Mythbusting Illiteracy in the Middle Ages

By Lorris Chevalier

In the vast tapestry of history, the medieval period stands out as a time of great upheaval and transformation, marked by widespread technical progress. The historian Jean Guimpel in his book The Industrial Revolution in the Middle Ages even defends the idea that the spread of the water mill allowed the reduction of slavery which was more common in Antiquity.

However, how can this technical advance be reconciled with the fact that most of the population was illiterate? How can you become more technologically efficient while remaining illiterate? What are the limits of this illiteracy? Did religious, royal or corporate institutions want to maintain the population in this illiteracy?


What is an illiterate?

A medieval illiterate is a person who has not completed his “letters”, that is to say who has not received a formal education (littera being the Latin grammar). An illiterate person can therefore write in the vernacular language.

The end of the Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages begins with the writing of the Bible by Saint Jerome during the Council of Rome in 382. It is also at the end of the Middle Ages that the Council of Trent (1545-1563) will rule again on the Bible, its access, its books and its translations. The medieval period is therefore framed by councils around the book. From the beginning of the Middle Ages, it was necessary to live around books, and to know how to read in order to better spread the message.


Saint Jerome, in 384, exhorting the young Eustochium, said:

Read often, learn all you can. Let sleep envelop you, the scroll still in hand; when your head falls may it do so on a sacred page.

Also, books and reading have always played a pivotal role in Christianity, which has earned it the term “religion of the book” through the success of its strategy of using books and textual propaganda

In the central Middle Ages, a large number of poets or chroniclers were not or very poorly literate. Robert de Clari (+1216-1220), who seems very unliterate, makes only a few references to Alexander the Great. In the 12th and 13th centuries, certain groups like the Order of the Humiliati were lay people who had not taken vows but who sometimes allowed themselves to preach and then were banned from it a few years later. Hugues de Berzé (+1220), a secular knight-poet and preacher even defends his illiteracy while he preaches. The Lateran Councils III (1179) and IV (1215), however, repeated the ban on secular preaching, which supposes that the practice of illiterate preaching is common.

The Prevalence of Illiteracy

In medieval Europe, illiteracy was widespread, affecting both the peasantry and, to some extent, even the nobility. This was due to several factors, primarily the lack of accessible educational opportunities and the general lack of importance placed on literacy. Monasteries were one of the few institutions that fostered education during the medieval period, but these facilities were mainly reserved for those on a religious path, excluding the majority of the population.


However, the Church and the royal institutions strove to transmit and teach to as many people as possible. Monastic schools were free. Also, King Louis IX of France encouraged the creation of the University of the Sorbonne which, through the work of Robert de Sorbon, sought to welcome students from the lowest social classes.

Bib. Ste. Genevieve MS.777 fol. 140r

There is no institution which advocates the prohibition of approaching letters. The difference is neither social nor gendered (Héloise, certainly an exceptional woman, had the opportunity to study at the most prestigious university in the world in the twelfth century).

Also, many people belonging to the clergy were not religious, such as notaries, jurists and lawyers.


Will an illiterate man remain poor because of his illiteracy?

It is often believed that one of the most profound impacts of illiteracy in medieval times was on economic opportunities. Peasants and laborers who couldn’t read or write were limited to manual labor, often working in agriculture or as craftsmen. This lack of education restricted their ability to engage in more lucrative professions or trades, keeping them in a cycle of generational poverty. This theory would then assume that literate people would be the richest or even that they would maintain knowledge so that it would not be shared.

According to the definition, an illiterate person just does not have direct access to Latin, Greek or Hebrew texts but he knows his own vernacular language. In the central Middle Ages, numerous documents were written in vernacular languages. This allowed readers to improve their domains, ownership and wealth. Consider these three examples:

  • Walter of Henley wrote, in French, in the 13th century Le Dite de Hosebondrie (or Husbandry) which became a bestseller for agricultural management. It is a very easy read which plays on words and proverbs so much that its “rustic” style kept the book famous until the 16th century.
  • The 14th-century work, Le Ménagier de Paris, gives lots of tips for a young housewife. The author commissions this work compiling numerous reference works from both ancient philosophy to practical management.
  • The letters of the Paston family, in England in the 15th century, leave a trace of a developed and international industrial complex managed by women who never wrote their letters. Thus, “illiterate” businesswomen in the sense that we have defined could be at the head of economic empires.

Be illiterate and become the laughingstock of the clerics

In the high levels of the Church, ignorance was understood as a source of evil. The two main causes of sin according to Saint Augustine were ignorance and fragility (ignorantia et infirmitas). Saint Gregory the Great reiterates: (peccatum) aut ignorantia aut infirmitate aut studio perpetratur. This idea continued throughout the Middle Ages, i.e. Julien de Vézelay distinguishes three ways of sinning as “infirmitate, ignorantia atque industria.,” Bernard of Clairvaux explains that “the scandal of the weak comes from ignorance (Illorum quippe scandalum ingorantia).”

Hugues de Berzé, a lay preacher who defended his illiteracy in the 13th century, said he was the victim of mockery. He therefore uses his experience as a sign of authority:


Preeche or de faire bien,
E si sai bien que li plusour
Tendront mes sermons a folour

I preach to do good
But I know that many
Will twist my sermons madly

Is this recurring criticism solely the fruit of the pride of clerics who have done more studies than the common man? These same theologians praise humility and simplicity, yet their vindictiveness against ignorance is also a means by which they seek to change mentalities concerning letters which should not be the property of an elite.

Were Medieval Farmers illiterate?

Jean Guimpel’s work on The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages reports the level of knowledge and technical mastery that medieval peasants could have had. This is a mosaic to be reconstructed. However, historians agree that the medieval peasantry mastered practical knowledge. The historian Guimpel even calls it a “society of agricultural engineers.”

Also, the popularization of the water mill since the 11th century suggests a real technological leap. The Domesday Book is the inventory ordered by William the Conquerer notes that there were at least 5,624 mills in the country.

Sources on literacy or illiteracy are quite rare for the peasant population. However, the village of Novgorod and its swamps have made it possible to preserve numerous documents written on birch bark containing hay bale sales tickets, a school notebook and other public posters. Thus, the peasant world, in certain places could have access to reading and writing but the sources are too weak to draw generalities on the literacy or illiteracy of this social stratum.

Stained glass from Canterbury Cathedral – photo by

Are stained glass windows the “Poor People’s Bible”?

This is a theory according to which stained glass windows are the content of medieval thought. Without stained glass windows, people in the central Middle Ages would not know medieval biblical knowledge. This theory therefore assumes that at the time of Romanesque art, biblical knowledge was reserved for an elite and that as progress progressed, knowledge tended to become democratized.

However, the expression is not clear. A medieval illiterate is not a “savage” in the sense of a person completely free from the context in which he evolves. Stained glass windows are therefore not the alpha and omega of one’s knowledge but a useful support, especially as a catechetical support.

Dependency on others

It is often believed that being illiterate in medieval times meant depending on those who could read and write. This reliance on scribes, clergy, or educated members of the community further reinforced the social hierarchy. The literate were often seen as gatekeepers to knowledge, further limiting the illiterate’s ability to control their own lives.

But in our time also, the managers of important companies still do not write themselves but have them written. Dependence on scribes is not linked to the literacy of the person dictating the information.

Dictating information does not mean that we do not control it. For example, the charters of the abbey of Cluny mention acquisitions or sales of land by the abbots, no one can conclude from reading these documents which certainly come from the abbey that the peasants were robbed in the purchase or sale.

Illiteracy in medieval times was a not significant obstacle. The illiterate man did not really have limited economic opportunities. He had a hindered access to specific knowledge. The theoretical knowledge of theological studies certainly concerns a small part of the population but the fact that certainly exceptions of students of low extraction can study suggests a certain freedom.

Some may confuse illiteracy with stupidity, however, the legacy of the medieval era inspires great reverence for the ingenuity of the time in many areas. It is true that the majority of the medieval population lived through farming and that the heritage left by this population is more intangible than material. It is the accumulated experience of centuries of agriculture which led to demographic growth in Medieval Europe.

Dr Lorris Chevalier, who has Ph.D. in medieval literature, is a historical advisor for movies, including The Last Duel and Napoleon.