Why weren't there more secular scribes in the middle ages?

Back in the middle ages, literacy was very rare. Even high-ranking nobles and kings were virtually illiterate. The only people who were literate were the clergy.

Now the nobility didn’t see any need to learn to read and write themselves - they focused on fighting as a worthwhile skill. But most of them acknowledged there were times when some literacy was required so they contacted a local bishop and requested a monk or a priest be assigned to their service to act as a clerk.

But there was a downside to this. Many times the church and the nobility might be in conflict over some issue. And the nobility was at a disadvantage because their clerks, who handled all their communications, were churchmen. Any nobleman basically had spies in the heart of his entourage.

Given this, why didn’t the nobility try to break the church monopoly on literacy? They didn’t have to learn to read and write themselves but they could have started a school and taught some boys to do it. They could see that churches were doing this so they must have realized it was not that difficult. This would have given them a source of secular scribes who did not owe their first loyalty to the church.

You are speaking in gross generalities, which I am not sure are correct even as generalities.

many nobles and middle class people were literate. Also, in some cases “cleric” was a temporary rank of a person while undergoing academic training, sort of like “college student” is not a permanent occupation today. These “clerics” had to obey some rules like the celibate and special dress for the duration of education. I recall something along those lines from Durant. Also, as you can see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_translations#Middle_Ages translation of Bible into vernacular was becoming a political issue in the 12th century because it apparently contributed to the rise of some contemporary heresies among the (literate) laity.

Besides, the “clergy” and the “nobility” were no more united camps back then than are “people with PhDs” and “corporate execs” today. They may have distinct cultures and group interests, but they also have their own personal interests and that’s usually what interests people the most. Even in a theology-related argument with the church hierarchy in Rome the king could always hire some sympathetic clergymen to take his side of the debate.


I think I’d have to agree that something like an 800 year stretch between the fall of Rome and the first set of universities is pretty impressive.

This is pretty much entirely wrong. It’s true that literacy was not common, but most people above the peasant and serf classes had at least basic literacy, often through Church schools. Nobles were certainly well-educated, often by tutors or clergy.

While we’re at it, what makes you think that this is true?

You can’t toss off “Middle Ages” like it was a thing. You’re talking hundreds of separate sets of cultures in various countries, economic settings, and religious strengths over a large number of centuries across an entire continent.

When people talk about the Roaring Twenties, they’re usually making unsupportable generalizations about a single decade in a single country. Your generalization is several orders of magnitude larger.

Do you want to give a specific example of what you’re talking about, in a specific time and place, so we have some context in which to understand the issue?

As for Sage Rat, just let me say that scribes and literacy and universities were three totally different aspects of life, and conflating them has no meaning.

I’m not claiming a universal truth. Nothing is universal. But what I wrote is generally true.

But let’s set some boundaries. First on time. Let’s say that a hundred years is a significant period of time. For most people, it’s more than a lifetime.

Now let’s define literacy. Let’s say that a person who can read and write his name doesn’t count. For purposes of this thread, we’ll say that a person must be able to compose and read a simple letter in order to be considered literate.

And let’s define widespread. Let’s work with a simple majority.

So, to rephrase the OP: There existed at some point in European history a period which lasted for at least one hundred years during which at least fifty percent of the people who were not members of Catholic religious orders did not possess sufficient literacy to be able to compose or read a simple letter.

Is anyone going to dispute this?

I won’t dispute that. I will say that it is totally irrelevant to your OP.

I’ll ask again. Where and when did the nobility have no sources of literacy other than clergy who were spies in their own house? What is your source for this assertion?

  1. Remember that the ties between the “educated” clergy and the nobility were very, very tight: it wasn’t some random churchman who did your writing, it was your brother, or your wife’s cousin, or your best friend growing up. The nobility and the clergy simply didn’t see themselves as being on opposite “sides” in any fundamental way, though there would be times when their interests diverged.

  2. This falls under “things I believe but cannot prove”, but I really think there’s something to the Flynn effect (the gradual upward creeping of IQ scores). While there have undeniably been geniuses throughout history, I really think that between poor nutrition, lack of stimulation, and fetal alcohol syndrome–not to mention things like high childhood fevers and head injuries–the average person, peasant or noble or clergy, of 1000 years ago was probably less capable of learning the sorts of skills we associate with “intelligence”, such as reading. This doesn’t mean they were stupid–they demonstrably were not–but I think learning to read must have been much, much more difficult for the average Joe than it is today. Even priests were often illiterate: it was a common complaint in Charlemange’s day, and concern that the liturgy was being improperly performed is what motivated him to set up a school system for priests.:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlemange (look at the education reform section)

Medieval beer/wine/cider generally had a very low alcohol content. Spirits weren’t invented till the 12th century, and were rare and very expensive till around 1400. Widespread alcohol abuse didn’t happen until the Gin Craze of the 1700s. Alcoholism is a relatively modern problem, it certainly wasn’t an issue in the year 1010.

Learning to read is certainly more difficult without a school system. That’s the only conclusion you can safely draw. I don’t know of any evidence that supports the rest of your comment.

You don’t have to be a raging alcoholic for there to be neurological effects on the fetus: moderate drinking (2-4 drinks a day) is associated with learning problems in infants today. You could reach that on small beer and cider.

I don’t have any, beyond the extrapolating backwards from the Flynn effect. I said that. I just find it interesting that Charlemange couldn’t learn to write, and probably couldn’t learn to read. He was certainly brilliant, and it isn’t that he couldn’t learn to write well–he couldn’t learn to write at all. It just seems plausible to me that we have gotten better at certain types of abstract thinking. I don’t think it’s genetic or anything: I just think we set up society in a way now to really encourage those skills in everyone, in a way that wasn’t done 1200 years ago.

That’s not actually what Einhard says about him. He says:

So in other words, Charlemagne wasn’t very good at writing, but we don’t know that he couldn’t learn to write at all.

But I don’t find it all that surprising. Like Einhard says, he tried to learn later in life, when he was already busy trying to do other things like rule the country. And when you’re talking about being able to read and write in Charlemagne’s case, you’re talking about being able to read and write Latin, which wasn’t his native language, although he did learn to speak it with some fluency.

I think the short answer is, there wasn’t enough work at first. By the later medieval times, when the need for writing becomes greater, and litercay becomes more important, yes, you start to find non-clerical scribes.

Remember the issue of poverty. About the time of Charlemagne was not a rich time, especially if you were not running the Holy Rman Empire. Food was scarce, all job had to be done by hand. If you got too rich, you were a handy target for the barbarians next door or in the passing longships.

The early medieveal, around the time of Charlemagne, was a desperate time. By the Norman conquest in 1066 things had settled down, kings ruled larger stretches and so had more money for luxuries like record-keeping. By the later times, 1350 and the plague, fairly large towns and commerce demanded more record keeping and general learning was more widespread.

Even paper was expensive. Smart was a guy (or his flunkie) who ran the country by memory, with a minimum of “writing down”. We forget, in the days of organizers and databases, how prodigious the human memory can be when not atrophied by the power tool aids of writing.

Plus, the nobles brought the same care of financial management to their households that we see in modern Americans - they constantly spent, often bills went upaid, they made promises they could not keep and lived beyond their means. Book larnin’ was probably the farthest thing from their attention span. It was the church that devoted resources to teaching it’s employees the skills of book learning, since to a certain extent knowledge and record-keeping were their core business.

Plus, How do you teach a Lord? Their preoccupation, usually, was with warfare arts. A teacher wishing to instill any level of discipline in a child had to be mindful that this child would grow up to be in charge, answerable to nobody. Records of the behaviour of some of the ancient nobles shows a capriciousness and nastiness a modern spoiled child would have a hard time matching.

As for spies - everybody was a spy. Anything from cooking to laundry to getting dressed to cleaning was done by underlings who frequently gossiped among themselves. There was NO privacy as we think of it today. You lived in a castle with dozens of other people who kne when you used the latrine and how often, who was doing whom, who you talked to and what was said. Everyone had a source in everyone else’s household who was happy to relay the latest gossip for a few pennies. The church sources in the lord’s household were no more of a fifth column than anyone else’s sources.

I don’t think one isolated case proves much. In contrast, most free men in Scandinavia during the same period had some basic knowledge of reading runes, and many surviving rune-stones are known to have been inscribed by hirdmen and others from the lower nobility.

Learning how to read and write is much easier for children than for adults. That’s absolutely true today and there’s no reason to think it was any different in any other time period. Charlemagne had problems with literacy because he tried to learn it as an adult. That cannot be construed as a comment on his era.

However his father Pepin the Short was pretty likely literate. He spent the period from the age of 7 to 21 at the abbey of St. Denis. It is speculative whether Charles Martel sent him there for an education or, as a younger son, to enter the church. But given that he didn’t emerge until the age of 21, the traditional age for making a final decision on such matters, he probably was sent there for vocational reasons. Regardless with 14 years of education in a church ( a heavily endowed one dedicated to the royal family, first the Merovingians, then every dynasty since ) it would be unusual indeed if he hadn’t emerged literate in Latin at least.

Likewise Charlemagne’s grandsons were probably literate as well. At least Charles the Bald and Louis the German certainly seemed likely to have been ( we know or at least are told that the tri-lingual Louis both dreamed in Latin and composed passages in it ), based on the education we know ( roughly ) they received. His son Louis the Pious is a bit harder for me to suss out as I don’t have a biography that goes into his life in detail, but given his father’s predilections and his library ( which could of course be passed off as a prestige collection ), it is better than even odds he was as well.

In addition it has been argued that the Merovingian lay court in general was considerably more literate up until the mid-7th century than the early Carolingian court and Italy seems never to have lost widespread lay literacy.

Given all of that the early Carolingians generally and Charlemagne in particular may present more exceptions to the norm, at least among the highest nobility in early medieval Europe.

Rosamund McKitterick ( who according to Roger Collins at least has the most upbeat assessment of lay literacy in Charlemagne’s time ) apparently goes into some detail here, but I haven’t read it myself.

  1. My original point, my GQ answer, was that nobility and clergy weren’t opposing sides but rather closely knit groups with many ties remains true, and I think as close to accepted wisdom as anything else.

  2. My total wild ass speculation that learning to read and write was more difficult–though clearly not impossible–for people growing up in pre-literate societies was really meant as a passing comment and inappropriate for GQ. I would not have made it if I hadn’t already been making a perfectly cromulent remark, and for that I apologize.

But I am totally going to blather on about it next time there is a “things I believe but cannot prove” thread.

The line between church and state was…there was no line. Few saw a need for a distinction. Science wasn’t yet invented, so if you wanted to know how things worked or get educated, you consulted a priest, a monk or the Bible. The conflict and divide came later.