Medieval Writing
The Laity (4)
English as a language of literacy came into its own in the 14th century, and the work of Chaucer was highly influential in the development of the literate language. The Canterbury Tales is not located in aristocratic social space, but reflects a broader spectrum of society, both lay and clerical. Chaucer also had a huge impact on English as a written language. While there were many dialects being spoken in different regions of the country, the language of Chaucer became the basis for written English.
Portrait of Chaucer from Hoccleve's Regement of Princes (British Library, Harley 4866, f.88). By permission of the British Library.
Information about the English of Chaucer's time, as well as about the man and his work, can be found on The Geoffrey Chaucer Website.
While pragmatic literacy skills were increasing and developing, with practical treatises in such areas as the law or rural estate management or animal husbandry becoming prevalent, there was also an expansion of literature, poetry and prose, which constituted reading for pleasure, or at least for moral improvement. The increasing commercialisation and level of organisation of the book trade turned out greater numbers of works for a growing proportion of the population able to read them. Vernacular works proliferated in all the languages of western Europe.
Froissart presents his volume of love poetry to Richard II. Hoccleve presents his work to Henry V.
Aristocratic patronage may have assisted the process of production, but the readers were also being drawn from the wealthy middle classes. Increased pragmatic writing skills required for areas such as law and business were also utilised for recreation, education and improvement to manners and morals. Books of compilations appear, written in document hands such as were used for business purposes, containing miscellanies which included stories and poems as well as practical treatises. These were collected volumes that readers were copying for themselves from various sources. The business scripts influenced the commercial production of books and copies which were rapidly produced, free of the complex abbreviations of earlier works, written on the cheaper medium of paper, made books accessible to more people. Parkes (Parkes 1991) has the most quotable quote on the subject:

Books were always a luxury in the Middle Ages, but the production of cheaper books meant that they could become a luxury for poorer people.

The schools run by the clergy may have only catered for a small proportion of the juvenile population at large, but they signified that the church was generating literacy for more than just its own uses. Basic Latin, like English, was escaping from the social space into which it had been placed in the earlier period.
The 15th century grammar school stands just outside the church door at Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire.
As far as religious ritual is concerned, wealthy or aristocratic lay patrons had commissioned psalters or breviaries for their private use. However, these were not for them to read themselves in a ritual context, but for the use of their private chaplains. The 14th and 15th centuries saw a proliferation of a work which the laity could use themselves for their daily ritual. This was the book of hours. This was the most widely produced class of book of the late middle ages, was the book most likely to be owned by a person of modest means, and was significant in the development of lay literacy.
The book of hours comprised a modified form of the divine office and sets of prayers and psalms for various occasions, to be used by members of the laity without the presence of a priest. Most of them were in Latin, although there were vernacular versions. Sometimes the rubrics were in the vernacular, just to make it easier for a lay reader to find their place or know where they were up to. The text was greatly adorned with miniatures, initials, rubrics and borders; all the usual pictorial elements to act as prompts for the reading of the text.
Page from a 15th century book of hours (National Library of Australia, MS Clifford 1097/9, f. 65v). By permission of the National Library of Australia.
In the example above, the miniatures of the cross and the crown of thorns precede prayers in a series devoted to the passion, each preceded by an appropriate image.
The book of hours, or prymer as it is also known, was used extensively for teaching children to read. However, the type of literacy that this develops may be rather different to what we would call true literacy today. The Latin would not have been entirely unfamiliar, having been heard regularly during the church liturgy. The use of the book of hours involved the daily repetition of the same series of prayers, as well as the use of other prayers or psalms in the book on specific occasions. There would, no doubt, be a certain amount of rote learning by sheer repetition in this, aided by the illustrations as a memory jogger. With a vernacular book of hours, one can see more prospects for practical literacy, but when the book of hours was the only book that some households owned, the opportunities to develop this skill for pleasure or profit would seem to be severely limited.
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The Concept of Literacy

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