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Stefan's Florilegium


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per-literacy-art - 7/28/94

"If You Can Read This......." by Mistress Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester.

NOTE: See also the files: literacy-msg, Latin-msg, Latin-online-art,
languages-msg, p-education-msg, per-latin-art.


This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanšs Florilegium.

These files are available on the Internet at:

Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.

While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.

Thank you,
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous

Really a book review, rather than an article. Good filler stuff.

If You Can Read This.......
--Mistress 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.

Copyright 1994 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.

If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.

<the end>

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