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Literacy, reading, and writing in the medieval West

Literacy, reading, and writing in the medieval West

By Charles F. Briggs

Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 26, No. 4 (2000)

Abstract: Over the last quarter century, a plethora of studies on literacy, reading, and writing in medieval Europe have contributed significantly to our understanding of medieval society and culture. Nevertheless the sheer number of these studies and their authorship by scholars in several different disciplines have obscured the relationships between these studies, their common themes and their differences. This essay seeks to survey this literature and its background, to explicate its contributions to the field of medieval history, and to suggest avenues for future study. It also reveals how approaches developed outside medieval studies were borrowed and adapted by medievalists, and how the study of literacy, reading, and writing in the Middle Ages has, in turn, influenced the work of ancient and modern historians.

Introduction: It is no surprise that those of us who make it our business to study the distant past should dwell so obsessively upon the written word. Written texts, after all, are far and away our most abundant resource for understanding the long defunct people and societies that constitute the subject of our investigations. Of course, most medieval historians use texts principally as a means through which to see the past. And because these written sources are spotty, tendentious, and often just plain wrong, historians have developed and applied rules of documentary evidence to separate the wheat from the tares. More recently, they have also borrowed from and adapted the methodologies of the social sciences, as well as the theoretical tools of philosophy and literary criticism.

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