Medieval Writing
The Laity (5)
The literacy of women is a subject that generates some debate, but it is probably no more susceptible to absolute generalisation than that of literacy in general. The inferior position of women in the church did not give them the same educational opportunities as men. Nuns were not clericus, nor were they as likely to be litteratus.
register of Godstow Nunnery
This fascinating grablet comes from a mid 15th century paraphrase into English from Latin of the registry of Godstow Nunnery (Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS B.408, f.13).(From New Palaeographical Society 1910)
The section shown above is the prologue to the register in which the writer asserts that women of religion should be excused from reading books in Latin because it is not their mother tongue.
Some religious women were literate, some were even authors. Certain religious female authors, like Hildegard of Bingen, had scribes to copy down their words, although in her case it may have been to exercise some precautionary censorship rather than because of a lack in her own capability. German nunneries seem, in particular, to have produced some highly literate women. The literacy of some religious women probably had more to do with the social class from which they were drawn than their level of education within the cloister. Books were copied and illustrated in nunneries, but they were more likely to purchase them or have them donated.
In the era of burgeoning aristocratic vernacular literacy, it is known that women owned works of romance or similar, that they read them, lent them and had works dedicated to them. At the highest levels of society, women could read for pleasure or instruction.
St Anne and Virgin In the later middle ages there are numerous artistic depictions of women reading, in contexts that suggest that this is not simply depicting a reality but encouraging a desirable practice. A particular example is the depiction of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, found in various media. This has been taken to imply an encouragement for mothers to teach their daughters to read, probably using the book of hours which many households owned.
St Anne teaches the Virgin to read in a late medieval stone sculpture in the church at Fontaine-les-Dijon.
This admittedly scruffy reproduction is of an Annunciation scene from a 15th century book of hours (British Library, MS Roy. 2 A xviii)
Virgin and women reading
This example shows the Virgin at her reading desk with an open book, while two aristocratically dressed ladies kneel at their prayer desks, each also with open books. The aged textbook from which it was snaffled captions it "Ladies' cloaks of the early fifteenth century". It is interesting that an image depicting female literacy should be interpreted in the early 20th century as a statement about women's clothes. Social change is not a steady process of evolution!
Women authors were not confined to the cloister, although secular women writers were seriously outnumbered by men. Probably the most cited and illustrated because of the exquisite illuminated volumes in which her works were produced was the poet Christine de Pisan. This author also wrote for and about women.
An image from the "Creating French Culture" exhibition shows a lavish page from Christine de Pisan's "City of Women" in the Bibilothèque Nationale de France.
Authoring does not necessarily imply the capacity to actually write. In the middle ages scribes were employed for everything from the boring and menial production of documents of varying degrees of importance, to the taking by dictation of works produced by those unable, or too otherwise preoccupied, to sit down and write them out themselves. By the 15th century the Paston family were writing each other letters on a great diversity of matters significant and trivial, but never dull. Evictions from houses and the odd stint in prison were mixed with concerns for materials to make childrens' clothes, not to mention their education and marriages. However, even here, not all the letters were written in the author's own hand. Autograph letters for the men of the family have been identified through their consistency of style and the fact that they appear to have done their own drafts and corrections, although some letters have been written in other than the author's own hand. The letters of the women of the family are written in a range of hands, indicating that other more accomplished members of the family or associates were employed for the actual writing process. (This is discussed in Davis (ed) 1971.)
Paston letter
Segment from an autograph letter of William Paston III to his brother John Paston III of 1478 (British Library, add. ms. 27446, f.18). By permission of the British Library.
Margery Kempe, in a similar period, produced her mystical experiential religious works with the aid of a scribe because, by her own telling, she was unable to write. She was neither aristocratic nor clericus.
While the increasing availability of books encouraged more people to be able to read, there is an intriguing new extension of the old visual culture in the late middle ages. The blockbook was a precursor, and much cheaper alternative, to the newfangled and initially expensive production of books with movable type. The printing block for a whole page was cut out from a single piece of wood and the pages stamped out on paper sheets and bound. A popular blockbook production was the Biblia Pauperum, a volume produced for poorer and less literate book owners, with stories from the Bible depicted, with minimal written text, but containing the familiar pictorial productions which had surrounded them for centuries on the church walls. Rather than introducing people to literacy, these books could allow them to take their visual culture home from church, in a modified monochrome version. In an enigmatic twist, the text of the Biblia Pauperum was not uneducated religious folklore, but a learned, if very brief, Latin text of clerical authorship.
Garden of Eden This wall painting version of the Garden of Eden story is found in the parish church of Easby, Yorkshire.
Medieval people were used to their Bible stories in strip cartoon form. Note that the story does not follow literate conventions as it goes from right to left.
These blockbooks are investigated in theThe Internet Biblia Pauperum website.
To get our heads around the concept of literacy in the middle ages we have to abandon the precepts of our own educational upbringing. Neither reading nor writing literacy was ever universal. At the beginning of the middle ages there were some very literate scholars. By the end of the middle ages there were still illiterate people, but they were not necessarily ignorant. However, the balance had shifted considerably to more people having more literacy skills. Mechanisms for the running of society had shifted into an entirely literate mode. However, all of knowledge and culture was not in the hands of the literate. Oral, visual and participatory modes of preserving knowledge, providing entertainment and producing that enigmatic entity which we call culture were significant throughout the middle ages and beyond. The only reason we give such enormous primacy to the written word is that the other leaves no little black squiggles on a page for us to decode.
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The Concept of Literacy

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