We all do it a few times per day: shooting a friend a text message with our phones. Doing so has become routine and we don’t really think about it: just grab your device, hold it up, and type a few words quickly and on the fly. Both the speed and short lifespan of text messages are responsible for its most peculiar features: they are written in a special language of short words and a high volume of abbreviations, and they come with the built-in understanding that there will likely be typos included. Interestingly, this hurried and cursory manner of communicating was quite common in medieval times, while its roots can be traced back to Antiquity. This post shows how people sent each other short messages before the invention of electricity and the phone: hastily, cheaply and with a modest amount of attention. “My soldiers have run out of beer, please send some!”
The idea for this post was sparked by an image of a wooden writing tablet that was written almost two thousand years ago (Fig. 1: I encountered it in a news letter from calligrapher Patricia Lovett). The tablet was dug up some time ago in a Roman army camp just south of Hadrian’s wall, in the north of England. Some 400 wood tablets with correspondence were found in the house of the commander, Flavius Cerealis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort. Remarkably, the tablets are only 1-3 mm thick, about the size of a modern postcard (more about the fortress here and about the correspondence here).
The one in Fig. 1 is particularly charming and personal. It invites the commander’s wife, Sulpicia Lepidina, to her sister’s birthday party. The latter writes: “On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival. […] Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.” (Source) Astonishingly, with this tiny scrap of no more than 223 mm wide we have in our hands a two-millennium-old text message sent between two sisters, concerning a matter as trivial as a birthday. As scholars have remarked, this is one of the oldest surviving specimens of a woman’s handwriting, which makes the tiny scrap even more memorable.
Produced with wooden pens with stuck-on nibs (Fig. 2), the 400 surviving text messages also include correspondence from the field, likely sent by courier. The sub-commander Masculus writes to Flavius Cerealis, his superior: “Please, my lord, give instructions as to what you want us to have done tomorrow. Are we to return with the standard to the crossroads all together or [only half of us. Also,] my fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent.” (Tab. Vindol. III 628, more here). This great (oldest-surviving?) order for beer, no doubt meant to be thrown out, survives because the earth preserved the wood on which it was written.
Similar short logistical messages survive from medieval times, although their manner of survival is different. Fig. 3 shows waste material discovered in a book binding by students of Leiden’s Book and Digital Media Studies MA-program, for which I teach. A total of 132 paper slips were pressed together to form a board made out of “cardboard”. Quite unusual is the origins of the material: the recycling bin of a small court near Heidelberg, belonging to an unknown duke. The material is not your usual archival material – charters, accounts and whatnot – but mostly concerns ephemeral material that is mostly lost from medieval times: “yellow sticky notes” that were sent from one servant to another, such as the one seen in Fig. 4. The scrap was written by the chamberlain (“hofmeister”) and it requests the amount of six guilders from the duke, whose servant is the recipient of the message.
The back of the message (Fig. 5) also adds to our understanding of this hidden world of medieval text messaging. It shows to whom the note needed to be delivered (“kamermeister”) but also that it was folded into a small package for transportation (note the two folds). Another interesting note is a request to purchase some wild roses in Heidelberg, while making sure “to include some that are still in the bud.” (More about this case in this blog post.) Many of these slips were produced from recycled charters or account books. The messages were either written on their back (verso), or on a strip that was cut from their (blank) margin, as still visible in Fig. 5 (note the half words next to the word “kamermeister”). Why use a good sheet of paper if the message would be deleted immediately after use?
Both the Vindolanda tablets and the medieval scraps that emerged from an early-modern binding form a time capsule with everyday conversations that do not normally survive from the past. We meet every-day people doing every-day things. Their manner of expressing themselves is untainted in that they do not try to be literary or witty, but merely convey a short message. They are part of a type of writing that was produced for short-term use and, ultimately, destruction. In that sense the messages from Antiquity and medieval times are not unlike the class notes I blogged about in the past, scribbled down by students and young children (Fig. 6) – more about notes and the bark sample in this post.
The parallel with the birch bark notepad is striking for another reason as well: it confirms that individuals in the past selected cheap materials for items that were meant for short use only. In that sense it makes perfect sense that the “text messages” discussed above were written on things that were just lying around: thin pieces of wood and slips of waste in a recycling bin.
While the caches from Vindolanda and Leiden are remarkable, there are actually plenty of time capsules still out there. The average archive in Europe will contain several boxes filled with medieval waste material, which usually include a wide range of recycled “transitory” material, such as letters and notes (Fig. 7).
If the paper and parchment slips are the medieval equivalent of our modern text messages, written in a cursory fashion and forgotten about almost immediately after receipt, these archival boxes are like the memory chips of our phones. They allow us to read conversations deleted hundreds of years ago, connecting us to real medieval individuals doing real medieval things.
Postscriptum: as pointed out by Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond), similar to the genre discussed in this post is the ostrakon tradition from Antiquity, whereby short texts (quotes, notes and drafts) were written on pieces of broken pottery. Sarah forwarded this specimen with a quote from Homer; other examples are found in this Tumblr post I wrote some time ago.