she who keeps this diary

09 February 2004 - 4:04 PM

Dame Quixote Tilts At Canards

So after a long day's efforts to beat the rudiments of language into children who should already know these things, I turned foolishly, oh how foolishly, to diaryland for a little entertainment.

In bdeb's rant du jour, I found the following quote from a Sir Richard (I don't know which one):

I am often amused by those who rely on the 12th c. interpretation of chivalry. Surely, in those early days when literacy was virtually non-existant among the noble class, a skewed view of the virtues of knighthood is often the result.

No. Oh God, no. Not that pernicious canard. Not again.

I have no interest in getting involved in discussions of the meaning of chivalry with SCA folk, be they common creatures-at-arms or belted in shining white. The discussions of chivalry I have so far endured with SCA folk have tended to either be (1) intellectually boring and characterised by analysis that goes no deeper than the bumper sticker level, (2) tainted by the snotty attitude that as a mere girl/non-fighter/Laurel I am simply incapable of understanding the deep and mystical nature of these things or (3) both 1 and 2.

To that, and especially (2) and (3), I reply with a couple of good short Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, which I need not put here. You know what they are.

Literacy in the Middle Ages, however, I am willing to tackle, if only with a short reading list. About this, you see, I do know something and I have a large certificate issued by an ancient university hanging on my wall which attests to this fact.

First, a small, but important, point. The word literatus, which we moderns like to translate as 'literate,' did not, in most of Europe during most of the Middle Ages, mean anything more or less than 'able to read Latin.' The term illiteratus equally did not mean anything more than 'not able to read Latin.' To translate illiteratus in a mediaeval context as meaning 'unable to read or write in any language' would be misleading in the extreme.

Now, for the reading assignments. Most germane to the matter which launched me on this rant is Ralph Turner's article, 'The Miles Literatus in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century England: How Rare a Phenomenon?' American Historical Review 83 (1978), 928-45.

Turner's answer to his title question is, simply put, not very rare at all, even in the twelfth century. He offers some excellent evidence in support of that answer.

I want to say that Lynn Thorndike wrote a good article also relevant here, but I can't find the citation offhand. If I come up with it, I will add it. There is good bibliography of Literacy in the Middle Ages online, as well. To recommend just one book, read M.T. Clanchy's From Memory to Written Record (2nd ed. 1999) as a readable and informative general overview for a non-specialist audience. If ready for something more hard-core, try Brian Stock's The Implications of Literacy (1983, repr. 1997).

Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege!

verso - recto

The WeatherPixie

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