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Medieval Reading and Writing

March 6, 2013


The majority of people during the medieval period were illiterate; this goes for men, women and children, rich and poor. For the poor, there was almost little or no chance of learning to read or write, as a woman, this is even less. So what about the rich, well, the men would have had some sort of education, the women are unlikely to have been able to read or write. If these women’s father’s allowed, they might have been taught well.

In earlier times, reading would have been done out loud, this way, there could only be one interpretation of the text. There was no confusion and no suspicion, which could occur when reading religious texts. Religious texts in those times were Catholic texts, they were not to be interpreted by just anyone, and so reading them out loud was necessary. Of course, there were also non-religious texts; these would have been read in a very different way. For the poorer medieval residents, a specified reader would have read out the literature publically, much like going to a play, or performance of some kind. For the rich, they would have private reading sessions, where they would employ someone to speak in their manor, or court in the case of the royals.

Later in the medieval period, people started to read in their heads, this was considered to be fairly suspicious. Women reading were also considered in this way. Shock horror, a female can read, and understand what she was reading!


Not everyone could pick up a pen and paper and write, for starters, paper was not that easy to find. It took a lengthy process to make, out of animal skin, which needed to be dried out, stretched, cleaned, scraped. And it would smell! So, if I were a medieval writer, I wouldn’t want to waste any paper with mere scribbles. This is why we see a lot of errors corrected on manuscripts. Even after acquiring vellum, as we have discussed, some people could not even write. Others like Chaucer and Langland could, and did, and we have their works to enjoy today. In the larger monasteries, there would have been a scriptorium, where writing would take place. Not only the writing would take place here, but also copying manuscripts and binding them. In the monasteries, scribes would chronicle and write religious and historical texts. Some monasteries have a very rich literary tradition; St Albans and Bury St Edmunds are good examples of these. Manuscripts would have also been illuminated in the scriptorium, I love illuminations on manuscripts, the illuminations often tell us so much more of the manuscript than the writing itself.

In the manors and courts of lords, nobles and the king, there would also have been scribes, who would need to write down the business of these places. The scribe’s job was an important one, and it is because of them that we have so much information on medieval manors today.

Reading and writing were very different in the middle ages than they are today. We simply pick up and pen and paper and jot down notes, or even write novels. We pick up a book and read alone, in our heads, and for most of us with ease, even if we are female! The next time you have a read or a write, think about those in the medieval period who were illiterate, who couldn’t jot down their notes, who had to read through someone reading to them.

From → Medieval History

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