This paper addresses the question as to what extent England was a literate society in the Anglo-Saxon period (ca. 500-1100). It will present brief historical and linguistic backgrounds, and discuss some of the surviving documents. It will look at what being literate meant historically, and compare briefly contemporary and historic views on literacy. It will also consider what texts were produced, and what influences these had on society.
First this paper addresses Anglo-Saxon history, how Anglo-Saxon tribes came to Britain, and what consequence it had on the development of both written and spoken language in the whole period. The paper goes on to look at what documents actually survive, and whether they can determine if the society was literate. Then this paper considers the impact and importance of the runic system as a separate alphabet, and as a parallel to the Roman alphabet. The Roman alphabet, and text production in both Latin and Old English will be examined. As will Anglo-Saxon England as a literate society, talking about literacy from a modern and Anglo-Saxon perspective. This takes the discussion to the importance of the church and religious literacy. Next the emergence of pragmatic and cultivated literacy in the vernacular will be explored. Lastly, this paper discusses King Alfred and the significance of his translating campaign.
Whatever modern assumptions we have on literacy, it is important not to apply them to circumstances of earlier cultures (Clanchy 1993:8). Written records provide historians with material to study, and in this historic light literacy emerge as a measure of progress. In a modern perspective, literacy is such an important aspect that it is difficult to not see it as a civilising force. Having said that, Clanchy (1993:7) says that observing third world societies literacy in itself behaves like a technology. He further identifies literacy as the technology of the intellect.
Discussing literacy in this time period is based on a lot of educated guesswork and assumptions. The material available from Anglo-Norman England, make it easier to map the degree of literacy. This is not so with Anglo-Saxon England where the information is sparse. However, enough evidence survives making the following discussion possible.
2. Historical background: The Anglo-Saxons
The Anglo-Saxon period is usually defined as starting with the coming of Anglo-Saxon tribes, and concluding with the Norman invasion in 1066. According to Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731) Germanic speaking groups settled in different parts of the country from the middle of the fifth century onwards (Barber, Biel and Shaw 2009:105). This was a lengthy process, as Anglo-Saxon domination in England was not assured until late in the sixth century (Barber, Biel, and Shaw 2009:105).
For the Romans, England was always a colonial outpost, but it was also of high value with important resources and fertile land. The Roman and the British societies (Britons, consisting of the Celtic populations) were, according to Amodio (2014:4) two separate cultures that did not mix. However when the Anglo-Saxons arrived they replaced these cultures with what eventually became a united Anglo-Saxon culture with a Germanic language.
To begin with, the Anglo-Saxons did not absorb the Latin culture at all. The Latin influence on language and literacy came at a later stage, with the arrival of Latin speaking missionaries at the end of the sixth century (Amodio 2014:11). Latin was then re-introduced as a mainly written and ritual language by the Church. Even though the Anglo-Saxons had a native writing system, the runes, there is little evidence of literacy before the Christianisation of the previously pagan Anglo-Saxon society.
The Anglo-Saxon period lasted for almost 600 years. It is exceptional in a European perspective, as English became an early example of a written vernacular able to express both knowledge and culture. When writing was introduced with Christianity, it was in Latin. However, the written Germanic vernacular developed alongside Latin literacy. Accordingly, two languages, in which written records were produced, existed side by side.
Even though Latin was the more common written language at the time, the very existence of Anglo-Saxon texts from this time period is unique to England (Amodio 2014: Preface xi). Both original Old English texts, as well as translations of Latin texts, have survived. King Alfred (r.871-899), also known as ‘the great’, is understood to have commissioned the first Old English translation of parts of the Bible, as well as several other Latin works (see section 4.4).
3. The evidence of literacy in Anglo-Saxon England
Written records in Old English do not start to appear until the eighth century, and then in larger quantities in the tenth century. The earliest records represent two different writing systems, the runes (see section 3.1.) and the Roman alphabet. Anglo-Saxon literacy is the result of a complex history, where both Anglo-Latin and Anglo-Saxon prose and poetry were produced by the Anglo-Saxons (Amodio 2014:24).
The evidence that remains today, such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, King Alfred’s translations of various important texts, his prefaces, and epic poetry like Beowulf, are the texts that make investigations of literacy in Anglo-Saxon England possible. However, the majority of the people who lived in this time were not literate, and whatever dealings they had with texts, it was through aural tradition rather than by audio (Amodio 2014:28).
The vernacular literacy is modelled on the Latin traditions (Amodio 2014:24). It is not fully understood as to why and how the vernacular gained respect, both in terms of ecclesiastical and secular literacy, when the rest of medieval Europe employed Latin for such discourse (Amodio 2014:26).
The sub categories will provide a deeper look at the evidence of literacy from the Anglo-Saxon period.
3.1. Runes and writing systems
The Anglo-Saxon tribes that settled in England, as mentioned above, brought with them the alphabetic writing system known as runes. The earliest settlers left behind a small corpus of runic inscriptions (Kelly 1998:36). Runes had been in use by Germanic and Scandinavian tribes from at least the third century, and was to compose shorter texts of various kinds. They were carved, scratched or chiselled into a flat surface, such as wood, stone or metalwork.
The alphabet was known as the Futhorc from its first six letters.
The runic alphabet and the Roman alphabet existed side by side for a while, and some of the runic letters, þ, ð, and ƿ were assimilated into the Roman alphabet, as they represented sounds the Roman alphabet did not have, and that the Old English vernacular needed. Words like ða (it) and þæt (that) needed the extra voiced and unvoiced fricative represented in the runic alphabet. The wyn ƿ would evolve into the ‘w’. Ð, æ and ƿ disappeared out of the Roman alphabet by the thirteenth century, but þ remained in the written language a long time after Anglo-Saxon reign was over.
The fact that these non-Latin letters found their way into the Roman alphabet is, according to Kelly (1998:37) an indication that some of the Anglo-Saxon scribes and clerics were literate in runes. Kelly (1998:38) continues to suggest that the Roman alphabet was introduced to the Anglo-Saxon parts of Britain late in the sixth century.
The two writing systems did not only represent two different systems, but also two different languages. The Roman alphabet would represent Latin, and the runes would represent Old English (Graddol 2002:48).
The runes are connected to mysticism and magic, but to the Anglo-Saxons they were simply a writing system. Even though the word ‘rune’ could mean ‘mystery’ or ‘secret’, and some inscriptions were thought to have magical powers, according to Barber, Beal, and Shaw (2009:113), they were used interchangeably with the Roman alphabet, even in Christian literacy as well. Documents can be found with a Latin main text, a translation in Old English, and then lastly a translation into runes.
The English version of the runic alphabet contained almost doubly as many characters as its Scandinavian equivalent. Page (2003:4) confirms that the Anglo-Saxons used runes before the Roman alphabet took over.
The shape of the runes made them ideal to use on inscriptions in stone and wood. Wood is a material that does not endure time as well as for example stone would, and this is most likely the reason why so few runic inscriptions from the Anglo-Saxon period survive to this day.
Some Anglo-Saxon relics and remains have runic inscriptions on them, and these reflect dialectic differences and variations, as Graddol (1996:46) points out. The longest surviving inscription is on the Ruthwell Cross, a massive stone cross from the Scottish borderland. Its inscription dates from 700 AD and is in both Latin and Old English. The inscription is an Anglo-Saxon poem known as ‘The Dream of the Rood’. This specific inscription represents one of the very few longer runic inscriptions from this period (Kelly 1998:36).
3.2. Taking over the Roman alphabet: text production in Latin and English
There are no surviving written records of the Anglo-Saxons until after their conversion to Christianity. This introduced them to the Roman alphabet, making it possible to write considerable texts, Barber, Beal, and Shaw (2009:112) say. However, when using scribe methods, ink and parchment or vellum for example, the runes could be, and would be applied for longer texts. Writing was a process normally handled by the clerics, and the Christian content was at the base of the written evidence (Barber, Beal, and Shaw 2009:112).
David Graddol (1996:50) describes the process of book production in the Anglo-Saxon period. It was a task that fell to both nuns and monks, where they worked as scribes in their respective monasteries. Becoming a nun was most likely one of very few ways for a woman to seek out literacy in this time. Women of a higher social standing were in a position to be taught to read and write, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Not even kings needed to know how to read and write according to Clanchy (2003:8). They would surround themselves with learned members of society, and writing would be provided if needed.
Latin represented power and the church. Yet, despite this, Latin documents gradually made way for Old English because of the use of the vernacular, as seen by the ruling elite.
In the late eighth century Viking raiders began to attack the monasteries throughout England, destroying existing religious literature and reducing the continuation of text production. The scholar traditions were no longer exclusively maintained in a religious setting, and moved closer to population centres. As a result, the use of Latin was reduced because of the Viking influx, and this may have aided the development of Old English literacy (Amodio 2014:24:25).
One of the most important duties in monasteries was book production and copying of texts. The process of making sheets of parchment into a leather bound book was complicated and time-consuming, and it involved a considerable number of people in different, and specialised positions.
The concept of copying books and manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon monasteries is far removed from our twenty first century concept of copying. Today we would take it as read that perfect similes would be produced. Copyright laws, which began to be put into statute from the late 17th century, now create legal repercussions for any unregulated or erroneous duplications. In the Anglo-Saxon period, a patron would commission an author, possibly in the form of a King or nobleman. This patron would pay the author a set sum to complete the work. The author would then have no further claim to ownership of the text. Copies would be made to order. More beautiful and elaborate versions could be created but would incur a higher fee. The produced document would be unique, made directly to the customer’s specification or to fit their price range.
Work produced at monasteries, the most exemplary examples being those from the monastery at Lindisfarne in the north-east of England, would include the transcriber’s colophons or ‘footnotes’. In these, the copier would both identify themselves and communicate directly to the reader. A result of this division of labour was that notable and important changes to each exclusive copy are apparent, causing the text to alter significantly over the years with each newly commissioned piece of work.
It would often be the case that originals of the text were unavailable so copies would have to be made of copies. Because of this, it is a complicated process to determine the original text. Each piece of work would be presented as a perfect, often leather bound, luxurious edition.
It was not until sometime after this paper’s time period that the fledgling universities created what is called the pecia system. A student, for example, would lend a part of a text, copy it down, then take the ‘original’ back in an unaltered state. This way the copies came from the same source.
4. Anglo-Saxon England as a literate society
The noun ‘literacy’ is formed from the Latin litera, meaning ‘letter’, or ‘being lettered’. It means the quality or state of being literate. In its literate meaning it is pointing to the ability to read and write. Metaphorically, in a contemporary understanding, it is also pointing to being in possession of knowledge, in a separate field, or knowledge in general. Clanchy (2003:8) argues that ‘Literacy has become the shibboleth of modern societies because the individual demonstrates through it his acceptance of, and success in, the industrialised schooling process.’ The modern society has long since accepted that literacy, meaning knowledge, is probably the deepest foundation of modern development. With this perspective it is not fair to compare literacy between now and older cultures.
In the Anglo-Saxon period, reading and writing was not just about being able to produce or make use of literature, it was as much a question of power. The people who were literate were mostly connected to the church or the monasteries.
Clanchy (2003:7) says, as mentioned above, that literacy today can be viewed as a technology, further that it is not the defining force behind a civilised society. Today there is a clear link between literacy and how to be a part of, and climb socially in, the society. However, in the Anglo-Saxon period, the most substantial parts of the populations, those who did not rule or go to war, would not stop ploughing the fields or feeding their families just because they did not know how to read or write. They would be bound to one place where traditions and deeply anchored customs governed their lives far more than the potentially unstable government.
To be literate means, in a very general understanding, to be able to read and write. But literacy embodies something more. A literate society is a society that makes use of reading and writing in all parts of its structure, it is likely to assume that it is the foundation of any modern, democratic social grouping. According to Clanchy (2003:8), the degree if literacy is today a measure of success.
In the Anglo-Saxon period to be literate was to be able to read and write Latin. But the majority, who were in a position to learn, only learned how to speak Latin. As Clanchy (2003:8) said, people in power did not need to be literate. They would sign a document with a cross, as the cross was representing something holy and unbreakable, making the documents legitimate. The cross was a symbol of Christian truth, and it was not until after the Reformation that the cross became a symbol of illiteracy when used as a signature (Clanchy 2003:8).
Anglo-Saxon England was in a special position because it had an official and a vernacular language. The official Language was Latin. And with Alfred the many texts would be made available in the vernacular (see section 4.4.).
According to Parkes (1973:555), there were three types of literacy in the Anglo-Saxon period, the professional, the cultivated and the pragmatic. Below all of these types will be discussed in turn.
The professional reader was a man of letters (Parkes 1973:555). In the early days of the Anglo-Saxon period, the professional reader was a man who was connected to the monasteries. This changed, as discussed above, with time, and Viking invasions. The professional reader could be found in other parts of the society, connected to for example the kingly courts, or in other legal capacities (Parkes 1973:555).
The cultivated readers were the ones connected to recreation. It is in this classification the poets are found. And it is in recreational reading the great epic poems emerge, such as for example Beowulf (Parkes 1973:555).
The pragmatic reader is he who read and writes in the course of business (Parkes 1973:555)
4.1. Religious literacy
Throughout the Middle Ages literacy was closely connected to the religious institutions. According to Amodio (2014:16) there is not much evidence, if any, to indicate that any but ecclesiasts and their students had access to the technology of literacy. In time the educated parts of the population would include members of the laity as well as the clerical class. As mentioned before, scribes and clerics would familiarise themselves with other writing systems, such as runes. They would educate themselves in contemporary, secular writings such as poems and romances.
The literacy evolution, not just in England, but in Europe as well, shared a defining fact: Most of the writing was handled by this certain group of religiously trained scribes and clerics, in the form of monks and priests. It is obvious that they had an agenda spreading the word of the Gospel (Barber, Beal, and Shaw 2009:112).
It was possible to speak and understand Latin without being able to write it. Clanchy (1993:186) talks about literatus. The literatus could read and write Latin, for example a priest. But a person would not be considered literatus if he only knew how to read and write Old English, then he would be considered illiteratus. However, Clanchy (1993:186) says that ‘to be literatus meant to know Latin and not specifically to have the ability to read and write’, which can be confusing. Literatus is Latin for literate, and to be literate would indicate having the ability to read and write. So the discussion is concerning Latin, to learn the language by ear was not the same as being able to read and write it.
4.2. Pragmatic literacy
Pragmatic literacy is one of the classifications of the different types of literacy in the Anglo-Saxon period, a classification made from a modern perspective. As briefly mentioned above, Parkes (1973:555) argues that literacy could be divided into three different groups: the professional reader, the cultivated reader, and the pragmatic reader. To find evidence for pragmatic literacy has not been the easiest of tasks Parkes (1973:558) says, but by the time the Normans invaded, the pragmatic literacy was increasing in the literate society. The general reader starts with the birth of the pragmatic reader. Even though the general reader will not become a reality until the thirteenth century (Parkes 1973:572), it started when humans realised that reading and writing could have another purpose than just to preach the word of God.
Reading and writing was not available to everyone, as this paper has shown. But with various reforms, such as the one King Alfred implemented (see section 4.4.), Anglo-Saxon England saw the advent of a better-educated clergy, according to Parkes (1973:555).
In a European perspective, the largest collection of pragmatic records survives in England; this shows the start of a rising legal profession (Parkes 1973:558). In the legal profession there was an early need to document by writing, agreements and terms. Necessity here produced a profession outside of the church. And when the monasteries on the east coast were ransacked and destroyed, the scribes would venture into other spaces in society where their talents were of use.
When discussing literacy in Anglo-Saxon England it is impossible not to mention charters, writs and wills, as they make up most of the remaining documentation from the period. Clanchy (1993:85) describes charters as public letters issued by a donor. They can refer to property, for example, and are serving as a kind of open testimonial.
The surviving wills is another element to add to the pragmatic literacy. The wills could have been penned by anyone from a Kentish reeve from around 840, to kings (Alfred and Eadred), to queens, to various men of literacy wanting to make sure their wishes are obeyed in the events of theirs passing. Kelly (1998:48) says that the society, as well as the single individual, gradually acknowledged and recognised the value of recording this kind of information. And this was a pivotal step towards the ‘general reader’, as Parkes (1973:572) mentioned.
A writ was, according to Clanchy (1993:67) a standardised command issued by a legal administration to automate and depersonalise the legal process; To justify the ways of God to men. A writ could be sealed, and eventually this caused the royal seal to have the same power as what was written on the inside, maybe even higher.
A charter is a legal document providing proof of ownership, for example concerning land. The document would only be significant in the beginning of the process. Once the deal had been made, the written charter was no longer as important (Parkes 1973:558). Kelly (1998:43) says about the Anglo-Saxon charter that it is reflecting the church’s wish to have proof, in addition to someone’s word. But a written document in a mostly illiterate society could represent conflicts. This lead to a compromise: a charter was valid with recognition of the written word by the laity, a group of people agreeing orally to what was written in the document. Some of the documents were written in two stages where the list of witnesses was added afterwards (Kelly 1998:44).
We can account for less than 2000 charters and writs from the Anglo-Saxon period, and many of these are copies of originals that have been lost in. But they are the best way of keeping account of literacy in this period as they were widely distributed. With only less than 2000 charters and writs surviving, it is easy to assume that a substantial amount was lost, and also that this time was a more literate society than one might have thought.
The most accessible proof of Anglo-Saxon literacy, a proof of their interaction with the written word, is the Latin land-charter, and other vernacular documents concerning land and property (Kelly 1998:39).
It has been a challenging process determining the authenticity of the various documents that survives from the Anglo-Saxon period. One point that could decide whether or not a document, or a charter, was authentic, was if it was written in Old English. The Latin texts had often been altered or falsified completely, Kelly (1998:39) says. The charters that did survive are evidence of how the Anglo-Saxon society gradually acquired the ecclesiastical writing skills in pragmatic writing (Kelly 1998:40).
4.3. Cultivated literacy
Literature is something we can understand and relate to on a daily basis today, as it is a fairly modern concept. The kinds of literature produced were in many ways different from today. Literature as art is a modern concept. Poetry and stories often had an underlying purpose of validating power and the church, Allan (2008:1) argues.
The oral traditions in poetry in the early medieval times are present in the written poetry in terms of style and presentation. The stories of heroic poetry from the Old Norse tradition can also be found in the Anglo-Saxon poetry.
The cultivated laity relied on the scop (‘poet’) to read out the vernacular recreational literature. A professional ‘singer’ transmitted this orally, and according to Parkes (1973:556) the ‘singers’ were probably illiterate.
Anglo-Saxon England’s relation to recreational literature was complicated. Monks would take an interest in poetry and make poetic records for their libraries. Manuscripts such as the Exeter Book of Old English Poetry survived in monastic libraries (Parkes 1973:556).
In Anglo-Norman times the nobility served as inspiration when it came to reading and what was read. People of lower classes tried to make use of recreational literature as their betters. This is a practice that started in the Anglo-Saxon period with reading for other reasons than praising God and proving ownership (Parkes 1973:557).
4.4. King Alfred’s campaign and its significance
King Alfred the Great (849-899 AD) was probably the most important force behind the vernacular development in Anglo-Saxon England. Because of him the country experienced relative military and political stability, though he never really stopped fighting. But along with the famous burning of cakes, and the defeating of the Danes, his focus on Old English literacy in his time makes him a pillar of society. Culture and literature will flourish in times of political stability.
In his mission to spread the vernacular in England, Alfred invited scholars from abroad to help revive learning in his country. King Alfred is supposed to be behind translations of religious and philosophical texts. It is likely that he has been given a more heroic status than he actually had, or that reflects what he actually did. But he focused on a stronger Old English, and in doing so he also opened the way for scholars in the vernacular. He normalised the language that up until Alfred had been viewed, in literacy connections, as less important. And when a person in power puts a political focus on a matter such as literacy in the vernacular, then it will be both noticed and inspiring. Historians agree that he definitely made some of the translations himself (Amodio 2014:25-26, and 35-36).
King Alfred said, in the Preface to the Translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, that:
…So complete was learning’s decay among the English people that there were very few this side of the Humber that could understand their services in English, or even translate a letter from Latin into English; … Therefore it seems better to me, if it seems so to you, that we also should translate certain books which are most necessary for all men to know into the language that we can all understand, and also arrange it, as with God’s help we very easily can if we have peace, so that all the young freeborn men now among the English people, who have the means to be able to devote themselves to it, may set to study for as long as they are of no other use, until the time they are able to read English writing well. …
(Cited from Treharne 2010: 15)
From this it is possible to understand that is a Christian duty to pass on knowledge. All the books in the world have little value if no one can understand what they say, and this is a point to follow even today. The written word needs a reader; book and reader exist in a symbiotic relationship.
Alfred also said that the churches in England had enormous collections of books, but after various invaders destroyed these collections, they fell into distant memory. But this comment is a strong indication that the numbers of documents that existed in the Anglo-Saxon period was a considerably larger number than the few documents that survived through time.
He was also concerned with all the books and texts that were only available to those who could read and write Latin. The fact that he wanted to make important texts available in the vernacular is what made him special in a time when knowledge was an element of power and control. He was looking to history, and to the bible and found passages that could support his thoughts on translations. In a historic perspective texts were first translated from Hebrew, to Greek, to Latin. There was no good reason for letting Latin be the final resting place for a text: it had to be translated into Old English as well. He knew many of his subjects could read Old English texts, and this was another strong indication that literature in Old English existed in far greater numbers than what remains today.
Was Anglo-Saxon a literate society? When looking at literacy from a modern perspective, where reading and writing governs most people’s days, Anglo-Saxon England was not a literate society. Reading and writing was for some privileged few, and never really reached the ordinary man. The mentality towards it was also different from now. Today a person is an outsider if this person is illiterate, because knowledge is mostly acquired through reading. First a child learns how to read and write; then the child reads and writes to learn. Was this how the society as a whole developed, in terms of literacy? First it had to learn to master the literacy, and then apply it to new tasks in society?
This paper has tried to show that Anglo-Saxon England indeed was a literate society, but within the boundaries of the contemporary educational system, if any, and with a deep connection to traditions and beliefs. The extent to which Anglo-Saxon England was literate increased throughout the period. To begin with it was a society with conflicting interests, both in terms of religion and in terms of who was leading the country. It was a society that had to withstand numerous invasions, and groups of settlers, from most of Northern Europe, Scandinavian and Germanic countries in particular. And in retrospect the invasions were not simply a subduing power that overtook the country and its people, it was a part of a cultural evolution, literacy fully incorporated in this evolutional process.
Literacy in Anglo-Saxon England started with the runes, and then missionaries introduced the Roman alphabet, and the merging of two writing systems made way for the Old English vernacular in a society where Latin texts made up the main parts of what survives.
This paper has discussed some of the important documents that has made any kind of analysis of the period possible, such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and some of the texts penned by King Alfred The Great, to mention a few. It has also looked at different types of literacy, as well as different types of documents that still are available. The stretch of time since the Anglo-Saxon period, and indeed the length of the period itself, makes it guesswork, as well as inconclusive, to piece together the information, making it possible to form an opinion. There were massive changes from the beginning of the period to the Norman invasion (that marks the end of Anglo-Saxon England), such changes that affected all parts of society, one of which was the end of the monastic period. The educated members of society that used to be placed in monasteries handling texts of Christian content, in Latin, would now be filling the more pragmatic parts of text production, handling and developing the everyday, pragmatic literacy.
In the last part of this paper, the discussion entered into Alfred The Great’s campaign to increase literacy in England. Alfred could see how education would be useful to all free men, and that the texts that already existed in Latin needed to be translated into Old English, so that they would make sense to people untrained in the Latin language. For someone, even though he was a king, to claim that a vernacular text production is of great importance, actually made a massive difference, and probably sped up the process of making Anglo-Saxon England a literate society. And it was a contributing factor to the kind of literacy that already existed when the Normans invaded in 1066.
Literacy in Anglo-Saxon England was much more than text production in the monasteries. Literacy in Anglo-Saxon England was legal charters and writs, and wills; it was a growing appreciation for recreational texts, such as epic poems and mapping of historic events; it was a place to nurture an early feeling of nationality and identity through a unified language; literacy in Anglo-Saxon England was the starting point of one of literacy in one the most widespread languages in the world.
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