The mysterious origins of punctuation
Commas, semicolons and question marks are so commonplace it seems as if they were always there – but that’s not the case. Keith Houston explains their history.
By Keith Houston

What a neat article! Worth a read.

I mean, compare this:

To this:

While both look terrible to read to an untrained eye, in the case of Book of Kells (below) at least the reader does not have to decipher where one word ends and another begins; not to mention some useful punctuation marks that may look nothing like what we use today, but they at least imposed a modicum of order and harmony.

Now imagine those poor monks who would often have to work in poor lighting and cold (oh, and they would complain about that, too) and try to decipher what the author/previous copyist had in mind. Knowing the text beforehand helped, but introducing punctuation facilitated reading and reception of the text for both the reader and the copyist.


Well, not impossible, but certainly tiring.

Anyway, punctuation is awesome, end of story.

no but (among the 1424356 other things on my list) i so need to write a book about medieval history for a popular audience, just because the reality would blow people’s minds

there are so many things you can learn from it, so many misconceptions to destroy, and such an interesting social and cultural study of people learning to do things in different ways after rome fell. they had a period of almost 1000 years where classical culture was NOT the automatic standard. that is why we have gothic architecture and script. why they invented new literary and artistic genres, why they developed new laws. where, unlike in the ancient world, women and slaves were not relegated to a position of utter inferiority – in fact, slavery was abolished throughout most of the middle ages, and only began returning in the 16th-17th century when people were determined to replicate the criteria and legal systems of antiquity. same with women. you can find records of women doctors, bookbinders, copyists, shopkeepers, traders etc throughout the high middle ages. women religious were HUGELY influential; the abbey of fontevrault in france was required to have an abbess, not an abbot, in charge. queens regularly ruled whenever the king wasn’t around. it was only in 1593 that france, for example, decided to outlaw them from public/professional life. the salic law, made by philip iv in the early 14th century, barred them from inheriting the throne and later spread throughout europe, but that was not the case beforehand.

don’t talk to me about how “feudal anarchy” was a thing. feudalism was the last thing from anarchy, and it wasn’t about a lord mistreating or killing his peasants however he pleased. it was a highly structured and regulated system of mutual obligations – not a desirable condition for the serf, but still the bedrock on which society functioned. serfs were not slaves. they had personhood, social mobility, could own property, marry, form families, and often obtain freedom once they were no longer in an economic condition to make serfhood a necessity. abbot suger of france (late 11th-early 12th century) was most likely a son of serfs. he was educated at the same monastery school as the later king louis vi, ran the kingdom while louis vii was on crusade, and became the foremost historian of the period and partially responsible for establishing the tradition of ecclesiastical chronicles.

don’t talk to me about how everyone was a fervent and uncritical religious fanatic. church attendance on the parish level was so low that in 1215, pope innocent III had to issue a bull ordering people to take communion at least once a year. the content of clerical grievances tells us that people behaved and thought exactly as we do today – they wanted to sleep in on sunday, they wanted to have sex when they pleased, they didn’t believe the guy mumbling bad latin at them, they openly questioned the institutional church’s legitimacy (especially in the 13th century – it was taking assaults on every side as splinter and spinoff sects of every nature grew, along with literacy and the ability of common people to access books and learning for themselves). in the 14th century, john wycliffe and the lollards blasted the rigidly hierarchical nature of medieval society (“when adam delved and eve span, who then was the gentleman?”) partly as a result, wat tyler, a fellow englishman, led the peasants’ revolt in 1381. yes, the catholic church had a social and institutional power which we can’t imagine, but it was fought and questioned and spoken back to every step of the way.

don’t talk to me about how they were scientifically ignorant. isidore of seville, in the frickin 7th century, wrote books and books on science and reason from his home at the center of the andalusian “golden age” in muslim spain. toledo in the 9th century was a hotbed of theology, mathematics, and writing; admiring western european observers called multicultural, educated iberia “the ornament of the world.” in the 8th century in the monastery of jarrow in northumbria (aka in the middle of FRICKING NOWHERE) the venerable bede was able to open his “ecclesiastical history of the english people” with a discussion on cultural, linguistic, demographic, historical, geographical, and astronomical details, and refers to britain’s location near the north pole as a reason for its days being long in summer and short in winter (“for the sun has then departed to the region of Africa”). while bede’s information is obviously imperfect by virtue of his social and chronological location, he is a trained scholar with a strong critical sensibility and the ability to turn a memorable phrase; discussing an attempted imperial coup by an illiterate roman soldier, he sniffs, “As soon as he had seized power he crossed over to Gaul. There he was often deluded by the barbarians into making doubtful treaties, and so inflicted great harm on the body politic.”

don’t talk to me about how they were uneducated and illiterate. they were well versed in antiquity and classical authors through the high middle ages. they didn’t just suddenly discover them again when the 15th century started. the renaissance wasn’t about finding the texts, it was about deciding to apply them in a systematic way. beforehand, the 13th century saw the rediscovery of aristotle and the development of a new philosophical system to compete with the long-entrenched and studied works of plato. thomas aquinas and the dominicans were writing in this century. dante wrote the inferno in this century. i could go on.

don’t talk to me about the stereotype of the silent and oppressed woman – we already discussed that a bit above. i should also add, women usually had voting rights on the level of their community and this wasn’t regarded as odd. i already wrote a ranty post earlier on the myth that “it was just medieval times” and thus a rapey free-for-all.

we should also talk about how a form of gay marriage was legal for hundreds of years – two men could take wedding vows in a church and live together like any other married couple (though they called them “spiritual brotherhoods”). we should also talk about the cult of male bonds between knights in the 12th/13th century, and how it was idealized as the highest form of love. i also wrote a post a while ago about richard the lionheart and how sexuality worked. so.

we should talk about how all of this was happening in the time period that routinely gets written off as basically a wash between the fall of rome and the renaissance. we should remember that the renaissance was what led to modern structures of oppression for women, slaves, etc – everyone who had been worth nothing in antiquity. we should tear into the myth of historical progress and how it was invented to justify massive, wholesale colonization, genocide, and “civilization” in the supposedly enlightened 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries – because nothing we do now, apparently, can be as bad as what those bad ol’ bloodthirsty ignoramuses did back then.

we shouldn’t idealize the medieval era as a golden age either. that is never the right way to approach history. but we should take a long, long look at why we are so insistent on our simplistic, erroneous concepts of this time period, and how exactly they serve to justify our behaviors, mindsets, and practices today.

further reading to support any of these topics available on request.

Painting, like poetry, selects in the universe whatever she deems most appropriate to her ends. She assembles in a single fantastic personage, circumstances and features which nature distributes among many individuals. From this combination, ingeniously composed, results that happy imitation by virtue of which the artist earns the title of inventor and not of servile copyist.

At the Louvre (1894). Étienne Azambre (French, 1859 -1935). Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre.

This painting shows two copyists at work in front of one of Botticelli’s frescoes, ‘Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman’ which shows a young woman, probably Giovanna Tornabuoni, being received by Venus and the three Graces. Giovanna holds open a white cloth, into which Venus is laying roses symbolizing beauty and love.


STEAMPUNKS: “REJECT TOWN” | The Music of Harvey Beaks

Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek at the recording of my favorite song from the Harvey Beaks’ Steampunks Musical! Reject Town is a joyously dark anthem about the virtues of a little community built of trash and filth! This exclusive footage features members of the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra and the Seattle Opera performing the music LIVE in the studio with final animation played side-by-side. This also features extra-special footage of the multi-faceted and extremely talented voice of Dade (who shall remain nameless!).

As far as writing something like this, I’ll usually have a few starting points in my head; musical points of reference, if you will. In this case, I wanted a cross between, You’re a Good Man Albert Brown,” by THE DUKES OF STRATOSPHEAR (Andy Partridge/XTC’s alter-ego) and a little bit of House of Fun from the Camden Town Ska band, MADNESS. So that becomes the palette in my head from which I then move towards orchestral arrangements and other elements that make it sound like the world of Harvey Beaks. After recording with the orchestra, I also layered some trash-can percussion, pipes, and random clinky clangy things to round out the sound. This special took close to 60 musicians to execute. Not to mention our talented team of engineers, our copyist, orchestrator, conductor, assistants, and many others! We are really lucky to be able to do at this scale in this day & age of disposable entertainment. Harvey Beaks is a gem! -Ego

Be sure to watch STEAMPUNKS Part 1 on Thursday, June 23 at 4:30PM and Part 2 on Friday, June 24 at 4:30PM on Nickelodeon! Special thanks to my friend Aaron Cohen who edited this video together. 

The Harvey Beaks Orchestra, 2015

This last week, Team Harvey Beaks flew to Seattle, WA to record music for the current and upcoming season of our show. We recorded with 60 MUSICIANS! A full symphonic orchestra worth of world-class talent from Seattle’s Philharmonic and the Seattle Opera were assembled in the name of a little blue bird named Harvey! I am so proud to be writing music for the first Nickelodeon show to ever utilize an orchestra (not to mention the only cable animated series to record music at this scale). As far as music goes, we now ride side by side with the primetime network billion-dollar empires of The Simpsons and Family Guy.

One of the most exciting things we did was record the fully-orchestrated original songs for next season’s one-hour musical special: STEAMPUNKS! We even recorded with a smaller “Big Band” orchestra specifically for this. All I will say is just wait until you see Harvey do a lil’ soft-shoe!

God bless our producers and Nickelodeon for seeing the value in doing this. These are bold and wonderful risks being taken by a supportive network, contrary to what some may think. This is the real deal. Long Live Harvey Beaks!

-Ego Plum

Ego Plum (Composer) & C.H. Greenblatt (Harvey Beaks Creator)

Ego Plum (Composer), Robert Puff (Music Copyist), Steve Bartek (Orchestral Score Producer)

Ego Plum (Composer), with Reed Ruddy (Engineer) at Studio X.
Unlocking Scrolls Preserved in Eruption of Vesuvius, Using X-Ray Beams

Who’s ready for some new Classics? Researchers are using x-rays to read manuscripts from Herculaneum (a town destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius) that were turned into cylinders of carbonized plant material by volcanic gasses. Just how exciting is this?

“For a scholar, it would be wonderful to have a manuscript of Virgil written in his lifetime, because what we have are medieval manuscripts which have suffered many changes at the hands of copyists,” said David Sider, a professor of classics at New York University.

First edition Virgil. That’s how exciting. Science!


Top: Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi

Bottom: 16th century Lombard school copy

I thought it would be interesting to contrast a work by Leonardo and a later copy to highlight the quality of his technique. 

The faces: Leonardo’s face shows remarkable subtlety, with soft modelling and lots of smoky sfumato. This effect would be achieved with thin layers of oil paint, taking great time and skill. In contrast, the copy is crude and painted in a much less time consuming, much more black and white style. It lacks delicacy and any sort of close attention to a model. For example, the eyes are particularly dull and characterless. 

The orbs: Leonardo’s depiction of the glass orb shows close attention to and study of an actual example. At the bottom and side, Leonardo has included the tiny bubbles and imperfections within the orb. There are tiny highlights and the artist has studied the refraction of the hand. Also, there is a highlight observed at the bottom. In contrast, the copyist’s orb is bland and poorly observed- he has entirely avoided the challenge of depicting glass altogether! 

The hands: Leonardo’s hand is carefully observed, with shadows, highlights and, perhaps most importantly, actual joints! Unlike the copyist, who has made rubbery tubes for fingers. Also the fingernails are bizarre. 

The fabric: Leonardo’s treatment of the fabric shows subtlety, delicacy and close observation. He successfully gives the impression of mass. In the copy, you can clearly see that the double fold, meeting directly at the elbow, is copied but altered sightly from the original. However, the copyist shows little subtlety- the folds are schematic and clearly not observed from life. 

A Copyist at Work in the Galeries du Luxembourg, Paris (1882). Pieter Oyens (Dutch, 1842-94).

Artists David and Pieter Oyens were twin brothers. Their work was also very similar, not only in style and technique but also in choice of subjects (generally studio and cafe scenes). As a result, it is often very difficult to ascribe works simply signed ‘Oyens’ to the right twin.