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Education as Heresy in the Middle Ages
October 4, 2012 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Did the Catholic Church actively suppress literacy and education during the Middle Ages, or was it simply a byproduct of the era?

A friend and I have been discussing the transformative effects mass literacy and uncensored education can have on authoritarian regimes, including some theocracies.

I remember learning in high school and college that the Catholic Church actively suppressed all forms of secular education during the Middle Ages. We were told this was one of the ways they maintained power: by preventing laypeople from learning enough to question religious doctrine.

But I'm having difficulty finding reputable sources online that discuss ways they did so. In fact, the impression I'm getting is that the Church didn't overtly oppose education; they merely attacked as heretical any concepts or research that ran counter to accepted teachings and were considered dangerous. Also, that since books and scrolls were difficult to create and maintain they were simply were not available to the masses.

What really happened? Can anyone shed some light on this?

Also, I'd really appreciate any links you might be able to provide to (unbiased / substantial / reputable) sources on this topic. Thanks!
posted by zarq to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Byproduct. De-urbanization led to the decline of education in general, and made it mostly the responsibility of monasteries and cathedrals, which of course were controlled by the church. I think the opinion you espouse in your fourth paragraph is mostly correct.
posted by ubiquity at 10:09 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


This article (pdf) from 2000 takes a historiographical look at "studies on literacy, reading, and writing in medieval Europe".
posted by Jahaza at 10:10 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


It depends on what part of the population you're talking about, and what kind of education you're talking about.

Monestaries and cathedrals actually founded schools in the MIddle Ages, but the thinking was that the point of all that learnin' was so you could have educated clergy. After a while, that got expanded to "nobility and clergy," and the schools expanded to teach more aside from just church stuff. If you were just a peasant, however, you didn't get to go to school; but that may have been as much the will of the nobility, or even more so, than it was the will of the church. After all, a feudal lord stands much more to gain from having an illiterate populace than a church does. The church did speak up if someone tried teaching heretical stuff, but they weren't opposed to learning overall.

In fact, the church actually adapted in some small ways to suit people who were illiterate - a lot of the structure of the Mass was intended to be a sort of "dramatic recreation" of church teaching, for the benefit of the illiterate masses. It's one thing to tell them "Jesus said to do this and so that's why we're doing it in Mass," but it's another to show people "So then Jesus did this and then He did this, and so now we're going to do that too." Other church ritual like The Stations Of The Cross is meant as a sort of "so let's show you all this stuff from the Bible, since you can't read it on your own". True, a lot of this show-and-tell "education" is solely about Bible stories, but it at least gives some evidence that the Church didn't want to keep people entirely and completely ignorant.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:16 AM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


The thing to do would be to compare Europe in the early middle ages to civilizations with similar levels of wealth and development and see if they are different.

The thing is that western Europe between the years of the fall of the Roman Empire and the Crusades was stupefyingly poor. Wealth and capital was carried over to Constantinople which had almost ALL the wealth in Christendom. Meanwhile, western Europe was being ruled by Germanic and Gothic tribes whose kingdoms were agrarian fiefdoms. Western Europe was basically rebooting civilization from scratch rather than picking up from the Roman Empire.

The era of the Cruasades seems to be the inflection point (the article that Jahaza links to marks the inflection point at 1100, though it doesn't specifically mention the Crusades) between a mostly non-literate society (even among the rulers) and a literate civilization. The Crusades managed to open the west up to new ideas and lost classical literature in the middle east and Spain as well as flooding the west with wealth and capital (particularly from the plundering of Constantinople).

"How the Irish Saved Civilization" might be a good resource for looking at the interplay of the church and the secular world in an era when the old civilization had been swept away and there were only a few interest groups left preserving what was known.
posted by deanc at 10:21 AM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Other church ritual like The Stations Of The Cross is meant as a sort of "so let's show you all this stuff from the Bible, since you can't read it on your own".

Mystery plays might be a better example, the Stations of the Cross are a late enough development that they arguably started in the early Renaissance and their ubiquity (where you now find Stations of the Cross in almost every Catholic parish church) doesn't develop until well into the modern period.

posted by Jahaza at 10:26 AM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Good point, Jahaza; that was intended as more of an illustration of the "let's show rather than tell" impulse. Which, interestingly enough, I first learned about through a theater history class in college as opposed to 7+ years of Sunday School.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:29 AM on October 4, 2012


The most definitive (not to say only) estimate of the literacy rate in classical antiquity is 10%, with some (but not that much) variation depending on specific time and location. I'm not familiar with the medieval estimates, but I think that the idea that literacy and education decreased catastrophically is maybe an overstatement.* In antiquity, real literacy was limited to the elite (and some of their slaves); my understanding is that in the medieval period, things were much the same. The real change was qualitative, what you did with literacy if you were literate. For some agonizing over what a Christian education should be, maybe take a look at St. Augustine's writings.


*Something that probably did decrease quite a bit is "commerce literacy," where people who had jobs e.g. processing mass quantities of food imports could recognize letters/patterns and sort objects accordingly, but not understand unfamiliar texts or write spontaneously.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:36 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


You might also want to think about the type of education the church offered, when it did offer any: it was catechistic, consisted of rote learning. Another aspect of this was that the church's few schools were for boys. However, some of the best educated medieval European women were in the convents.

Another major aspect of literacy was the lack of books. Most people probably never saw a single one.

I just searched the following in google scholar (scholar.google.com) medieval literacy europe and got 64,000+ results.
posted by mareli at 10:59 AM on October 4, 2012


Western Europe was basically rebooting civilization from scratch rather than picking up from the Roman Empire.

I don't think that's true, deanc. Don't have time to substantiate it any better right now, but these lectures stressed the social continuity between the Gothic kingdoms of Western Europe and the Romans that had preceded them. Here's the summary of Lecture 9: "An examination of the Gothic kingdoms and the kingdom of the Franks shows that while the deposing of the last Roman emperor in the west might have been significant from a political standpoint, the administrative, cultural, social, and economic impacts were minimal."
posted by ibmcginty at 11:02 AM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think the Church was directly responsible for the suppression of pagan philosophy and the loss of a lot of accumulated ancient wisdom and science in the later Roman Empire, which contributed a great deal to the dark ages.

See Hypatia, and many similar events.
posted by empath at 11:38 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


"How the Irish Saved Civilization" might be a good resource for looking at the interplay of the church and the secular world in an era when the old civilization had been swept away and there were only a few interest groups left preserving what was known.

I can't remember the details, because it was something like 15 years ago, but when I took a Celtic history class in college, the professor, who was very Irish hated that book on the grounds that the guy who wrote it tried to extrapolate from "facts" which were just not in the historical record, or which were contradicted by the historical record.

I only bring this up because I've read a few "histories" which I later found were insanely inaccurate and wish I could cleanse from my mind entirely because it can be very difficult to trace where you learned some factiod or another down the road.

So, be forewarned, some serious historians think this book is a POS filled with bad information.

Oh, and I haven't read "How the Irish Saved Civilization" for these very reasons.
posted by bswinburn at 11:52 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I remember learning in high school and college that the Catholic Church actively suppressed all forms of secular education during the Middle Ages. We were told this was one of the ways they maintained power: by preventing laypeople from learning enough to question religious doctrine.

IANAM (I am Not a Medievalist), but I have done graduate level history courses on popular religion in the later middle ages and modern period and done general medieval history at the undergrad level.

I've never heard anything about the church wanting to block learning. The church was the primary preserver and propagator of all texts and learning, largely because few other powerful people were interested -- kings weren't founding universities, but clergy were starting up schools all over Europe (thus all the medieval European universities). This wasn't secular learning, per se, but you can't really say anything was "secular" in the middle ages -- the concept of the separation of religion from other domains (eg politics) just didn't exist. How can you separate God from the study of his creation?

The medieval Church might look a little "anti-literacy" for the masses only in comparison to the early modern Protestant sects, for whom engagement in the written word was an active part of their faith. Engagement in religious texts wasn't something that the pre-Reformation Church sought to repress -- the first best sellers off of the first printing presses were all Catholic/Pre-Reformation* devotional texts. But it wasn't an essential part of the religion for lay people the way that it would become for Protestants -- and the necessity of reading to the protestant religious experience did promote literacy (at least for reading -- writing was a separate skill in the pre-modern).

*Can we really talk about a "Catholic Church" before the reformation? Or does the Reformation make the Catholic Church as much as it makes Protestantism?

Another point against the image of the medieval church as anti-learning: the Renaissance is associated with the "early modern" world, largely because it finally showed up in Northern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries and because it gets thrown into the early modern on college syllabi, BUT it began in Italy in the high middle ages, two hundred years before the Reformation. The great thinkers and artists of the Renaissance were all medieval, and made their works in a world dominated by the medieval Church. (Maybe some medievalist/Renaissance specialist can come in and talk more in detail about the relationship between secular and clerical scholarship).

There are a lot of myths about what the middle ages were like, largely based on out-of-date scholarship and Enlightenment self-aggrandisers: if you are really interested, don't trust random people on the internet (and please don't read some of those awful popular history books, some of which seem to be based on the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica), but look around some of the recent scholarship (as linked above).
posted by jb at 12:48 PM on October 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


Got Medieval is a fun blog by a medievalist; the marginalia he posts is often surprisingly irreligious, even if most artists/scribes were themselves clergy.
posted by jb at 12:51 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the Church was directly responsible for the suppression of pagan philosophy

While this is true, the original question was more about the suppression of all education in general. Right around the same time the Academy of Athens was being shut down, the Christian emperors were founding the "University" of Constantinople. Byblos was still a center for the training of lawyers.

"Dark Ages" Europe, suddenly around the 11th century, had a cascade of school foundings, with what became the universities of Bologna, Paris, and Oxford being established one right after the other. Why this happened in the 11th and 12th centuries rather than the 5th and 6th is a good question. I think we forget the degree to which society de-urbanized and de-modernized after the Fall of Rome.

A lot of what we "know" about the Catholic Church came down to us from Enlightenment Era philosophers and anti-Catholic English writers (eg, "People thought Columbus would sail off the edge of the world because everyone thought it was flat"). So our perceptions are a bit skewed. And it's unfair to compare the huge Roman Empire of the 2nd and 3rd century which had international connections with the rest of the known world to 7th century western Europe which was a collection of poor smaller kingdoms where even Charlemagne was just marginally literate (though he made an effort to spread literacy and establish schools. But he was starting from almost nothing).
posted by deanc at 1:01 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually, dean, the thing about columbus proving the world wasn't flat came from Washington Irving.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:08 PM on October 4, 2012


I was hoping that Irving was born before Independence so that I would be able to claim that, by a technicality, he was British, but no dice.
posted by deanc at 1:11 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's hard to make generalizations about an institution's behavior in an area covering half a continent and nearly a thousand years. But here goes.

First, to refute some of the comments above, civilization and learning did not disappear after the fall of the Roman Empire. The major effects in Western Europe were de-urbanization and the collapse of continent-wide trade routes especially in the sixth and seventh centuries. But since urbanization and the specialization that comes with long-distance trade are major factors that contribute to literacy, this obviously was not great for mass education.

However, by the time of Charlemagne, circumstances were changing. Charlemagne was the first ruler in rather a long while to preside over a large enough territory to need literate bureaucrats to administer it. He was a major supporter of education, but while he provided the financial support, the Church provided the manpower.

This was the model that persisted through to the High Middle Ages. Local rulers and nobility financed monasteries, libraries, scriptoriums and universities in support of various religious and secular goals; the church provided the manpower. Even the faculty at most universities were nominally clergy. But to say that the only education provided was religious is rather misleading. Law, medicine, rhetoric, mathematics, etc. were all taught alongside theology and classical philosophy, and by the standards of today's top-down, doctrinaire Church, in a relatively free environment. Abelard's condemnation for heresy was the exception, not the rule, and one may note that it was his book that was burned, not himself, and there were not consequences to his supporters.

This is not to say that the Medieval church wasn't capable of brutal suppression of heresy, as against the Cathars in the Albigensian Crusade. But by and large no one needed to suppress education: it takes time to learn to read, and money to pay teachers, and these were not luxuries the vast majority of the population could afford. What the Church did tend to come down on like a ton of bricks was charismatic lay preachers and others offering religious interpretations outside of their power structure, but to call this education is a bit of a stretch...it was more a replacement of one charismatic cult with another one.

It wasn't until the very late Middle Ages and early Renaissance that there really began to be movements toward lay devotion, and eventually education to allow all believers to read the Bible. These started with the Beguines, and continued through to such figures as Thomas a Kempis and Erasmus of Rotterdam. The Church generally had a rather uneasy relationship with these movements, but it wasn't until the Protestent Reformation that you see that unease start to turn into consistent opposition, and the much greater emphasis on doctrinal uniformity following the Council of Trent. And after that, there was most definitely hostility and attempted suppression of secular education for the masses in Catholic-controlled Europe, but this was long after the Middle Ages, and at that point the Church was fighting a losing battle. It's frankly not until the 19th century that you find the most hysterical papal condemnations of secular education for the masses (though one can note that this attitude was still damaging in the poorest and most peripheral areas of Southern and Western Europe).

Recommended further reading on the subject:
The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham is an excellent survey of Europe in the 500 years after the fall of Rome, that reflects a lot of the latest scholarship on why Dark Ages is a misnomer. (Review)

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch is an excellent overview with much information on the Church's role in education in Europe (review), though Paul Johnson's older and more sympathetic History of Christianity offers more European-specific detail and still some very trenchant criticism of the Catholic Church's least admirable efforts to maintain orthodoxy.

John H. Mundy's Europe in the High Middle Ages is a bit dated and evidently out of print, but also a well-respected general overview of the period with a lot of great information on the spread of literacy and education.

And if you want something less scholarly and more fun, I'd recommend Judith Merkle Riley's Margaret of Ashbury trilogy starting with A Vision of Light, which does an excellent job of portraying just how varied and bizarre the world of medieval scholarship was. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose also does a good job of accurately portraying the types of debates around knowledge and learning that were happening within the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. Both of the above are fiction, but very well-researched and true, I think, to the spirit of the times.

Tl;dr: Yes, your impression from online sources is correct.
posted by psycheslamp at 1:22 PM on October 4, 2012 [16 favorites]


Deanc makes a good point, comparing the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire is apples and oranges.When you say "the Catholic Church" when and where do you mean?

For that matter, when you say, "The Middle Ages" when do you mean? If you go hopping about the better part of 1000 years of history and picking and choosing what you think will support your thesis, you can pretty much prove most anything you want to.

During a good part of the middle ages, most people never got more than 20 miles from their home, and if they went 50 miles, chances are everyone spoke a dialect so different from what they were used to they couldn't effectively communicate. The church might have been one big universal hegemony on paper, but in real life, not so much.

Until the invention of the three field system and the horse collar, more than 90% of the population had to spend their lives farming or everyone was going to die, so until about 1100, trying to create mass literacy would have been as genocidal as it was useless. My home town library (pop 7487!) probably has more books than Europe did at the time and everyone would have starved in the meantime. Literacy was pretty much useless to the average medieval European. This video, from about 2:20 to about 7:45, has a pretty good (if overly simplified - what do you want in 5-1/2 minutes) summation of Western thought until about 1200. (The rest of the video is pretty cool but has nothing to do with the topic at hand.)

Given that the Roman Empire was on a decline for a couple centuries prior to the Justinan Conversion, it's hard to fault the Catholic Church with any of this. Their main contribution to the fall was by distracting the Romans from the barbarian hordes at the Colosseum.

When Europe got back on track intellectually, it was the monastic schools who did a lot of the heavy lifting including the development of Scholasticism, which stuck around until well into the Enlightenment. After that the Church dropped the ball hard, but that's well past most people would describe the middle ages as over. Saying they were trying to suppress education during the medieval period is historic revisionism.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:24 PM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


If Bible translations in the Middle Ages are a valid indicator, the verdict would have to be mixed, but I would say the Church did actively, though fitfully, impede the promulgation of literacy and learning in general:
Bible translations in the Middle Ages were rare in contrast to Late Antiquity, when the Bibles available to most Christians were in the local vernacular. ...In Western Europe, the Latin Vulgate, itself originally a translation into the vernacular, was the standard text of the Bible, and full or partial translations into a vernacular language were uncommon until the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period.
...
A well-known group of letters from Pope Innocent III to the diocese of Metz, where the Waldensians were active, is sometimes taken as evidence that Bible translations were forbidden by the church, especially since Innocent's first letter was later incorporated into canon law.[10]

Margaret Deanesly's study of this matter in 1920 was influential for many years, but later scholars have challenged its conclusions. Leonard Boyle has argued that, on the contrary, Innocent was not particularly concerned with the translations, but rather with their use by unauthorized and uneducated preachers.[11
...
There is no evidence of any official decision to universally disallow translations following the incident at Metz until the Council of Trent, at which time the Reformation threatened the Catholic Church, and the rediscovery of the Greek New Testament presented new problems for translators. However, some specific translations were condemned, and regional bans were imposed during the Albigensian Crusade: Toulouse in 1229, Taragona in 1234 and Beziers in 1246.[14] Pope Gregory IX incorporated Innocent III’s letter into his Decretals and instituted these bans presumably with the Cathars in mind as well as the Waldensians, who continued to preach using their own translations, spreading into Spain and Italy, as well as the Holy Roman Empire. Production of Wycliffite Bibles would later be officially banned in England at the Oxford Synod in the face of Lollard anticlerical sentiment, but the ban was not strictly enforced and since owning earlier copies was not illegal, books made after the ban are often inscribed with a date prior to 1409 to avoid seizure.

As Rosemarie Potz McGerr has argued, as a general pattern, bans on translation responded to the threat of strong heretical movements; in the absence of viable heresies, a variety of translations and vernacular adaptations flourished between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries with no documented institutional opposition.[15] Still, translations came late in the history of the European vernaculars and were relatively rare in many areas.
posted by jamjam at 1:33 PM on October 4, 2012


Saying they were trying to suppress education during the medieval period is historic revisionism.

I wonder if much of that revisionism had its origins in the Reformation and/or the Renaissance, when a lot of the religious/secular leaders were of the general opinion that the Catholic church in particular/religion in general was backward and impeded progress and yadda yadda. It's telling that one of the Catholic church's responses to the Reformation was to approve the founding of the Jesuits - who have always prized rigorous intellectual pursuits and study.

posted by Kid Charlemagne

Eponysterical!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:38 PM on October 4, 2012


Kid Charlemagne: " For that matter, when you say, "The Middle Ages" when do you mean?

Standard definition -- fall of Roman Empire in 476 until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

If you go hopping about the better part of 1000 years of history and picking and choosing what you think will support your thesis, you can pretty much prove most anything you want to."

True! But the answers so far have been incredibly educational and ... ahem... enlightening. :)
posted by zarq at 1:53 PM on October 4, 2012


Can we really talk about a "Catholic Church" before the reformation?

If you mean the Roman church, yes. The short answer is that you could talk about it since 1054, but the longer answer would entail a discussion of the several centuries leading up to the Great East-West Schism.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:29 PM on October 4, 2012


No, the medieval Church did not seek to discourage literacy or to keep the laity in a state of ignorance. What you were taught at school was entirely false, the product of generations of Protestant propaganda in which the Middle Ages were regarded as a period of ignorance and superstition and the Catholic Church portrayed as the enemy of intellectual progress.

Michael Clanchy argues in From Memory to Written Record that the shift to a 'literate mentality' in medieval England took place much earlier than is generally assumed. He shows that the value of written records in establishing customary rights and obligations, or confirming property ownership, was widely recognised in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, even by the poorest members of society. And he goes on to argue that the emergence of literate modes of thinking owed much to the influence of the Catholic Church:
Maybe half the population could read, in medieval England and throughout Latin Christendom, if by reading is meant the ability to recognize the written words of the best-known prayers. The really significant point is not the proportion of the population which could read (in whatever sense), but the fact that the dynamic of literacy was religious. Until the introduction of compulsory elementary schooling in the nineteenth century, individual prayer (whether Catholic or Protestant) remained the foundation of European literacy.
The spread of literacy, and the availability of written texts, offered many benefits to the medieval Church. It aided the teaching of religious orthodoxy, the standardization of liturgy, and the recitation of prayer. A famous letter of Gregory the Great, well known in the medieval period, stressed the importance of education, whether by books (scriptura) or images (pictura):
For what writing is to those who can read, a painting presents to the uneducated who look at it, since in it the unlearned see what they ought to follow, and in it those who know no letters can read. Hence painting serves as reading, especially for the people.
The Protestant Reformers found this shocking: how could mere images possibly take the place of the written Word of God? But it is clear from the passage just quoted that Gregory was firmly convinced of the importance of reading and writing; he simply placed books and images on a continuum of religious instruction, as alternative but equally valid forms of reading. Scripture and picture went hand in hand.

Clanchy sums up: 'the Middle Ages had irreversibly established Christianity as a religion of a book: that is, the Bible and the mass of explanatory writings which stemmed from it. In medieval Latin, 'writing' (scriptura) and holy 'writ' (scriptura) became synonymous, as did office 'clerks' (clerici) and the church's 'clergy' (clerici).' And all this, centuries before Protestantism was ever born or thought of.
posted by verstegan at 3:57 PM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Nthing psycheslamp's excellent response - this tallies with all the reading I have done as well. The church expanded literacy - for itself and a subset of its own growth and power, especially as it pertains to the establishment of monasteries and as an add to rulers like Charlemagne and so on.

However, they were ruthless in cracking down on lay preachers and the like, anyone outside the church, really - i.e most of the other people who might be likely to be literate. Additionally, they were absolutely hard bastard in things like the so-called Albigensian Crusade.

Note, my passing familiarity only extends to the early, and part of the middle ages pertaining mostly to the crusades. I have nothing to offer re: the late and middle middle ages outside crusades.

I highly recommend the Teaching Company Course linked above - Daileader is a great lecturer.
posted by smoke at 4:38 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


One thing that happened first, before the monasteries with the monks copying books, before the convent schools, before the church actively discouraging "secular" anything, is that during late antiquity, the church largely supplanted the state in a lot of areas.

This was not due to some kind of nefarious theocracy, but just because the power of traditional government was contracting. So there wasn't really anyone to provide basic services and infrastructure. The church stepped up to fill in what it could -- famously as the repository of literacy and classical knowledge, but in a lot of other areas, too.

So it's not so much that the church was "repressing" secular learning, as that it was the only institution of learning going during the early middle ages.

Keep in mind, too, that this is all happening ~ a thousand years before the invention of the printing press, so even if your average peasant had wanted to become literate, the materials would have been scarce. An ordinary person might live their whole life without ever seeing writing, except maybe for an inscription on an old building. It's sort of like me wanting to learn to build my own space shuttle.

As time passed, obviously things changed. The biggest change was the printing press, which made the written word ubiquitous. Suddenly those pesky poors were coming across pamphlets and the earliest ancestors of newspapers and clamoring that they wanted to understand the bible on their own terms. This is where you get the church gatekeeping literacy. Especially after the Reformation, when literacy was basically the road to religious, and later political, dissent. You don't want the hoi polloi getting ideas, you know.

More time separates the church as keeper of the intellectual flame and the church as gatekeeper of privileged information than separates the invention of the printing press and the invention of the internet.

If you're interested in this, you might also want to check out the iTunes U version of Yale's Early Middle Ages course -- the professor talks a lot about the role of the church in the late Roman and early medieval/"dark ages"/not-Roman period.
posted by Sara C. at 5:21 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


My understanding of the role of the church (derived from a single class and a long friendship with a dry-humored, but riotously funny medieval professor) is similar to what Sara C. says.

The church kept the flame in terms of monasteries being places of learning for the religious and the upper class, but the 'pesky poors' were not to be troubled by the written word, as they might try putting forth their own (wrong headed) interpretation. The clergy was the intermediary between man and God. Innovation was highly suspect, and the guiding rule was "All for the Greater Glory of God."* People were expected to know their station, to be obedient to the church, and to live their lives with constant thoughts of a more important life after death.


*AFTGGOG--Man, I got sick of hearing that in parochial school--in the seventies!
posted by BlueHorse at 8:58 PM on October 4, 2012


The Protestant Reformers found this shocking: how could mere images possibly take the place of the written Word of God? But it is clear from the passage just quoted that Gregory was firmly convinced of the importance of reading and writing; he simply placed books and images on a continuum of religious instruction, as alternative but equally valid forms of reading. Scripture and picture went hand in hand.

Part of why the Protestant reformers found this shocking is that there's was a religion of the written word in a way that the Catholic Church has never really been. The Catholic Church never totally forgot that the scriptures were the apostolic preaching recorded in written form. E.g. the accounts in Eusebius of the composition of the Gospel of Mark:
Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning. But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he gives in regard to MARK, the author of the Gospel. It is in the following words: "This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things done or said by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely." These things are related by Papias concerning Mark. ...

And thus when the divine word had made its home among them [the Christians in Rome], the power of Simon [the magician] was quenched and immediately destroyed, together with the man himself. And so greatly did the splendor of piety illumine the minds of PETER'S hearers that they were not satisfied with hearing once only, and were not content with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought MARK, a follower of Peter, and the one whose Gospel is extant, that he would leave them a written monument of the doctrine which had been orally communicated to them. Nor did they cease until they had prevailed with the man, and had thus become the occasion of the written Gospel which bears the name of MARK. And they say that Peter when he had learned, through a revelation of the Spirit, of that which had been done, was pleased with the zeal of the men, and that the work obtained the sanction of his authority for the purpose of being used in the churches. Clement in the eighth book of his Hypotyposes gives this account, and with him agrees the bishop of Hierapolis named Papias.
The scriptures are important as they record the apostolic teaching (and through the apostolic teaching the words and deeds of Jesus), but they're mediated through the Church just as the sacraments, church art, etc. all are. This is different than a (early) Protestant view where the scriptures give a more direct access to Christ and it's more important to have direct access to the scriptures.
posted by Jahaza at 7:12 AM on October 5, 2012


I've always found it neat that the first major book printed with movable type--the Gutenberg Bible--was the Catholic bible, the Vulgate. It wasn't done with Church approval or disapproval, it was just done. That's often forgotten as we tend to focus more on the event itself in particular and the advent of printing in general and what we believe, in hindsight, that represents.

And as to your question, agreeing with much of what others have written already, I can only add a point on literacy in England toward the very end of the time period about which you're inquiring, if not just outside of it. See Eamon Duffy's book The Stripping of the Altars, which aimed to revise some of the aforementioned prejudices about pre-Reformation, Catholic England as told by Protestant historians of the last four centuries. It focuses on the period from 1400-1580, so it's just early enough to cover the tail end of the Late Medieval period. See especially Chapter 2, subchapter entitled "The Impact of Literacy: Lay Didactic and Devotional Collections" as well as the next subchapter, "The Coming of Print," which focuses on the work of Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde et al., who, in addition to other works, published a great deal of Catholic devotional materials in book and tract form to satisfy the demand of the increasingly literate populace. This entire chapter is available in the Google books link above.

The first lines of the "The Coming of Print" subchapter are from John Foxe's Actes and Monumentes (a highly popular Protestant propagandist writing decades into the Reformation in England), which is the birth of the notion that the printing press was the end of Catholicism, a line which lives on today in most high school and college history classrooms. He uses militaristic imagery: "How many presses there be in the world, so many block houses there be against the high castle of St. Angelo, so that either the pope must abolish knowledge and printing, or printing must come at length to root him out." Duffy replies: "Had Foxe attended to the history of printing in and for England until the early 1530s [i.e., the advent of state-sacntioned Protestantism], he would not have made this claim. The advent of printing in the 1470s and the enormous surge in numbers of publications after 1505 did not flood the reading public with reforming tracts or refutations of the real presence." It's a great book and, as an English speaker living in a former English colony, this work speaks most directly to me more so than an inquiry into literacy in Spain or Italy, for example.
posted by resurrexit at 9:12 AM on October 6, 2012


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