Pragmatic Literacy and Political Consciousness in Later Medieval England

Pragmatic Literacy and Political Consciousness in Later Medieval England

By Helen Lacey

L’écriture pragmatique. Un concept d’histoire médiévale à l’échelle européenne, CEHTL, 5, Paris, LAMOP, 2012

Manuscript Colloquium 2013 Leiden University - photo by  Turning Over A New Leaf / Flickr

Abstract: This article examines the profound impact that the concept of pragmatic literacy has had on the research methodologies of medievalists. Particular attention is given to the insight it has afforded historians of political culture who seek to better understand the nature of political consciousness in this period.

Introduction: In recent years, Anglophone scholars have increasingly recognized the utility and importance of pragmatic literacy, as a concept which allows for new insight into the way in which medieval societies interacted with texts. The scholarship which first introduced the idea of pragmatic literacy to an English-language audience was published in the 1970s. Malcolm Parkes and Michael Clanchy in particular firmly established the idea of studying medieval literacy, and in so doing they introduced many historians to research which had previously been the domain of social scientists. In the last decade or so, the Münster University pragmatic literacy project and the « Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy » series, have also been increasingly influential, reaching a wide audience with much of their scholarship translated into English. The first section of this article provides a review of these developments in Anglophone scholarship, in order to elucidate the profound impact pragmatic literacy has had on research methodologies. The second section then focuses on the particular insight it has afforded historians of medieval political culture who seek to better understand the nature of political consciousness in this period. The outdated assumption that past societies without print cultures and mass literacy lacked wider political awareness has long been rejected. Instead, new research into the production and use of medieval manuscripts, into the symbolism of the text and into « textual performance » has shed new light on questions surrounding medieval political consciousness.

Before the work of historians such as Malcom Parkes and Michael Clanchy in the 1970s, the impetus for utilising concepts like pragmatic literacy had come from social scientists. In 1963, the publication of the anthropological study « The Consequences of Literacy », co-authored by Jack Goody and Ian Watt, established writing as a central component of historical change. They argued that the human mind was reorganised by the process of learning to read and write and that documents greatly increased « the possible alternative ways of thinking and behaving ». Thus literacy could prompt new forms of social and political life. When, in the 1970s, Parkes and Clanchy began to write about medieval literacy and disseminated these concepts to a wider audience of historians, both of them acknowledged their debt to this kind of anthropological scholarship. Malcolm Parkes’s research into the literacy of the laity established the concept of the « pragmatic reader », who possessed « the literacy of one who has to read or write in the course of transacting any kind of business ». Parkes argued that from the twelfth century, lay literacy was characterised by a steady growth of literacy among the « expanding middle class », linked particularly to the pragmatic demands of commerce, administration of landed estates and the legal profession. Increasingly, this growing group of people were not only reading written records but were also writing, editing and amending them, an idea that has now become a commonplace of Anglophone scholarship. For Parkes, the question was not whether there were literate laymen, but how far they used this literacy outside of professional activities, a question he explored through the study of composite manuscripts comprising booklets of formularies for commerce and recreational reading, bound together in the same volume.

Click here to read this article from Le Laboratoire de Médiévistique occidentale de Paris

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