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Literacy as Heresy: Lollards and the Spread of Literacy

Literacy as Heresy: Lollards and the Spread of Literacy

By Judith Petrou

Paper presented at the 46th Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (Washington, DC, March 23-25, 1995)

Introduction: Though it may seem a stretch to connect the Middle Ages with a conference on composition concerned with “Literacies, Technologies, and Responsibilities,” I, as a medievalist, feel that we should not lose sight of the fact that those three terms have been embedded in composition practices from the time certain religious groups broke from authoritarian tradition and tried to make privileged texts available to all. And, as happens time and time again today, the mission to empower through the written word is a task fraught with peril, especially when it is considered by those in power to be a subversive act. An examination of the literacy habits of the Lollards, a heretical sect of the Middle Ages, will, I hope, provide a needed historical context for our concern today with literacy, technology, and responsibility.

Almost inevitably in the course of writing about medieval heresy, both medieval writers and modern historians ask whether literacy leads to heresy. One reason for this question’s prominence is that in a way, all Christian heresies are text-based: that is, they arise over differing interpretations of a written source, Scripture. An individual’s reading of the Bible rc can lead that individual to interpret the text in a way different from the church’s interpretation. It can thus lead to a  spiritual awakening akin to the political awakening Paulo Freire describes among people in Brazil who have newly acquired literacy. Moreover, the heresy with perhaps the most permanent effect on the Catholic Churchthe Protestant Reformation, which was, from a contemporary perspective, a heresy, as strange as that might seem to us–occurred coon after the invention of the printing press and depended upon that press for its success. Although earlier heresies did not have the advantages of printing, enough written sources survive to enable us to gain some understanding of the role of literacy in these movements.

This is especially true of the late medieval English heresy called Lollardy because a significant corpus of writing about it both by the ecclesiastical officials charged with dealing with heresy and by the Lollards themselves exists. This paper looks at some of the literacy habits of the Lollards, arguing that the practices of Lollards set historical precedents for the integration of technology and literacy, the spread of literacy to marginalized groups and, consequently, the equation of literacy with subversive practices.

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