There are myriad ways to scrawl out the English language: loopy and slanting letters, tight and focused penmanship, and the ever-present chicken scratch, to name only a few.

This was readily apparent when CNN solicited handwriting samples from iReporters as part of the cultural census. Some submitters favored the clean and simple script that denotes years of penmanship practice. Others had messy lettering and sentences tracing defiant diagonal trajectories off their guidelines.

In the era before the printing press, handwriting was a highly specialized and labor-intensive monastic discipline, one undertaken only by those who had committed their lives to the church. Scribes worked painstakingly in a scriptorium, a room connected to a monastery’s library where transcribers would spend their entire workday ensconced in one of the many cubiclelike recesses lining the walls. There, they inscribed letter after letter on sheets of parchment for months (or years) at a time — all to produce a single book or manuscript.

In the opinion of Arnie Sanders, associate professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore, the history of handwriting is a perfect encapsulation of how the collision between the secular and the sacred has informed our literary traditions.

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