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Medieval Literacy

I’ve been trying to come to some kind of reasoned conclusion about the effect of relatively low rates of literacy during the European Middle Ages, not a long drawn out academic sort, just the sort of conclusions you arrive at over a beer. It’s not as simple as I was thinking though.

Of course, the obvious answer is that low literacy means learning and the transmission of ideas and concepts is very difficult, so there should be a pretty significant effect on… well, whatever, almost anything you can name. As I said, it just isn’t that simple though. My current opinion is there was probably very few significant effects, here’s why I say that.

Today, if you are illiterate, it’s a problem. Why? Because there is lots of shit to read. Jump back to 1000 ad though, there is very little. Books were expensive and writing implements were complex and difficult to use. One of the poor monks that was literate and copying books by hand, didn’t just run down to Staples and pick up some Bic pens and a couple notebooks. He sure as hell didn’t pop open his laptop and just click print.

Our poor brother monk likely had to make his inks, trim his quills, sit in a cold room and copy a whole book (codex really, but its not important) not to mention the fact that he is writing on animal skin, parchment, possibly rife with holes from biting insects on the animal from which it came. It gets even worse though, the parchment was of course  not ruled, so that also had to be done, and while mistakes can be scratched out and fixed, if you screw up too badly, the whole page needs to be redone, modern artisans who do this same sort of thing using the same methods may take as long as 2 or 3 days per page, and they have electric lighting and heat.

All that means that even if people could read, what would they have read? I mean think about it, I’ve written this over the course of about 10 minutes while I’m waiting for my pestilential students to arrive and while my dog has decided the most entertaining thing in the world is to poke me with her wet nose and run off. Over and over and over and over. Not a problem, I haz computer.

I can’t honestly conclude that higher literacy rates would have had a tremendous effect on anything. Later on towards the Renaissance, with the advent of the printing press, there may be an argument to be made, but I’m not sure there is before that point. With that said, literacy was probably much higher than we previously had thought. However, with little or nothing to read, and with what there was having little value to a vast majority, education made a subtle shift to more art and music.

I’m curious whether anyone has a different take though. It’s too easy to just say “yeah, if there had been higher rates of literacy, we would have been much further along”, mostly since that basic view is almost certainly based on looking around today and seeing all the things available to read or at the very least, the last 500 years where the same has been more or less true.

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