By Josephine A. Koster
Medieval Perspectives, Vol.19 (2004)
Introduction: When we examine the writings of medieval women, we rarely do so from a disinterested position. We come to such texts for a number of reasons – from political to literary to historical to religious to philosophical – and when we come to them, we come freighted with the baggage of our critical expectations. As Annette Kolodny (1985) observed some years ago with respect to American literature, we find in a text what we expect to find there. In this paper I want to explore one of the key assumptions we hold about medieval women’s texts in the early and mid-fifteenth centuries, why we hold it, and what we actually can find if we try to pierce the veil of such critical assumptions and get closer to the words these medieval women actually wrote.
The assumption I wish to challenge is that medieval women were largely illiterate. In modem terms, “illiterate means unable to read or write – in other words, illiteracy is an inability to create and consume texts. 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, the Church. It was largely, though not exclusively, the province of men who had experienced formal education in the “clerkly” (as opposed to vocational) tracks of medieval schooling.
Those who were not “literatus” were known, in Middle English, as “lewed” – those without “konnyng” of Latin texts. “Lewed” is usually translated as “illiterate,” though that does not mean such persons could not read and/or write in the vernacular. For instance, in Eileen Power’s early study of medieval convents in England (lm), she cites accusations by episcopal examiners that nuns in many English convents were illiterate or incompetent in Latin (or later, in French, the language of the social upper classes). Power’s depiction of “the complete ignorance of Latin and general illiteracy in these houses” (250), consonant with what scholars in the 1920s believed about medieval women’s lives, led to a widely-accepted picture of medieval English nuns who memorized their prayers without knowing what they were praying about- a pathetic picture indeed.