Silent reading and literacy before the modern era.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a history grad student, who told me about how it was considered unusual in the past to be able to read without reading aloud. How true is this, and more intriguingly, when did the ability to read silently become as widespread as it is? For those who could read silently back in antiquity, was it just a curiosity of the highly literate, or was it just ‘convention’ to read aloud (i.e. it just didn’t occur to too many people that it was possible to read a text without speaking it aloud)?

Found a related site

"Marshall McLuhan argued that medieval oral culture-- which he defined by “discourse and group readings of manuscript books”-- had been destroyed by the printing press, replaced by a “visual culture in which men exchanged ideas through the private silent reading of printed books.” (367) Saenger argues that the shift from oral to print culture-- or rather from oral to silent reading, with various other attendant changes-- was brought on by the adoption of word spacing from the 1100s to 1400s, not the printing press. If this is so, then word spacing deserves to be regarded as an innovation on par with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

Roman authors like Plutarch and Cicero praised reading aloud as an aid to memory, and internal evidence suggests that letters and orations were meant to be spoken rather than read. Further, “books of the ancient Romans were highly unsuited to visual reading and study,” containing “neither punctuation, distinction between uppercase and lowercase letters, nor word separation.” This and other evidence suggests that “silent reading was an uncommon practice in classical antiquity.”

I’m not following the logic there. Things like word separation and punctuation are just as helpful, if not more helpful, in reading aloud from a text. The voice rises and lowers and pauses as sentences begin and end. Without indications of when this is to happen, the speaker is left adrift to speak in a monotone, making his listener’s comprehension all that more difficult.

But those indicators are a crutch, designed so that even idiots like you and I can understand what the author is trying to communicate. A skilled orator/reader of Ye Olden Days would have been especially talented at inserting tone, breaks, pauses and inflections where they were effective WITHOUT being told by the author or publisher where and what they should be.

Some interesting material here

According to widespread rumour, (UL, maybe) the first person to read without moving his lips was The Venerable Bede.

couple of examples of the claim:

http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mquestionmark.htm

Saint Augustine wrote that St Ambrose was the first person he’d seen read silently. From Alberto Manguel’s History of Reading:

I found this because I’d remembered the bit about Julius Caesar’s reading habits…

Hah! I quoted the thing–therefore you posted first!

And I also found it by remembering the bit about Julius Caesar – pretty hilarious.