End of the Roman Empire and loss of literacy

How did the end of Rome impact literacy in its former territories. At a guess I would think that in the West, Britain and possibly Gaul and Iberia suffered marked declines. What about Italy?

I would think that the East never lost it, with the Roman Empire remaining strong there for centuries more and the loss of territory to the Arabs resulting in a net gain of literacy. But how did Egypt, Syria, Greece and the Balkens suffer?

Egypt, Syria, Greece and the Balkans were all part of the Byzantine Empire, and the final three were part of it until quite late, so they did not lose the Roman/Hellenistic level of literacy they had had. Alexandria, in particular, although it declined from its height around the turn of the millennium, remained a centre of learning for a long time. Also, of course, they ceased to be part of the Byzantine empire through being conquered by the Muslims, who also had a literate civilization.

Even in western Europe, there always remained some level of literacy, at least amongst the higher levels of the Catholic Church (although parish priests were often illiterate, I believe), and amongst monks, who had to learn to read and write at least at an elementary level in order to copy manuscripts. Manuscript copying was part of the rule of St Benedict, and all monks had to do it. However, it declined a lot amongst the secular, largely because the barbarian invaders who had overrun the Western Empire (including Italy) were not literate when they arrived. I do not think Britain had it any worse than Iberia, Gaul or Italy. Indeed, literacy hung on in places in Britain through the darkest of the dark ages. The rulers employed literate people from within the Church to run their bureaucracies (which probably goes a long way towards explaining how the barbarian invaders became converted to Christianity). Most notably, Charlemange, although probably illiterate himself, organized a huge program of copying of classical manuscripts.

Even at the height of the Roman period, however, I think you will find that literacy, although common amongst the upper and middle classes, was far from universal even amongst Roman citizens.

Its true that literacy was not universal amongst Romans, but it was very wide spread, your average legionary was literate as was your average farmhand (usually). However it seems that in W Europe by 800 A.D being literate was an exception rather than approaching the norm as it was in Roman times, Charlemagne was illiterate, although I have heard his father, Pepin was not.

The East was conquered by the muslims who came from a civilisation that was certainly was not literate, Muhammad himself was from a well of and connected family and is by tradition illiterate although there have been doubts placed on that. Even allowing for a large degree of Romanisation amongst many Arabs (Jordan and NW S Arabia were part of the Empire after all) saying that the East remained literate because they were conquered by a literate civilisation is misleading because they were not.

Cite that the average farmhand was usually literate?

Sorry, that should read “not your average farmhand”. As in farmhands were not usually literate.

OTH average city dwellers often were, as seen in Pompeii’s graffiti.

The estimates I’ve seen of Roman Empire literacy are only around 10 percent average. Centurions had to be literate but ordinary soldiers didn’t and usually weren’t. Even for the nobility and well off merchant families it wasn’t universal, they would dictate to slave scribes so they didn’t need to be literate themselves.

I’d find it astonishing that the average farmhand was literate.

I wonder, in the time that literacy was more rare after the Roman Empire, how did people in general view literacy? Their cultural attitudes towards it? Were literate people looked up to just for being literate?

Was it viewed as a thing that commoners were too stupid to master?

Don’t forget the influence of the Church. They may have preserved knowledge, but they didn’t care to disseminate it; as far as they were concerned, literacy was one of their sources of power. The fewer laymen were literate, the more vital the priests became.

I will take your word for it that literacy was not widespread among Arabs at the time of Muhammad, although there must have been some literacy in that period: the Quran did get written down, after all, so somebody could write, and they must have thought there would be people able to read it. I was under the impression that Islamic culture laid good deal of stress upon literacy, in order that Muslims can actually read the Quran. Maybe you are right that literacy had not yet become widespread in the Islamic world at the time of the conquest of Alexandria, which happened fairly soon after Muhammad’s own time (according to Wikipedia, only about 11 years after he died, which, I admit, surprised me), but I doubt if it was very long before Islamic civilization developed a level of literacy comparable to that of Rome.

Life was pretty difficult for most people in Western Europe during the dark ages. Most people were poor, there was not much rule of law, and there was almost constant fighting going on. Few people (unless they became monks) had the leisure time to spend on stuff like learning to read, especially in a time when books were rare and precious. A few very wealthy laymen may have been literate, but probably most of them did not bother and just hired a churchman to deal with their bureaucratic needs.

Yes, literate people were probably looked up to (at least by people who even knew that such a thing as reading and writing existed), but they were also looked up to anyway for being holy men. Almost all literate people were monks or higher clergy.

Yeah, it was a conspiracy to keep people ignorant. :rolleyes: Poverty and social chaos had nothing to do with it.

I don’t think there was a conspiracy. I think it was the Church’s stated policy only to teach the clergy how to read.

Vegitius mentions that while it was not a disqualification for a recruit to be illiterate, it was a disadvantage and that most soldiers were taught to read and or write during their time in service.

It wasn’t their stated policy. They’d teach anyone to read and write who wanted to learn. They just weren’t very useful skills for most people, so unless you were in a position that required it, or had a lot of free time to be able to just learn things for fun, most people didn’t really pick the skills up.

According to his biographer Einhard, Charlemagne could read but not write.

And here’s Einhard’s description of Charlemagne’s general educational achievements:

I would like to see a cite for that. And yes, it does sound like conspiracy theory stuff to me, even though you may not be claiming it was secret. You are saying the Church was deliberately conspiring to keep people ignorant for its own selfish, institutional ends. Frankly, it sounds like a rumor dreamed up on some atheist message board.

Even if it were true, I would expect it to be (a) enforced only in some localities over quite limited periods, and (b) much more about lack of resources (and lack of demand) rather than any deliberate attempt to keep the laity ignorant. Certainly there were laymen who were taught to read by clergy, but the fact is that the vast majority of laymen in the relevant period had neither the time nor the motivation to learn to read, and there was precious little available for them to read even if they did (and yes, nearly everything that was available belonged to the Church, because, apart from Charlemange’s efforts, only the Church was in the business of copying manuscripts.)

Still it makes very little difference, the roman army has been estimated at 440,000 at peak at around 170AD and the population of the empire was around 45 million then (with 4 million being Roman Citizens). Even if all of the army was literate thats less than 1 percent of the population.


I don’t think yet theres any actual evidence that literacy did decline in the west after the fall of the empire, merchants and kings still needed just as many scribes and the church was encouraging literacy. The evidence is that its less than 10 percent for the height of the Roman Empire and then if it does decline in the west its not by much.

Rome had a fairly thriving book trade, with slaves copying manuscripts on an industrial scale. After the fall of Rome books virtually disappeared except from monasteries. No one was copying books for secular purposes, and, with a few exceptions (Charlemange’s empire being the most significant) there were not really large kingdoms or large mercantile enterprises until the barbarain invasions wound down in about the 10th century.

And most people in the US do not learn to become competent choir singers, but I’d guess that if I expressed serious interest in joining a church choir, a substantial agreement with or acceptance of their church’s doctrine, and a willingness to devote the time to learn as well as perform, they would be willing to teach me to sing in a choir.

And I think there’s a more general principle here. Religious groups have lots of opportunities for education that are free or low-cost in terms of nominal costs/fees/tuition, where the real cost is the time it takes to study. I presume that most any Islamic Mosque would teach you to read Arabic if you expressed a serious enough interest in it.

Think about how you view technical drawing. This is a skill, different from an art, that anybody can learn, and used to be a much more prominent part of education. These days we don’t learn it at all, and people who can do it are regarded as talented and artistic rather than merely skilled, and somehow special. And yet unless their specific job requires it, it’s not something we especially care about.

(Just for clarity, I’m not implying that technical drawing requires a lack of talent or anything.)

Remember that this was about the time that the Roman Empire was breaking apart, and instead of having Latin as the common language, the different areas were modifying their language into Italian, French, Spanish, English, etc.

Based on what I have read, there was a time when it was common for parish priests to read & write Latin, but to be illiterate in the local vernacular language. How do you count that toward literacy?

  1. English is not a Latin descended language. While it has adopted a large quantity of Latin words, it is a Germanic language that is descended from one of the barbarian languages spoken in the northern reaches.

  2. Well, it can count as literacy just like how an American who can read and write English doesn’t up and become “illiterate” by traveling to Tijuana. Just learning to read and write some language give you a big advantage to learning to read and write another.