As the human species evolved and true oral communication began to replace simple grunts, hoots, and gestures the rudimentary beginnings of literacy (the ability to read and write) took root. However, as to be expected, the art of speaking, and therefore language, predates reading and writing by several thousand years. It is not known when, either, language or the first writing occurred. Nonetheless “the transfer of more complex information, ideas and concepts from on individual to another, or to a group, was the single most advantageous evolutionary adaptation for species preservation.” (Ryan, 1997)
It is, also, of interest to note, the human achievement of writing “seems to coincide with the transition from hunter-gather societies to more permanent agrarian (society depending on farming for food) encampments”. (Ryan 1997)
It was not until around 4000 BCE that we find written language being developed in Uruk, a city in Mesopotamia (parts of modern day Iraq, Iran and Syria). The main reason for literacy during these early days was due to needing some sort of documented record of land holdings, grain or cattle quantities. Wealthy individual would loan animals, money, goods or land to poorer individuals in return for a portion of their proceeded but without a written record there was no way to accurately keep track of such transactions. Of course, these early writing style have little resemblance to our writing of today.
The Development of literacy will continue for the next 4000 years until the Romans create a simplified and widely disseminated reading and writing system called Latin.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century there were few places in Europe where one could learn to be literate and enjoy both reading and writing except for the Church. During the time known as the “Middle Ages” (from roughly the end of the 5th century CE until the early 15th century CE) most people were simply trying to survive, therefore, the need to know how to read or/and write was not necessary. However, the monastic center around Europe continued the Roman tradition of the “love of learning” by transcribing manuscripts and Holy Scriptures. (Sayre, 2013, p. 153) For the next 300 years, after the fall of the Roman Empire, this would remain the standard to which literacy was confined.
Then during the Carolingian Renaissance (a period of time between the late 8th and 9th centuries when many ancient works were saved from destruction), throughout the reign of Charlemagne and his successors, the development of Latin literacy was greatly promoted. Although reading and writing were skills some people had, literacy was not widespread until after this time. Literacy was in Latin and was generally limited to people of the upper classes and members of the clergy. Charlemagne invited Alcuin of York to become his personal tutor – because Charlemagne did not know how to read or write before becoming king – and the head of his court school.
Charlemagne charged Alcuin with the development of a literacy curriculum for children providing for instruction for learning to read and write, as well as for further study in the liberal arts and theology. This also furthered Christian teachings that Charlemagne’s court promoted.
Steven Kreis explains the importance of both Charlemagne and the Car)olingian Renaissance as follows:
“By the 9th century, most monasteries had writing rooms or scriptoria. It was here that manuscripts were copied. The texts were studied with care. It was no longer merely a matter of copying texts….What Charlemagne did was institute a standard writing style. Remember, previous texts were all uppercase, without punctuation and there was no separation between words. The letters of the new script, called the Carolingian minuscule, were written in upper and lower case, with punctuation and words were separated. It should be obvious that this new script was much easier to read, in fact, it is the script we use today. Charlemagne also standardized medieval Latin. After all, much had changed in the Latin language over the past 1000 years. New words, phrases, and idioms had appeared over the centuries in these now had to be incorporated into the language. So what Charlemagne did was take account of all these changes and include them in a new scholarly language which we know as medieval Latin.” (Kreis, 2009)
The promotion of literacy impacted education and language throughout the region. The demand for material relating to the interests of the ruling military class increased. Over time, vernacular languages, the languages commonly spoken, began to be used by writers. Until the 12th century, Latin was the primary language used by writers. French writers began the trend of using vernacular language in the 12th century, and by the end of that century, some government and legal documents in England and France were composed in the vernacular.
Furthermore, the promotion of literacy was not simply to educate the masses it was in actuality an effort to spread the gospel. In educating the masses in this manner also “furthered the traditional role of the Church” by allowing the Church “to insert itself into the lives of every individual.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 153)
In the 12th century, literacy among women also increased. Though literacy in Latin was still somewhat limited to specific social classes, literacy in local vernacular languages was increasingly common. Eleanor of Aquitaine established the city of Poiters as a center for a literary movement focused on the art of courtly love. The troubadour and the female counterpart, the trobairitz, used poetry to share stories of romantic longing and unattainable love.
This poetry represents the beginning of written expressions of love in the way romantic love continues to be perceived today. It focuses on the feelings associated with romantic love: longing, suffering, loss of appetite, temptation, loyalty, and a desire to do whatever possible to have the feeling of love reciprocated. As the poetry of the troubadour or trobairitz was recorded, it was written in the vernacular of the day. In fact, the word romance derives from the word romans, the old French term for the vernacular language specific to the region. Having poetry and prose in the vernacular of the people allowed a much wider audience to access this romantic literature.
In many cultures throughout history literacy has profoundly changed the way a society conducts itself. From the very beginning reading and writing meant “power” in the form of documented records. In later years it became a status symbol, since primarily only the upper class of both the Greek and Roman cultures could read and write. However, turbulent Middle Age Charlemagne, who initially was not literate, promoted both reading and writing in his kingdom. After the establishment of a curriculum by Alcuin, who served as Charlemagne’s tutor, the course of education in the West would change dramatically.
Kreis, S. (2009, August 03). The history guide: Lectures on ancient and mediveal european history. Retrieved from http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/lecture20b.html.
Ryan, D. (1997, October 8). The history of writing. Retrieved from http://www.historian.net/hxwrite.htm.
Sayre, H.M.(2013). Discovering the humanities. (2nd. ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.