Antique literacy …

What did it mean to be literate in antiquity, or indeed in the eighteenth century, or in any other age where schooling was variable and there was a great range of standards and capabilities.

Clearly in both the eighteenth century and antiquity there were a number of people who were highly literate and well schooled. There were clearly also those who were illiterate, and then there was a great lump in the middle who lacked daily engagement with the written word.

In other words, they could read and write, could puzzle out an election announcement, manage a bit of graffiti, but reading anything complex was a bit beyond them.

A bit like me with Russian.

Thirty five years ago I learned Russian to a reasonably high level, enough for basic extempore translation and to read technical documents, or indeed to grasp the gist of news articles in Izvestiya.

Like everything, if you don’t use it you forget it, but even now I can read the signs, find the right train, buy a coffee, and remain unfazed by the genitive plural. I look like someone literate in Russian, and certainly I can function well enough. And because of the close relationship of Russian to other slavic languages I can busk the basics, but only where they use the Cyrillic alphabet. Czech, Croat and the rest confuse me utterly because I never learned how to read or write them, even if I can get the gist of what someone says.

As an ancient history geek I’ve been to Greece a few times, and driven round the backwoods of the Peloponnese, Epiros and Crete doing the ruin tourism thing to the max. I’ve never actually used Pausinias as a guidebook, but I’ve been headed that way. The result of this is that I’ve picked up petrol station and cafenio Greek good enough to get a tyre fixed, ask for directions, and so on. And I can read the signs, even if some times I have to say the words to myself like a five year old child while I puzzle out the meaning.

Now my wife comes with me on these trips. She’s never studied Greek, but has a basic knowledge of the alphabet through art history. Just how basic was revealed once when we were trying to locate a hotel in a small town where we’d booked a room. The hotel had emailed us directions in English – ‘go past the Alfa bank, turn left at the yellow supermarket …’ and included the name of the hotel spelled out in Greek uppercase letters.

Well, we found the bank, turned left at the supermarket and drove straight past the hotel – why, because the sign was in flowing lower case script that J couldn’t read.

The point is that up to then she’d given every indication of being able to manage rural Greece – cope with old Greek language direction signs (all upper case), buy bottles of water and bread and cheese from a corner shop simply by listening and copying what I said – possibly not the best example.

Incidentally it’s not just my wife who pulled this trick off, we had the same experience in Sri Lanka.

To get from Kandy to Polunarruwa we hired a driver (and the inevitable Toyota mini van) to take us. The driver spoke English, was helpful and engaging, someone you would think could also read English well. And perhaps he could, but he drove straight past our hotel.

Why? Again the hotel sign was in a flowing English script that looks a little like some Indian scripts which they sometimes use in Sri Lanka for hotel signs. And while I’m sure our driver knew his ABC, puzzling out stylised scripts while avoiding stray dogs and buses driven with stomach churning elan was understandably beyond him.

And of course literacy and capability before universal schooling is highly variable.

As an example we have J’s great-great-great grandfather’s journal for 1819.

He was a seedsman and gardener in Barnard Castle, supplying seed to farmers and market gardeners,  and with a sideline looking after the gardens of minor gentry, including hiring day labourers and the like. So his journal reads like a project management diary. Such and such supplied, this much owed, who had to be paid for sorting the rector’s garden and so on, as well as various marginal notes and asides. And he obviously had writing in a clear hand beaten into him as it’s legibly written in a competent hand – not copperplate but clear enough.

However, apart from a few gardening manuals and his prayerbook he probably read very little, and would probably have found a novel or other long text hard going.

Now, what has all this to do with literacy in antiquity?

We could take a guess that perhaps half the population of Pompeii could read and write, and perhaps rather fewer in an outpost town in Roman Britain.

Some were undoubtedly highly literate, and as evidenced by the Vindolanda letters, were used to written communication. Then there were those whose abilities were like mine in Russian, J’s ancestor, or our Sri Lankan driver, people who could function, and could use it as tool. Good enough to puzzle out a temple dedication or a gravestone, or scratch a note – ‘Quintus owes me three sesterces for the grain’, but who could never manage to tackle Suetonius, even if they could get access to a copy.

And because us classics geeks tend to be well educated we forget this …


About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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