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Lay Literacy Essay

History Notes > Anglo-Saxon History (Britain c. AD400-1100) Notes

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'The range of documents written in the vernacular presupposes the existence of lay literate people in late Anglo-Saxon England.' Discuss. The written word had always been held up as important by Anglo-Saxon society: to the pagan runic alphabet was ascribed mystical power and authority, while the spread of Christianity from the seventh century reintroduced Latin to these islands, which carried with it added associations with the majesty and mystery of the Roman Church and with divine scripture itself. The character of the written material that survives from this period makes it difficult to challenge the traditional view that literacy in any meaningful sense was limited to those in ecclesiastical orders. The affairs of the royal administration in which the Church did not have an interest were conducted orally and recorded in memory rather than on parchment, as were the daily affairs of wider lay society. From the ninth century onwards, however, writing ceased to be the exclusive domain of churchmen: the dramatic rise in the production and dissemination of written documents, both administrative and private, that directly pertained to the affairs of laymen stands as witness to a greater functional value ascribed to the written word by late Anglo-Saxon society, while the fact that these documents were increasingly written in the vernacular from the time of King Alfred suggests that a degree of 'pragmatic literacy' may well have existed within the higher ranks of lay society, its development linked to the growth in the power of government. Although the tradition of oral command was not supplanted, the royal administration was increasingly dependent on written documents to record and convey the will of the king and his councillors. Law codes, royal diplomas and writs enjoyed wide circulation and were clearly expected to be understood by the interested parties. For their part, ordinary landowners, both lay and ecclesiastical, were producing legal documents such as charters, wills, leases and manumission documents, intended as records of their transactions and guarantees of their rights. To conclude with confidence that elements of lay society were, by 1066, literate in the sense that we understand the word would be to push our evidence too far, for there is nothing about our surviving sources that rules out the possibility that the vast majority of scribes were ecclesiastics. The converse, however, also cannot be ruled out: it is certain that laymen were highly involved in the process of the creation of vernacular written documents from the ninth century onwards, and with this fact comes the enticing possibility that it was they themselves who were putting the ink to the parchment. The most convincing evidence for a degree of literacy among the laity from comes perhaps from 'official' documentation, that is to say the group of documents generally grouped together as 'codes', as well as writs and other forms of correspondence between the king and his agents, some of which may have been the product of a dedicated royal chancery. The growing strength of the royal administration under King Alfred and his successors is attested to by the development of a sophisticated and uniform currency, the growth of burhs supported by the agricultural surplus of the surrounding countryside and indeed the military organisation and success of West Saxon armies against Scandinavian invaders and the resulting dominance of the kings of the Wessex over southern England. Campbell, champion of the power of West Saxon kings, argues that it was in light of this increased authority that the government produced a great range of vernacular

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