Thursday, November 09, 2006

Medieval History and Modern Literacy

Medieval history courses at both secondary and tertiary level have been taking a battering in recent years from those in high places who think that they can determine what the world needs to know, on the basis that the subject is outdated, exotic and irrelevant. Well, there are little things like the origins of our governmental institutions, the religious background to our present moral codes, past religious conflicts, our artistic and cultural heritage and a host of other issues medieval that would seem to be particularly relevant.
One issue which intrigues me is the way in which a study of medieval literacy might shed some light on this topic as a modern educational issue. We tend to regard literacy as an absolute. You can either read and write to a sufficient standard to be able to function in our society, or you cannot. Nobody seems to really understand how we learn this process, or why individuals do it differently. Over the course of the middle ages literacy was not an absolute. There were those who could read and write complex tracts in several languages. There were those who could read their own language, in some cases slowly and only aloud, who could not write. There were trained copyists who could write, but evidently with minimal understanding. There were people who could read and write just as much as they needed to for their job, but who would probably not be classified as literate by modern standards testing.
A really thorough study of the reading and writing process in the middle ages might just shed a little light on some of the issues of literacy in our time. A closely related issue is whether we rely so much on the written word today that we have forgotton how to remember. Medieval knowledge was not all written down. How can we value our remembrancers?

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