SEO Started in the 12th Century: Bet You Didn't Know That - Craft Your Content

SEO Started in the 12th Century: Bet You Didn’t Know That

Recent analysis of content readability has shown that most readers like bite-sized bits of information. This means headings, sub-headings, short paragraphs, and quick sentences are always a win.

If you’ve ever worked with Craft Your Content’s editorial team, you know that we spend a lot of time breaking your writing up into smaller parts.

In the busy, digital information age, this makes even more sense. Think of a commuter reading off an iPhone as she moves around the city.

Because she’s reading in short intervals from a device in a busy environment, she must be able to easily recall where she is in the article or post whenever she’s distracted. Headings, short words, sentences, and paragraphs will help her remember where she left off.

Less complex things are easier to remember.

This simple fact is the basis of a crucial technology we often take for granted.

No, I’m not talking about our ability to stream a live event halfway around the world—which is  incredible. The technology I’m talking about is the alphabet. Did we lose you?

Like the breaks of white space CYC editors put in a draft, the alphabet breaks up the sound of speech into manageable chunks that can be reassembled into virtually any configuration.

Letters and Memory

In The Vineyard of the Text, Ivan Illich explores a technological revolution in medieval texts, which occurred when the devotional reading done by monks was displaced by scholarly reading and writing.

In other words, at a certain point in the middle ages people stopped reading to have spiritual experiences and started using books for practical and intellectual purposes.

Illich considers how this transition is similar to the changes in mental space we’ve seen in the massive shift to digitized content instead of printed material. He begins by highlighting the fact that the alphabet was a means of remembering the way people talk using their bodies (i.e., embodied speech) before it was the basis for all subsequent innovations in Western texts.

For the ancients, writing was a way of capturing speech. “The Greek language originally had no word for ‘a word,’ singly identified,” writes Illich, “Greek had only various terms referring to sounds … utterances [that] could be articulated by the lips, the tongue, or the mouth” (39).

Our understanding “of ‘words,’ … acquired meaning only after they had been hatched under the alphabet during the first centuries of its use” (39).

The earliest writers broke speech up into its sounds and, in so doing, created memorable nuggets: letters.

In the early days, the technology of writing was a two-part process. In order to get something written there was usually a dictator (the speaker) and a scriptor (the scribe) (88). Writing was originally the servant of speech.

Speakers embodied their thoughts in the sounds they produced, and the written word became for the medieval reader another form of this initial embodiment. People only wrote and read to remember—or re-embody—the things other people had said.

Fleshing Things Out

In his discussion of the 12th century monk Hugh of St. Victor, Illich explains how medieval monks believed that God’s words and wisdom were immanent in the things they read.

At this time, it was unusual for anyone to read silently. In monasteries, monks chanted biblical texts as musical scores. By reading aloud, they believed they embodied God’s wisdom, which explains why their entire lives were ordered around this type of reading.


For the monk who reads out loud, wisdom shines through illuminated handwritten pages of parchment because it is immanent in every aspect of a religious text (17-19).

Believing, with the Christian tradition, that God’s wisdom was hard to come by in sin-corrupted nature, Hugh’s masterwork, the Didascalion, “presents the book as medicine for the eye. He implies that the book-page is a supreme remedy; it allows the reader, through studium, to regain in some part that which nature demands, but which sinful inner darkness now prevents” (21).

Hugh sees the page as a mirror that exposes the reader to himself. Through studium, or by studying the written word (aka reading), you see yourself as you really are, as the light of wisdom emanates from the page (20). Because the page contains the wisdom of God who—in the Christian tradition—created readers, it gives people unique access to themselves.

Similar to modern reading experiences, which feel enlightening when they provide new perspectives on various problems relating to ourselves, the medieval reader felt enlightened when he located himself (his personality, problems, interests, etc.) in the cosmic drama between sin and God’s goodness unfolded in religious texts.

As Illich explains, “[w]hen Hugh reads, he experiences the restoration of the light of which sin has deprived us. His pilgrimage at dawn through the vineyard of the page leads toward paradise, which he conceives as a garden. The words that he plucks from the trellis of the lines are a foretaste and a promise of the sweetness that is to come” (26).

Modern readers tend to understand every new (web)page as a surface that briefly lights up the interior screen of the mind before quickly fading away. We tend to think of texts as things that serve a purpose in a particular moment and may then be dispensed with.

But “[f]or the monastic reader, whom Hugh addresses, reading is a much less phantasmagoric much more carnal activity: the reader understands the lines by moving to their beat, remembers them by recapturing their rhythm, and thinks of them in terms of putting them into his mouth and chewing” (54).

For the medieval reader, opening a book was not a way to kill a few hours or learn how to do something. Instead, it was the beginning of a long and arduous pilgrimage that would involve not just your mind, but your body as well.

But all of this was about to change.

The 12th Century Tech Revolution

The thing about a practice of reading and writing that sees text as a manifestation of God’s perfect spoken wisdom is that it’s difficult to access without starting at the beginning and reading through the whole thing.

At this point in history, letters had done a good job of breaking up the sounds made during speech so they could be recorded by hand, and it was amazing that people could say things that others’ had said before. However, people (particularly the scholarly minded) still wanted to find and read (verbatim) specific parts of texts that they had heard read aloud.

At this time, scriptures were read aloud to the larger groups of monks over the course of a year. Pages of the texts were arranged as massive blocks, with virtually no breaks or means of allowing the reader to figure out what part he was reading.


He would have to pick a spot at random and see if he remembered what—in terms of description or concepts—came before or after the words he was looking for.

So how were these monks able to find particular lines of text again?

Moving away from the reading practices of the monastic readers that preceded them, the scholastic textual innovators of the latter half of the 12th century concerned themselves with making it easier to dip into texts and take the excerpts you wanted.

The unvoiced, disembodiment of intentions made possible by multitudes of breaks in text allowed people to more easily take up a given book for the purposes of finding specific information. Marking out large chunks of time to immerse oneself in reading was no longer necessary.

Butchering the Text

“Before Hugh’s generation, the book is a record of the author’s speech or dictation. After Hugh, increasingly it becomes a repertory of the author’s thought, a screen onto which one projects still unvoiced intentions” (Illich, The Vineyard of the Text 95).

Since the seventh century, the classical Greek and Roman practice of writing in scriptio continua—that is, without breaks between words—had been in decline.

Introducing breaks (spaces) between words during transcription of dictation meant that readers didn’t have to sound words out of a line of text and hear themselves speak.

For this reason, it became easier to read a text silently.

Obviously, it hadn’t been impossible when scriptio continua was the norm, but every new break in a wall of text made it easier for the reader to make up for distractions by quickly reorienting his eyes to the lines he had been reading.

As with the alphabet — which isolated sounds for better recall — the breaks between words allowed readers to isolate ideas.

Subject Headings and Alphabetization

The new techniques of the 12th century included “alphabetic arrangement of key words, subject indexing, and a kind of page layout suited for silent scanning” (94).

So it wasn’t just the dudes who figured out SEO techniques in 2005.

Around 1150, the scholastic theologian Peter Lombard set out to make things easier for students and speed up the way people read.

In order to decrease the time taken up turning pages, Peter insists on breaking up texts with chapter titles, which would aid the reader in finding what he is looking for (100).

Peter’s method stands in contrast to Hugh’s, which “insists on patience and leisurely tasting of what can be found on the page. Peter wants to give his pupils all the help he can to locate with ease and speed what to read in the book” (101).

These new chapter headings were also typically accompanied by something called an incipit—a short gloss of what is discussed in a given section—and other innovation that allowed readers to dip into the text at a point of their choosing (96).

If you think about this type of glossing in terms of SEO, such insertions can do a lot to cause people to read in a specific way. An incipit can make certain parts of a text stand out more than others. If a given scribe had a theological agenda he wanted to push, he could write incipits that drew readers’ attention to the point he wanted them to take from the text.

Eventually, numbering and alphabetization would be introduced, allowing readers to navigate a text without having a previously established sense of its overall structure, sequence of thought, or descriptions of events.

By introducing these scholastic changes to the way texts are written, Peter Lombard intuited the findings of today’s most recent research on readability.

Contemporary Echoes

In his account of the transition from monastic to scholastic reading, Illich tries to show how people took on a whole different understanding of what reading meant and what it could do.

He shows how the alphabet allows for thought and speech to be abstracted away from individual speakers: first through its disembodiment of speech sounds via transcription, then through its consignment of once-audible thoughts to selective reading and silent study.

The marks of the 12th century transition Illich charts have never been more legible than in our own time:

  • Readability. As already noted, the readability created by spacing and breaks in texts remains an urgent concern for content creators, writers, and journalists everywhere, as they attempt to make contact with people who are increasingly busy and distracted when they read.
  • Searchability. Next, the organization and indexing that Peter Lombard’s innovations kicked off have gone through countless revolutions, and resulted in search engines that use lightening-speed reader-bots, which let you essentially create your own chapter heading or incipit whenever you want to find a particular “something” in millions upon millions of texts.
  • (Dis)embodiment. Finally, it could be that a form of text that moves us back towards a more embodied style of communication may soon replace the highly abstract way of engaging with others’ thoughts that has accompanied the long reign of the alphabet. In an interesting turn for those of us who read and write for a living, certain voices are claiming that video will soon replace much online text.

This last development is perhaps most interesting.

After text has simultaneously eliminated embodied engagement with others and allowed us contact with more disembodied voices than Hugh of St. Victor could ever have dreamed of, many people are now interested in dispensing with text and turning to a medium (video) where we again look the speaker in the face and hear her voice.

Could it be that the carnal act of reading out loud was a better approximation of what readers actually sought when they took up the book? When we silently read books or posts, do we in fact—as Rosalind has recently intimated—seek more immediate contact with the presence of another person?

Though the luminosity of others’ speech remains immanent in many of the words we silently read, like Hugh—who clung to the old monastic way of tasting the words of his books—contemporary people seem to crave more palpable ways of encountering others.

Still, textual technologies have enhanced our ability to carefully study the terms in which a speaker expresses herself while cross-referencing her ideas with others. These techniques were originally developed by medieval scholastics and later innovators.

In fact, without the code written by programmers that allows our devices to play video, we wouldn’t be able to have the face-to-face video experiences we do. Viewed in this light, video only adds to the layers of alphabet-derived abstraction that Hugh’s audible reading sought to minimize.

By reflecting on echoes like these, by noting how they repeat and diverge from historical precedents, we may be able to gain a better grasp of what reading and writing means for us today and what it might be able to do in the future.

Photo credit: ia__64

About the Author Ben Barber

When he’s not refining prose and hunting down grammatical errors, Ben Barber reads paper books from brick libraries, traps Dungeness crab, brews beer, and stalks inspiration through temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. His graduate degrees in English Literature have honed his editorial eye, while teaching him the importance of respecting the author’s unique voice. Feel free to drop him a line if you’re interested in discussing the nuances of semicolon usage, the metaphysics of the late-Romantic poets, Spinoza’s third type of knowledge, or recipes for baby back ribs.