrid period of lion-baiting, crucifixions and humiliation which had beset early Roman Christians finally came to a halt in the 4th century. In 312, on the eve of a battle which would decide the ruler of a united Roman Empire, the presumptive Emperor Constantine was reported to have witnessed a vision of a cross* in the sky. If Constantine had been in any doubt as to the import of this symbol, it was accompanied by a helpful explanatory inscription, HOC SIGNO VICTOR ERIS (“BY THIS SIGN YOU WILL CONQUER” — one might forgive the Almighty for His melodramatic use of capital letters when one recalls that His subjects had not yet developed lower case), and was followed that night by a dream in which God instructed him to march into battle under the sign of the cross.[?] Needless to say, the battle was won and Constantine’s devotion to the new religion was ensured.[?]
As the first Christian Emperor, Constantine rolled back the institutionalised persecution that Christians had suffered for 250 years. Christian worship was decriminalised, church lands were granted exemptions from tax and the state provided labour and materials for the construction of new churches.[?] Having set Christianity on the road to legitimacy, though, it was to be one of Constantine’s descendants who would instigate a last throw of the dice for the old religion.
When Constantine’s nephew Julian became Caesar in 355,[?] he brought with him a mystical strand of paganism and a desire to return polytheism to the centre of Roman religion.[?] Under the guise of various edicts enforcing religious tolerance, he subtly aimed to reduce Christianity’s influence throughout the Empire. The proponents of this last-gasp pagan revival understood the value of the written word as well as their Christian counterparts: as a reaction against the encroachments of the new religion, several of Rome’s aristocratic families sought to preserve, edit and elucidate old pagan texts.[?] Despite this, Julian’s reforms were reversed upon his death, and the turning point finally arrived in 380 when Christianity was adopted as Rome’s official state religion.[?]
Writing exploded as the new religion swept through Europe, driving the development of much of what we take for granted in modern-day writing and typography. Aristophanes’ venerable system of dots, for example, was revived by the 4th century grammarian Donatus[?] and popularised in the 7th century by Saint Isidore of Seville. In his meandering reference work Etymologies, which would remain one of the most important books in print for over 800 years, Isidore described a reorganised system in which the comma, colon and periodos now lived at the bottom, middle and top of the line respectively.[?] The comma was only a tail away from its modern form, and the colon made room for a second point to later appear below it. New marks of punctuation appeared, while some old symbols assumed new meanings: the ancient positura, a ‘7’-shaped mark, now signalled the end of a section of text (in contrast to the paragraphos, which marked the start);[?] the punctus interrogativus (?) indicated a question, and the diple (>) called attention to quotes from sacred scripture, leading in turn to guillemets (»), the quotation marks still used in many non-English languages.[?]
In the 8th century the first chinks of light appeared in the claustrophobic scriptio continua that had dominated writing for a millennium. English and Irish priests, seeking to aid readers attempting to decipher texts written in unfamiliar Latin, began to add spaces between words.[?] Also in the 8th century, the crusading king Charlemagne sponsored the creation of the first standard lowercase letters to create a unified script which all his literate subjects could read. No longer bound to the solemn, square majuscules that suited the stonemason’s chisel, the monk Alcuin of York took advantage of the scribe’s dextrous quill to create distinctive, legible lowercase letterforms with elaborate ascenders, descenders and flourishes — so-called Carolingian minuscules.[?]
Amid all this innovation and consolidation, the paragraph mark finally got its moment in the sun. The pilcrow came about in the fertile, scholastic world of the monastic scriptorium.
Just as kaput stood for a section or a paragraph, so its diminutive capitulum, or ‘little head’, denoted a chapter. The general Roman preference for the letter ‘C’ had all but seen off the older Etruscan ‘K’ by 300 BC,[?] but ‘K’ for kaput persisted some time longer in written documents. By the 12th century, though, ‘C’ for capitulum had overtaken ‘K’ in this capacity as well.[?] The use of capitulum in the sense of a chapter of a written work was so closely identified with ecclesiastical documents that it came to be used in church terminology in a bewildering number of ways: monks went ad capitulum, ‘to the chapter (meeting)’, to hear a chapter from the book of their religious orders, or ‘chapter-book’, read out in the ‘chapter room’.[?]
Monastic scriptoria worked on the same principle as factory production lines, with each stage of book production delegated to a specialist. A scribe would copy out the body of the text, leaving spaces for a ‘rubricator’ to later embellish the text by adding versals (large, elaborate initial letters), headings and other section marks as required. Taken from the Latin rubrico, ‘to colour red’, rubricators often worked in constrasting red ink, which not only added a decorative flourish but also guided the eye to important divisions in the text.[?] In the hands of the rubricators, ‘C’ for capitulum came to be accessorised by a vertical bar, as were other litterae notabiliores in the fashion of the time; later, the resultant bowl was filled in and so ‘¢’ for capitulum became the familiar reversed-P of the pilcrow.[?]
As the capitulum’s appearance changed, so too did its usage. At first used only to mark chapters, it started to pepper texts as a paragraph or even sentence marker so that it broke up a block of running text into meaningful sections as the writer saw fit. ¶ This style of usage yielded very compact text,[?] harking back, perhaps, to the still-recent practice of scriptio continua. Ultimately, though, the concept of the paragraph overrode the need for efficiency and became so important as to warrant a new line† — prefixed with a pilcrow, of course, to introduce it.[?]
¶ The pilcrow’s name — pithy, familiar and archaic at the same time — moved with the character during its transformation from ‘C’ for capitulum to independent symbol in its own right. From the Greek paragraphos, or paragraph mark, came the prosaic Old French paragraphe, which subsequently morphed first into pelagraphe and then pelagreffe. By 1440 the word had entered English, rendered as pylcrafte — its second syllable perhaps influenced by the English crafte, or ‘skill’ — and from there it was a short hop to its modern form.[?]
¶ The pilcrow had been given form, function and name.
¶ Having attained such a singular importance, the pilcrow then did something remarkable. It committed typographical suicide.