Home Page

Stefan's Florilegium


This document is also available in: text or RTF formats.

literacy-msg - 2/4/08


Literacy levels in the Middle Ages.


NOTE: See also the files: languages-msg, Latin-msg, universities-msg, apprentices-msg, per-literacy-art.





This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.


This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.


The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the individual authors.


Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

    Mark S. Harris                  AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                          Stefan at florilegium.org



From: 00123646 at ysub.ysu.edu

Date: 2 Dec 91 22:18:09 GMT

Organization: Youngstown State University


Now, as to literacy of the masses, perhaps some of you should sit down.


All of the following remarks are based on two references:

       H.S. Bennett,  English Books & Readers 1475-1557 (Cambridge: Cambridge

       University Press, 1970), pages 19-29, "Chapter II.  Literacy"

    &  Sylvia L. Thrupp,  The Merchant Class of Medieval London {1300-1500},

       (Ann Arbor ???:  The University of Michigan Press, 1948), pages 155-158.


Bennett sums it up well on page 29:  "We are forced, therefore, to fall back on

the general impressions left by a study of the period, namely that an ability

to read was to be found in all ranks of society, among both men and women, and

that it was powerfully increased by the products of the printing press and by

the strong religious emotions provoked by the action of Henry VIII and by later

monarchs and their advisers."

    It is interesting that on page 27 he refers to an Act of 1543 covering who

could read the English-language Bible, and to whom. For instance, "Noblewomen

and gentlewomen might read it to themselves, but not to others." The reference

to women reading will I am sure be unbelievable to some. Some people forbidden

to read the English-language version were "...serving-men of the rank of yeomen

and under, husbandmen and labourers."  Does this prohibition mean that they

had previously been found to read it?  Were they allowed to read it in Latin,

and if so, does this indicate that they were able to? There are MANY references

to all classes in Bennett's work, and he gives his sources.

    I probably should not make the following reply, without the source in hand.

    Joshua ibn-Eleazar ha-Shalib refers to reading without moving the lips as a

new technique.  Indeed it was.  Earlier, readers were encouraged to read by

sounding out the words.  This led to aural associations, which were important

because, get this, the words in Latin were not separated, and made sense to the

reader only aurally.  Once words were separated, it became unnecessary to do

this, as the words no longer needed to be identified by sound.Based on Table

11 on page 157 of Thrupp's work, 40% of London's male "witnesses" (I do not

know the meaning of this word as used here).  She states that they are broadly

representative of the city laity. On page 158 she says: "If 40 per cent of the

lay male Londoners of this period could read Latin, it is a fair guess that

some 50 per cent could read English" Note: the list was compiled for 1467-1476.

    The reference to "literacy" being equated with "Latin literacy" is quite

important.    The Dictionary of the Middle Ages (New York: Charles Scribner's

Sons, 1986), volume 7, Joseph R. Strayer--editor-in-chief, pages 594-602,

discusses literacy under the headings "Literacy, Byzantine" and "Literacy,

Western European".  Under the Byzantine heading, pages 594-595 we find:

"In the West, with the possible exception of Italy, literacy -- which demanded

a knowledge of Latin--..."  A distinction is made between "high-grade literacy"

requiring Latin, and "functional literacy" which did not.

     Bennett describes at least three kinds of schools: ABC's, Petty Schools,

and Grammar Schools.  He further state (page 19): "Leach showed, with a wealth

of examples, that the Grammar Schools had a history which stretches back to

Anglo-Saxon times, while in addition many other schools of lesser importance

were in existence throughout the later Middle Ages." He cautions against

the belief that Grammar Schools began in the reign of Edward VI.  The ABCs and

the Petty Schools taught the vernacular, and the Grammar Schools taught Latin

only; admission to Grammar School seems to have required vernacular literacy.


I could go on and on. I refer the interested person to the references cited.


Honestly, I had assumed that most people would not have still believed in the

old stories about literacy of the lower classes.  The reply posted here was

evidence that many probably still do.


My first posting on all of this was a feeler.  I had actually never seen any-

thing solid. But it prompted me to do my own research, as well as ask for help

from all of you, and I came up with a wealth of information.


Perhaps the peasants could indeed read Aretino!!


Lord Godfrey de Shipbrook has written to me email that the Church was the only

place to learn to read and write, and that only the nobility had time enough.

Bennett states on page 24 that "The provision of teaching below the Grammar

School level was one of the many duties assumed FOR THE MOST PART by the

Church." (emphasis mine)  This would seem to indicate that others did so also.


One last reference.  Lest any think that one needed to have money to learn, let

me quote The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages, page 71.

A heretic by name of Marguerite Porete is said to have written a book, and then

"...accused of having sent her book to Bishop John of Chalons-sur-Marne and of

propagating it among simple people and beghards."  I am assuming that those

"simple people" were NOT well-to-do.


Hopefully this will destroy another SCA stereotype, and encourage research and

documentation of ALL stereotyped beliefs.


Vajk, who LOVES research



From: habura at vccnorthe.its.rpi.edu (Andrea Marie Habura)

Date: 5 Dec 91 13:31:41 GMT

Organization: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy NY


Literacy: Vajk has posted recently on evidence for literacy among the

peasantry in period. A problem I have noticed with the argument is that

nowhere is the word "peasantry" defined, nor is a time period given.

Do we mean everyone below the nobles, including the burghers and the

yeomen? Do we mean tenant farmers? Serfs? Beggars? Must the class have

been continuously literate, or were there gaps?

Did some research yesterday on the topic. (I also discovered a VERY interesting

looking book called "Ancient Literacy". On loan. Until January. Grr.)


Data below is from "Literacy and Society", a collection of papers published

by the Academic Press, Denmark, in 1989.


Patterns of Literacy in Medieval Denmark: (pp.159-170)


Early Danes (circa 8th century) were generally literate in the Runic alphabet.

After this alphabet fell out of use, the common folk, and most nobles,

were illiterate. Royal proclamations would be written in Latin (these survive)

, sent to the communities, translated into the vernacular, and read to the

populace. [This implies that the populace did not understand spoken Latin

and could not read the vernacular.]

There are no surviving records written by or for large landowners (nobles)

prior to 1250. Apparently, the system of feudalism in place at the time

did not require written records.

There are NO private letters extant prior to 1400, written by any individuals.

The only prolific letter-writers prior to the 15th century were the Church

and the Royal administration. There is evidence of this type of correspondence

from 1170. However, there was a shift in pattern around 1400: letters began

being written in Danish or Low German rather than in Latin. (The author notes

that this is relatively late; there are German documents in vernacular from


The first lay school in Denmark (i.e., one designed to teach laypeople rather

than clerics) was founded in 1404, in he city of Malmo/. Instruction was

permitted to the children of burghers. (Note: Wealthy merchants. Not "peasants".) There was a general increase in writing by all classes during the



"Reading the Signs at Durham" (pp.170-182)


This article deals with legal documents at Durham Cathedral (in England).

Exhibit 1 is a deed ceding two villages to the Cathedral, mid-12th c. The

individual ceding the land was a knight named Adam, who seems to have been

the son of a stonemason. (Pretty good evidence, since a stonemason would

have known how to read and write if the peasantry did, and his knighted

son certainly should have known.) Adam witnesses the document with a cross

(as do his two sons) and his seal, which shows a mounted knight and has his

name on it. Apparently, this individual, and his immediate descendants,

could not write at all, and very probably could not read the document (it's

in Latin).


A John of Salisbury (a cleric, 1160) is quoted as saying: "Who would demand

of an illiteratus, whose duty it is to know arms rather than letters, that

he should make a literate profession?" I.e., knights in 12th century

England were not expected to be literate, although evidence indicates

that a few of them were.


What it looks like is that there was an explosion in literacy around 1400.

This coincides with several things: introduction of paper (cheaper than

vellum), the end of feudalism, the rise of Protestantism (which stressed

each man reading the Bible for himself), and so on.


Signposts: So, how do we tell what the "common man" is doing? Think about

our own society. We are not universally literate, but everyone is assumed

to be literate unless proven otherwise. This leaves certain traces in our

artifacts and culture, such as:


Widely-available, cheap reading material. Especially interesting is the newspaper. Newspapers and broadsheets are meant to be consumed on a daily basis, by people of all income levels. This presumes near-universal literacy.


Professional authors, who support themselves by book sales, rather than by

patronage. Authors can't make money unless they sell lots of books, or fewer

books at a high price. Lots of books implies lots of buyers, and therefore

lots of readers.


Mass communication is in printed form. We post messages rather than hire a

crier, run personal ads rather than see a matchmaker, and converse

electronically. Our laws are published, not read. Clearly, writing is one of

the communication media of choice, not obligation.


Individuals use writing in their day-to-day lives. Although it isn't necessary

per se, we make shopping lists and keep day-books.


Prevalence of schools. You've got to learn to read somehow, and until recently,

Mom and Dad didn't have time to teach you. Today, every community in the US

has a school, and expects every youngster to undertake advanced instruction

(i.e., up to 12th grade.)


We can look for these signposts in everyday life. When were lay-schools founded? When do written "bookkeeping" records appear? When do people begin writing

letters for pleasure? When are mass-production works like printed books and

broadsheets begun? When do people begin to make a living as an author without

the support of someone else?


Anyone have answers?


Alison MacDermot



From: cav at bmerh364.BNR.CA (Rick Cavasin)

Date: 5 Dec 91 21:56:01 GMT

Organization: Bell-Northern Research Ltd.


Unto Alison MacDermot does Lord Balderik send his greetings.


For some interesting info on personal communications, see

Novgorod the Great, M.W. Thompson  Frederick A. Praeger, New York

A large volume of birch bark manuscripts (spanning the middle ages)

have been unearthed in Novgorod.  They are mostly 'spent' messages.

They include personal communication between family members, messages

from landowners to overseers, children's lessons and doodles, etc.

The script is an old form of cyrillic.






Date: Thu, 14 Apr 2005 04:10:46 -0700

From: "Laura C. Minnick" <lcm at jeffnet.org>

Subject: And Literacy... RE: [Sca-cooks] The rotten meat thread

To: Cooks within the SCA <sca-cooks at ansteorra.org>


At 03:34 AM 4/14/2005, you wrote:

> Please remember that the ability to read and the ability to write are TWO

> DIFFERENT THINGS.  Just because a person signed with an 'X' instead of  

> his name, doesn't mean he couldn't read a receipt.


Quite true- quickest example to mind is that of Charlemagne, who managed to

read a bit, but couldn't seem to wrap his head around writing any more than

the rough stylization of his name. Given his intelligence in evidence in

other areas, I would suspect some form of dyslexia.


Closer to the question of literacy in the era of our cookbooks: a document

that refers to medieval folk as 'illiterate' may or may not be accurate

according to our modern standards. 'Literacy', to the educated medieval mind, meant the ability to read and write... in Latin. Reading and writing

in the vernacular didn't always meet up to this exalted state. :-/)


Evidence that reading and writing in the vernacular became fairly

widespread exists in a variety of places, from the mundanity of our recipe

books, to the extraordinary event surrounding the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

Steven Justice discusses the burgeoning vernacular literacy rates in the

14th century in  _Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381_ (U of Cal. Press,

Berkeley, 1994). It appears that not as many people could write, but  quite

a few could read- enough that smuggled letters (alleged to be written by

John Ball, under several pen names) sent out through the countryside

sparked a groundswell of support for what became the Peasants' Revolt.  It

was basically an uprising against taxes, and among the things that the

peasants did (besides burning John of Gaunt's palace- lucky for him he

wasn't home at the time- and murdering the Archbishop of Canterbury) they

broke into local treasury offices and manor houses, and destroyed and/or

burnt legal records and accounting books. Taxes could no longer be

assessed, because the records showing who owed what- were gone. And how did

Jack Straw know which papers to burn when he broke open the exchequer's

desk? Yup- he knew what he was looking for- he could read them.  Apparently

(and we know because they didn't get all of them- the rebellion was put

down fairly swiftly) many manorial and exchequer records were being kept in

English, as more people could read English, and fewer civil servants were

fluent in Latin.


Literature was more available in the Vernacular also- Chaucer, Gower,

Langland- and epistolary records show middle class people writing each

other on the most banal of subjects like the weather and the high price of

stockings in London. And you'll notice that our corpus of available

cookbooks in English goes up dramatically too!


The more I read, the more I am amazed at our forebears...





From: Jay Rudin <rudin at ev1.net>

Date: June 13, 2007 10:52:56 AM CDT

To: "Kingdom of Ansteorra - SCA, Inc." <ansteorra at lists.ansteorra.org>

Subject: Re: [Ansteorra] hiding mundane


Ker Megan asked:

> Is that the job that evolved into "clerk"?; as chirurgeons evolved  

> into surgeon?


Yup.  Clerk (clericus) first meant somebody in minor holy orders, and then

somebody who could read, and finally (mostly post-period) a specific job

title for somebody who kept records.


In England, afer the murder of Thomas a Beckett, "benefit of clergy" was

the right to be tried by the church (which did not hang people) rather than

the state (which did).  But it applied to anyone who could read.

Eventually, Henry VII decreed that literate people who were not in holy

orders would only be able to claim benefit of clergy once. The Renaissance

playwright Ben Jonsson got off from a murder charge by claiming benefit of

clergy, even though he was never connected with the church.


The test was always reading Psalms 51 (or 50, depending on the numbering

system).  It was the appallingly appropriate "Miserere mei, Deus, secundus

misericordiam tuam" ("O God, have mercy upon me, according to thine

heartfelt mercifulness").  Since it could be used to keep your neck  

out of the noose, it came to be known as the "neck-verse".


Robin of Gilwell / Jay Rudin


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org