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If You Could Read This...

by Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester

Have you ever wondered whether your persona could read and write? If you have, have you ever wondered how common literacy was in the Middle Ages, or how medieval people defined "literacy"? If these questions are of interest at all to you, read on...

It is commonly assumed that in the early Middle Ages, knowledge of Latin was confined to clerics, and even then, to only the most educated among them. In The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge University Press, 1989), Rosamund McKitterick contests this view, contending that knowledge of Latin was far more widespread than previously thought in the Carolingian age (approx. 750-950 AD). First, she argues that the language spoken in the part of Francia west of the Rhine was, for all intents and purposes, Latin, rather than Old French as was previously thought. Thus, when a person living in this era encountered a page written in Latin, he or she read it as his or her native language, even though pronunciations clearly had changed since the classical age. One can compare it with the position of English in many Caribbean countries today: though as written, it looks just like "regular" English; when spoken, it sounds very different.

Since Latin, in a sense, was still the "vernacular" of the western part of Francia, there was no need to learn it as a "second" language, though scholars from Anglo-Saxon England who had had to learn it this way were often appalled by the bad Latin of the Carolingians. Thus, there is evidence that a far wider segment of the population was literate at least in practical terms. Court officials and counts often possessed a wide collection of books, including law books, which they were clearly expected to use. Upper-class men and women who are clearly not clerics are known to have written works in Latin; and of course, there was the famous school for sons of noblemen sponsored by Charlemagne himself. The Carolingians, following in the footsteps of the Merovingians, also put a great deal of weight on written legal documents as proof of transactions, though oral modes continued to exist alongside them. The Carolingian period also is remarkable for the developments in cataloging and organization of libraries.

McKitterick thus concludes that the Carolingians were in some sense a "literate society", in that they valued and made use of the written word; though she does acknowledge that her study has concentrated mostly on the upper ranks. It nonetheless adds another nail in the coffin of that outdated term of "Dark Ages".

Turning to a slightly later period, there is M. T. Clanchy's From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307 (Blackwell, 1993). Clanchy's subject is the spread of literacy and literate culture in England in the centuries following the Conquest, specifically in relation to the proliferation of written documents. The evolution of charters, from Domesday book to the explosion in records-keeping in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century is traced, along the corresponding spread in literacy which made this possible. Also discussed are the mechanics of literacy-- who kept records, how they were trained, and what materials (parchment, ink, wax, etc.) they used. Also discussed are the invention of recordkeeping methods, such as indexing, and the growth of libraries.

The book's second section is invaluable when attempting to gain an understanding of the way medieval people perceived writing and written culture. Included is a discussion on the meanings of "literate" and "illiterate" in the medieval context (the meanings today are considerably different), as well as a discussion on the evolution of writing from pure artwork to something which can have a purely practical use in some circumstances, and the corresponding spread of literacy which makes this possible. Finally, the growing acceptance of a piece of writing over a memory as evidence of a transaction is detailed, along with conventions of dating, signing, and sealing which become necessary to guard against forgery. Readers may want to compare English society, where Latin never held the sway it did in France and Italy, with the Carolingian society described by McKitterick.

Reading this book should give you a good idea of what any given person from the time period covered would have known of writing and language. I also recommend the book to scribes for its in-depth treatment of the construction, meaning, and use of medieval documents.



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