By Josephine A. Koster
Postscript: The Journal of the Philological Association of the Carolinas, Vol. 24 (2007)
Introduction: My title echoes a famous line of Thoreau’s, one that points out that we can learn as much from studying the familiar as from exotica. Many of our received critical beliefs about medieval literacy in general and medieval women’s literacy in particular come from analysis of very rarified texts, mostly those with literary intentions and particularly those in Latin. The “conventional wisdom” upon which we base our assessments of literacy, rhetorical practices, and writers and their audiences in medieval England derives from analysis of these very specialized works and their putative audiences.
In many ways, the practice is sound from a literary-critical point of view, but we must remember that such practices may cause us to miss some things by not looking closer to home—be it Norfolk or wherever in England—and examining domestic texts such as letters, instruction manuals, and other “homely” writings. What we find in so doing may well challenge some of our conventional assumptions and stimulate the kinds of reassessment that critical literary study should provoke.
In modern terms, to be “literate” means to be able to read or write. In the Middle Ages, though, literacy and illiteracy had a more fluid range of meanings. “Literatus” was a term reserved for those who could read and write Latin—the language of authorized textuality, of government, business, the law, and above all, the Church. It was largely, though not exclusively, the province of men. Those who were not “literatus” were known, in Middle English, as “lewed,” usually translated as “illiterate.” Women, largely excluded from the world of Latin textuality by religious and social custom, are generally regarded by modern scholars as “lewed,” that is, unable either to read or write. On the surface, the evidence for this assessment is strong. For example, Eileen Power’s 1922 study of medieval convents in England repeats accusations by episcopal examiners that nuns in many English convents were illiterate or incompetent in Latin (or later, in French, the social language of the upper classes).