Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
Various narratives of ‘emergence’ and ‘growth’ have both advanced and hindered knowledge about writing and reading in the medieval period. Such narratives – all of which possess some truth but also require some modification – include the movement from a multi-lingual culture to the primacy of English as a spoken and written language; a broad increase in literacy, and especially vernacular literacy; the continued encroachment of writing upon the domain of orality; and the emergence of printing and the appearance of the printed book.
No-one looking at the beginning of our period and then at its end could fail to notice enormous changes in all these areas. Between 1200 and 1500, English had routed Latin and French in the rolls of parliament and at least in the oral side of legal pleading; had long since prevailed in the literary arena; and (despite determined resistance) had already sporadically been and was about to become the premier language even of religious controversy. Especially when one considers the full range of literacies – including the more pragmatic forms of literacy specific to commerce and trade – the number of literate citizens had vastly multiplied. An optimistic judgement from Sir Thomas More (though negatively expressed) was that in 1533, just after the end of our period, ‘far more than four parts of all the whole divided into ten could never read English yet’ – that is, that practically 60 per cent of the people could read English at some level.