Friday, June 12, 2009

Medieval women and the myth of illiteracy

An intriguing manuscript recently surfaced in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples that sheds new light on the reading abilities and habits of women in late medieval England. The manuscript, which was serendipitously unearthed by Canadian scholar James Weldon while he was looking for something else entirely, has attracted some attention from the mainstream media*. This article rather flippantly describes the manuscript as a ‘medieval women’s magazine’, composed as it is of a varied collection of ‘articles’ (if you will) on topics of supposed feminine interest – as the subhead puts it, ‘Canadian researcher discovers historic document filled with romance and recipes’. The anthology is written in Middle English and includes extracts from a variety of different sources, including medicinal recipes, household tips, romances and a saint's life.

The Naples manuscript is a rare example of vernacular literature that appears to be aimed at a secular female readership, and as such is a pretty interesting find in itself. But what also interests me are the reader comments at the end of the newspaper article. Overall, they reflect the popular belief that most people in the Middle Ages were illiterate, and that literacy was a privilege almost exclusive to male secular and clerical elites. This assumption has led some scholars astray when it comes to considering the contribution women – especially non-aristocratic women – could have made to the literary culture of late medieval England, and it has produced interpretations that dismiss works purportedly by women as the work of men writing under pseudonyms.

Such has been the case with The Book of Margery Kempe (1430s), which many a scholar has argued was entirely the creative production of male scribes (I talked a bit about their varying interpretations in a previous post). At the start of her book, Margery describes herself as illiterate and thus entirely reliant on her priestly collaborators, but this statement cannot be read as transparent. On one level, it operates to place her within an orthodox tradition of women’s mystical experience recorded and transmitted by male clerics. In this respect, Margery’s ‘illiteracy’ serves an important strategic function by shielding her from charges of heresy, which at this time was strongly associated with women’s ability to read the Bible in vernacular English.

When I started doing some research on the Book, I discovered another interesting angle a
round the concept of 'literacy' (which incidentally gave me a good reminder about not applying modern categories and definitions to analysis of the past). I'd approached the problem of Margery’s authorship by first asking the question, ‘given Margery’s social background and family history (as she tells it herself and from what we know based on other records), how probable is it that she would have truly been functionally illiterate?’. To answer this question, I was initially thinking broadly in terms of a 21st century standard of illiteracy – roughly, the inability to read and write at a basic level that allows one to function in society.

However, with a bit more research, I discovered that this definition becomes quite misleading when applied to the later Middle Ages. To be ‘literate’ during this period meant to be ‘Latinate’ – to have the skills to read and write in Latin. These were skills almost exclusively reserved to men, particularly as the developing university system excluded women and tied Latinity to a clerical education. But at the same time, English culture was undergoing a transition to the vernacular. Strong growth in lay piety was creating demand for works of devotion and meditation written in English and this drove a corresponding expansion in the ability to read in English. Alongside this trend, technological advances like the replacement of parchment with paper and the development of methods for bulk book production were making books cheaper and more accessible to the urban merchant and trading classes.

The women of these classes were generally capable of at least the basics of reading and writing in English – enough to enable them to pursue their religious devotions (and possibly educate their children and servants), run households, and work in family businesses. Far from being illiterate, by the 14th century they had emerged as a distinctive group of book owners, something we know by the number of books accounted for in their wills. The discovery of the Naples manuscript is a timely reminder that we need to leave behind old-fashioned assumptions about just how 'dark' the 'dark ages' really were, and instead look more deeply into the many ways women of all classes – not just the aristocratic elite – were participating in cultural production and reproduction during this period.

Image: The gisant of Alienor d'Aquitaine at the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud. She is depicted reading rather than in the more usual pose of hands piously folded in prayer.

* Props to jliedl for the original link


Digger said...

Great post, Bavardess. It's always a good reminder to not paste our culture and times onto others or the past. Hard to do, but good to remember! The Literate = Latinate brought me up short, and now I'm questioning designations of literacy in some of the populations I study.

Also, that foxy bishop is SHOWING SOME LEG! I love it.

Janice said...

Thanks for this lovely and detailed discourse. You pulled out and refuted another element of the newspaper coverage that left me unsettled -- the assumptions about medieval women's illiteracy!

squadratomagico said...

Nice post! I try to teach my students the exact same distinction between being literate and Latinate.

I remember, long ago, reading a beautifully-written article, for which I unfortunately have forgotten every iota of bibliographic info. It pointed out that in the later Middle Ages, it became very common to depict the BVM reading when she was surprised by the annunciation. And if you look for these books, you will readily find them: nearly every depiction of this scene shows a book in Mary's hand, or open on a stand or table. The author tied this to greater trends in female Latinacy during the time period. Certainly, it's an important and widespread testimony to the fact that medieval people could easily imagine a woman reading a book.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for your comments everyone. I remember being delighted to come across the 'literate'/ 'Latinate' distinction, because I was getting quite cross at all these scholars (primarily male) assuming a text couldn't possibly have been written or read by women, because 'women were illiterate' (apart from some nuns and aristocratic women).

Squadrato - your comment about the BVM reminded me of all those later medieval images that depict Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to read.

Digger - I think we're pretty well schooled these days to be cautious about applying loaded categories (of ethnicity, sexuality etc.) to the past, but sometimes terms/concepts that seem on the surface to be more neutral (like 'literacy') can still trip us up.

viagra online said...

To answer this question, I was initially thinking broadly in terms of a 21st century standard of illiteracy – roughly, the inability to read and write at a basic level that allows one to function in society?

Anonymous said...

Have we also considered love letters?
How were women able to read them as well as respond to them if they were in fact fully illiterate?