This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history useful for writers (and cheating just a little today). How literate were medieval people? We used to think of them as largely illiterate, yet the answer is probably more complex than that. It seems to have varied by period, with the introduction of schools allowing for a lot of basic literacy by the end of the period.
We also need to think about the evidence for illiteracy. Often it is making a cross for a name, but we know that a number of otherwise literate people did that, sometimes while writing their full name elsewhere. Then there is the evidence of secular writing, such as chansons de geste and other stories. Who do we think was reading them? I’m not saying that the average peasant would have been an Oxford professor (particularly when Oxford hadn’t become a university in the early bit of the period. Bologna beat you to it, people), but I’d suggest that nobles would generally be able to write. Chroniclers tended to mock those who couldn’t.
Or at least, they used to mock those they considered illiterate, but it doesn’t always seem to have meant the same thing. Literacy for much of the Middle Ages meant “literate in Latin”. So I’m semi-literate by those standards, and many of those reading this perfectly easily… Oh, and that’s another thing. There’s a difference between reading and writing. We often find that concept weird today, but in the Middle Ages, it was perfectly possible to be able to read with only the vaguest idea of the skill of writing. Writing well was sufficiently uncommon that it actually makes the identification of documents easier, since there were distinct local and regional variations in handwriting.
So the next time you have a knight walk into a bar, can he read the menu? That’s down to what fits best, but I’d like to suggest that neither having every character able to read nor assuming that they all can’t is entirely the right way to go.