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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: May 2012

37 - Literacy and the Bible

from Part IV - The Bible in Use


Defining literacy

Balduin II, count of Guines (1169–1206), was passionately interested in science, theology and the interpretation of the Bible. He used to discuss theological matters quasi litteratus (‘like a literate person’) with masters of arts and clerics. Additionally, he assembled a huge library. However, he himself never did learn ‘the letters’. The chronicler Lambert of Ardre called him omnino laicus et illitteratus and liberalium…omnino ignarus artium (‘a layman in every respect and illiterate’ and ‘without any knowledge of the liberal arts’). Contemporaries admired his erudition, wondering how he had acquired it. Lambert provided the answer: the count surrounded himself with clerics and masters who translated for him and answered his questions. In exchange, he introduced the learned men to vernacular stories and songs which he knew by heart. Obviously, Balduin never attempted to learn Latin or to read his books himself. Despite his interest in all scholarly matters and books, he was deeply steeped in what can be seen as the secular culture of his time, which was predominantly shaped by the vernacular. Latin was the language of the clerics and scholars; if a layman had command of Latin and could read, this was seen as a remarkable achievement. Lambert of Ardre reported, however, that Balduin's librarian – also omnino laicus – did become literate, litteratus, in the count's service.

The example of count Balduin and his clerical coadjutors seems to fit neatly into the medieval pattern of literacy and illiteracy. It was generally assumed that clerici were literate, whereas laymen lacked this quality; they were illiterate. Laypeople, male and female, formed the majority of society; the clerics were seen as the spiritual and educated elite who by their consecration were dedicated to the service of God. The antitheses clericus / laicus, litteratus / illitteratus were repeated throughout the Middle Ages but they became increasingly relative, as the example of Balduin's librarian shows. Despite the perception of contemporaries who still divided the educated world into two groups, illiterate laymen and literate clerics, laymen became more and more literate, and they developed different forms of literacy.

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