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The medieval art of reading

Sloane Manuscript 2435

British Library | Public Domain

Daniel Esparza - published on 12/04/22

The Europeana Archive offers an online a journey in seven chapters, explaining how medieval people read from the year 500 until 1550.

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Europeana is a vast online archive-educational website that preserves European cultural heritage in digital format. It provides enthusiasts, professionals, teachers, and researchers with digital access to plenty of European cultural heritage material (artworks, books, music, and videos on art, newspapers, archaeology, fashion, science, sport, and much more) organized by collections. Their medieval archives deserve special attention. One of their recently curated online exhibitions is titled The Art of Reading in the Middle Ages, “a journey through society of medieval Europeto discover the rich palette in which reading manifested.”

The European Middle Ages, historians somewhat agree, go from Late Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period ­– that is, it broadly covers the years 500-1500 (although Europeana extended the date to 1550, to include the gradual shift from written to printed communication in this exhibition). Now, the term “medieval” is a much later invention: rather than thinking they were living in a somewhat intermediary period between classical Antiquity and the Renaissance, “medieval” people understood their day and age (may it be in the year 700 or in the 1200s) as a continuation of Antiquity.  

It is commonplace to think that literacy was rather rare in the Middle Ages, a kind of secret skill mastered only by some privileged monks, priests, and every other more or less brainy nobleman. Although there is some truth to that, Europeana explains, “this is an anachronistic view, deeming a person literate if they can read and write, and illiterate if not” ­­– that is, it depends on what we should understand by illiteracy in the medieval context itself. According to his biographer Einhard, Charlemagne himself could read but not write.

In fact, there were many ways to “read” in the Middle Ages. Churches were deemed the “bibles of the illiterate,” and people were able to “read” images (paintings, altars, chapels, and stained-glass windows) with ease – in fact, they would be able to identify stories, topics, classic and biblical characters, metaphors, legends, and much more just by looking at an image. Familiarity with classic and biblical texts was not an oddity at all: “during the Middle Ages,” Europeana explains, “it was common for texts to be read aloud in front of an audience.”

The seven different chapters of this online exhibition go from the monastic cultivation of Latinitas in the Early Middle Ages all the way to the creation of new literary genres (namely, courtly literature) in the Late Middle Ages, through the adoption of writing and reading by merchants and craftsmen for their own daily purposes, and the incorporation of some vernacular languages even in religious environments – commonly thought to be the exclusive dominion of Latin.

You can enjoy the entire collection here.

Tags:
Medieval
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