Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
Much close attention is given elsewhere in this volume to the details and the specific circumstances of the commissioning of books, both manuscript and printed, to how they were acquired and collected into libraries by individuals and institutions, and to their use, potential and actual. Something more general needs nevertheless to be said, in an introductory way, about literacy and reading. It is difficult, even impossible, to be precise about so slippery a concept, hard to define and compute acceptably even today. An overall growth in the ability to read and write English during our period is certain enough. To what precise extent the same applies to Latin literacy is less clear.
Nevertheless, the quantity of what was progressively made available in manuscript and print propels us towards assumptions which the comparative absence of reliable statistics makes difficult to validate. The attempt may perhaps carry more conviction if generalization and inference are reduced to a minimum and the enquiry is conducted on the basis of the few specific contemporary statements that exist, and some examples. There is no reason to suppose that the statements in question are utterly to be relied upon; they are, for one thing, made in the heat of controversy, or at least à parti pris. The rest of the evidence, besides being largely random, requires much circumspection in interpretation.