ENGL 400: Medieval Prime Time
7 February 2011
Truelove, Alison. “Literacy.” Gentry Culture in Late Medieval England. Eds. Raluca Radulescu, and Alison Truelove. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2005. 84-99.
This chapter examines the ranging levels of literacy among the gentry utilizing primarily letters from late medieval families. Truelove asserts that it is difficult to quantify literacy during the medieval period because few texts exist outside of the later portion of the era. Essentially, we can only look at the gentry’s own hand-produced letters (not that of secretaries which were often used) if we want to gain an accurate perception of literacy and avoid making generalizations about the gentry in Medieval England. In order to capture a sense of the level of literacy of a person, we must rely on the effectiveness of their own written word. Truelove proposes that when assessing levels of literacy, “we should certainly pay attention to whether an author successfully communicates his or her intended message” (Truelove 94). Keeping in mind that English was still in the process of being standardized at this time, we need to be conscious not to judge a work on the technical “errors” that we may encounter when looking back to these documents. It is also important to remember that not being able to read and write effectively does not mean one is not educated and cultured.
- How one defines “literacy”
Being “literate” in Medieval England has a different meaning than it does today. In general, Truelove writes, a literate person was someone who “had received a formal education and hence could read and write Latin” (Truelove 86). This meaning then changed as someone who could read a verse from the Psalter was deemed literate. Finally, by the fifteenth century, one was literate if they were merely able to sign their name. In this chapter, we look to the effectiveness of communication in letters as composed by the actual author and not a secretary or scribe. Basically, did the author convey what they intended?
- Literary Evidence
As stated above, Truelove looks to personal letters as evidence for judging literacy. She uses the letters of two prominent gentry households, the Paston and Stoner families, for her evidence. Both of these families seemed to have employed secretaries and thus dictated a good portion of their letters, but Truelove is set on focusing of the actual autograph letters of the individual family members for her investigation on literacy levels.
- Aspects of Literacy
Even within a single household, the literacy levels can vary greatly. There are many aspects in which Truelove chooses to examine in order to gain a sense of the ability of literacy among these families. She looks at gender, handwriting, content, and collective knowledge to make an assessment on the individual’s literacy levels. All of these factors must work together to produce a cohesive written piece that effectively communicates what the author had intended in his or her mind.
1) What can literary scholars gain, in terms of understanding Medieval England, from these letters of the gentry?
2) Truelove avoided making generalizations about literacy in Medieval England. But since we only really examined the letters from two families, can we accurately paint a picture of literacy levels among the gentry?
3) Why did an individual below the gentry have “less of a need for [literary skills]” (Truelove 85)?