Archive for December 21st, 2010

The Middle Ages were Literate!

In the fourteenth century a really wealthy College at Oxford might have twenty books, each of them chained to the wall, and a full-time Librarian to watch over them. If you wanted a book, you had to get permission to copy it by hand.

In that age, someone who had READ books was in a class by himself. A surgeon who had learned his trade on a battle field was a common laborer. He was scum compared to a University Doctor who could quote Galen from having read that Roman book HIMSELF.

We all know that the introduction of movable type caused several revolutions. Movable type had been invented in China, but no one can find the slightest effect it had there.

The reason that printing had such a great effect here was because an astonishingly large percentage of Europeans could read. The class that could read was a class by itself but it was a class consisting of several percent of the population. Never before, in Egypt or Mesopotamia or China, was it common to find a village that had a single person who could read and write.

In any village, the reeve and others had to read and write. Many village priests could.

The usual response I get when I point out how printing revolutionized the West but didn’t cause a whisper in China is that the Chinese script was so complex it didn’t lend itself to printing. That’s what Mommy Professor told them, and they never think beyond it.

But WHY were Chinese and hieroglyphics so complex? Wasn’t it probably BECAUSE only professional scribes used it?

Writing was a bit like BUGS. We boil things down here because in our society, new concepts are possible.

All you have ever heard Mommy Professor talk about was how FEW people could read in Medieval Europe. But compared to the percentage who could read in the “highest civilizations” outside the West, that percentage was astronomical.

Graffiti on the Pyramids has been written for thousands of years. Always it was a scribe, “he of the clever fingers,” who wrote the graffiti until the Romans and Greeks got there.

We find actual graffiti on the walls in Pompeii, written by people who were able to write but were definitely not pros. That is what historians are comparing Medieval Europe to.

There were professional FEMALE novelists in Europe long before there was printing. One famous painting shows a female novelist giving a copy of her book to a queen.

Which indicates the queen read, not for money, but for pleasure. Unless her job as queen didn’t pay enough and she had a job on the side as a scribe, a piece of history that would REALLY be worth knowing.

If Medieval society had been as illiterate as any society outside the West, which includes Rome and Greece, printing would have been invented and forgotten the way it was in China.