Medieval Writing
Literacy and the Church (2)
While we are here concentrating our minds on the literate culture of the church, it must be borne constantly in mind that the church had a vigorous and continuing oral culture. The liturgy was spoken and sung aloud on a daily basis and the officiating clergy would have known vast tracts of it of by heart. Sermons and preaching were how the laity received their religious instruction, so that a priest, deacon or reader had to be an oral performer. The congregation did not have hymn books, prayer books or Bibles to hand. They relied on the oral and visual culture of the church for their learning, which the clergy had to provide.
eagle lectern
Books for the readings were placed on lecterns like this medieval brass eagle, now in Southwell Minster.
The pioneering clergy were missionaries and as such were active practitioners of this oral culture. The earliest books which survive are gospels or other Biblical extracts and works of liturgy, as well as the teachings of the church fathers which formed the basis for sermons and preaching. But the books were rare and precious and their copying was important to the expansion of the church. The nodes of Christian expansion produced scribes, but it is difficult to know how literate these people were in our sense of that word, and it is difficult to assess literacy in such a different culture of the word. The oral culture of the church was in Latin, for the liturgy, and in the vernacular, for preaching and teaching. The literate culture was in Latin.
uncial in columns Some early works were written in uncial script, a laborious process in which each letter is made separately. Sometimes the pages were in two columns and the letters ran on continuously; no word spacing, no punctuation. The letters were fitted into the line without regard for the ends of the words. This would seem to us to entail a mechanical process of copying letter by letter. It would also seem to us to be very difficult to read, certainly in the way that we might read a previously unknown passage, such as the newspaper or a web site on medieval writing. Did they conceptualise reading differently, or was this a memory aid for passages that were already well known and had been learned orally?
Section from a few surviving leaves from a gospel in the Library of the monastery of St Gall in Switzerland (Cod. 1394), from the late 5th or early 6th centuries.The script is a very elegant uncial. (From Thompson 1912)  
Some later works using majuscule scripts, and some early ones for that matter, were written in a single column across the page, and separation into individual words appeared. However, there were still anomalies and one might query just how truly literate these early scribes may have been.
Vespasian Psalter
This segment is from the 8th century Vespasian Psalter (British Library, Cotton Vespasian A1, f.31), by permission of the British Library.
In the example above, red lines have been added to show the actual word breaks, showing some idiosyncratic word spacing. There are words run together and separations in the middle of words. The end of the word trepidabo in the first line is actually written above it. It all seems a little painstaking and lacking in real comprehension of the words as written. The work was produced in Canterbury.
The Irish and Anglo-Saxon scribes who wrote in insular half uncial or insular minuscule very rapidly adopted the separation of words by spaces and they developed forms of punctuation. Malcolm Parkes (Parkes 1991a) argues that this was because they primarily conceptualised Latin as a written language and were steeped in a tradition of Latin grammar that emphasised the conjugations and declensions of individual words. Their word spacing was more irregular when they wrote in their own vernacular, which they conceptualised in oral rather than graphic terms. Their intensive use of abbreviation he also attributes to their conceptualisation of Latin in graphic rather than spoken word terms. They did not heavily abbreviate their vernacular works.
Priscian's grammar
A little grab from a copy of Priscian's grammar (Leiden University Library, Cod. Lat. 67). (From New Palaeographical Society 1904) The 9th century manuscript, in an Irish hand, shows word spacing, extensive abbreviation and the meticulous recording of Latin grammar.
This explanation is enticing and Parkes equates the developments of insular script with the development of true legibility in what was, for the scribes and readers, a second language. The need for true legibility implies true literacy. Like many enticing explanations, the counterpoint to the argument is left somewhat in limbo. Did the writers of continuous script, as found in prestige Classical works as well as Christian volumes, have such a fluid concept of Latin that they could actually read it with facility in this way? Or are these works designed not for a literate usage, but as an extension of oral learning.
crucifixion The oral tradition of Christianity was not the same as oral traditions in the field of arts or entertainment. Christianity was a religion of authority and the authority was maintained through the integrity of written texts. Oral teaching had to constantly refer back to those written texts. It was a religion of the book. The didactic visual imagery in the churches and the oral ritual and teaching were all derived from specified written texts. No matter how much of their work the clergy learned by oral processes, and it was probably much more than we can imagine with our utter dependence on the written word for learning, literacy was essential to maintaining the accuracy and orthodoxy of practice. Reading literacy in Latin became essential to all clergy.
The Biblical story of the crucifixion is told in stained glass in York Minster.


previous page
The Concept of Literacy

If you are looking at this page without frames, there is more information about medieval writing to be found by going to the home page (framed) or the site map (no frames).
This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 2/2/2005.