15.01.02, Mostert and Adamska, Uses of the Written Word in Medieval Towns

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David Bachrach

The Medieval Review 15.01.02

Mostert, Marco, and Anna Adamska. Uses of the Written Word in Medieval Towns: Medieval Urban Literacy, volumes I and II. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 27 and 28. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. Pp. xv, 365 and xx, 453. ISBN: 9782503549590 and 9782503549606 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David Bachrach
University of New Hampshire

Following the publication of the pioneering works of scholars including Michael Clancy's From Memory to Written Record (1979), Brian Stock's The Implications of Literacy (1983), and Rosamond McKitterick's The Carolingians and the Written Word (1989), the role of writing both in recording and shaping human memory, and in the creation of new "literate" mentalities has received enormous attention from specialists in medieval history and literature. Much of the scholarship in this area has focused on the use of writing in institutional contexts, including the important role that written records played in the administration of churches and secular governments. Another important focus has been on the role of writing and literacy in education, particularly monastic education. Urban centers also have received considerable attention with regard to the use of writing, although scholarship in this area usually has been concerned with the types of documents that were produced, and with the institutions that produced documents. By contrast, the mentality of those engaged in writing in urban centers has benefitted from far less research. The two volumes of essays considered in this review represent a substantial effort to help fill this particular lacuna in the scholarly treatment of secular literacy in urban centers.

These two volumes edited by Marco Mostert and Anna Adamska, comprising thirty-two essays, were the fruits of a research project on "Medieval Urban Literacy," which was sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and the Free University of Brussels. In their introduction to the first volume, Mostert and Adamska assiduously avoid the vexed issue of the definition of an urban center. Rather, they emphasize that the use of writing, and a wide penumbra of cultural affects associated with the written word, generally can be associated with larger and denser agglomerations of human habitation. As suggested by the titles of the two volumes, the focus of the research project was specifically on the use of writing by laypeople and the ways in which scholars can trace out the relationship between the use of the written word and the development of "written mentalities," which the authors identify as an increased readiness by individuals to engage in written culture and concomitant changes in their perceptions of memory and associated issues relating to the preservation of knowledge for both familial and public purposes.

In their introduction to the first volume, Moster and Adamska also emphasize that essays comprising this project cover a very broad geographical area stretching from Iberia in the west to Hungary and Poland in the east, and from Scandinavia in the north to Italy in the south. Indeed, the inclusion of essays that focus on regions that traditionally have been treated as peripheral in medieval scholarship is a great strength of the collection. Missing, however, are essays that treat urban literacy in most of what has been understood by scholars as the core regions of Europe, particularly in the cities of Roman origin in lands of the erstwhile Regnum Francorum, with the limited exception of Paris and Milan. The lack of comparative studies between "old" and "new" urban centers may well leave readers wondering whether the broader phenomena traced out in these volumes might be revised in light of the investigation of lay literacy in cities such as Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Tours, Angers, Toulouse, or, indeed, Rome.

The broad geographical scope of the two volumes is matched by an effort to provide a long chronological overview of urban literacy. The editors observe that they did not set any specific chronological boundaries for the essays included within the collection, and that they were not bound by traditional periodizations. Rather, they observe that literacy and the use of writing developed differentially across Europe, and the traditional boundaries between late medieval and early modern cannot be applied willy nilly in every context. However, as Mostert argues in the concluding essay of volume one, there is an observable pattern in much of Europe whereby it is possible to see developments in the use of writing by laypeople in urban settings in the twelfth century that set the stage for an increasingly rapid diffusion of writing and literacy from the thirteenth through the fifteenth century.

The first volume of the collection, Writing and the Administration of Medieval Towns, has as its theme literacy and the uses of writing in municipal administration. The fourteen essays in this volume are organized in three parts: 1. Varieties of Administrative Urban Literacy; 2. Urban Archives: Places of Power, Memory, and Secrets; and 3. Litterati in Town: Notaries, Schoolmasters, and Schoolboys. The essays in the first section focus on technical aspects of record storage and retrieval as well as the physical sites of record keeping. These questions lead scholars also into an investigation of the practitioners of writing, and the roles that they played in urban government. Particularly striking in this context is the essay by Inger Larsson that shows runes, alongside Latin documents written the Roman alphabet, played an important role in urban record keeping in Swedish towns throughout much of the later medieval period.

The essays in the second section treat the relationship between writing that was the province of governmental officials, and writing that took place in more private spheres. Important questions treated here include the effort of individuals to ensure that their personal records were consistent with and were validated by public officials, the political uses of public documents, and the problem of maintaining secrecy in urban communities where memory was preserved in written form. With regard to this latter question, in his investigation of the practices of authorities in Swiss towns, Michael Jucker observes that secrets often were written down, which confounds that traditional scholarly view that writing was intended to preserve a public memory, while secrets were consigned to the realm of orality. Christoph Friedrich Weber similarly finds that secret information was written down in medieval Italian communes, with the concomitant expectation that access to this knowledge would be reserved for a privileged few.

The essays in the third section treat the introduction of professional notaries in urban centers in central Europe, and the relationship between the expansion of schools in urban centers and the proliferation of literate mentalities. In their studies of urban notaries in Dalmatia and Transylvania, respectively, Branka Grbavac and Ágnes Flóra observe that urban centers in these regions followed broader European patterns, as public notaries gradually increased their competencies from serving as mere writing technicians to become all-purpose government officials with responsibilities as jurists and even as ambassadors.

The second volume, which is titled Uses of the Written Word in Medieval Towns, transitions from a focus on professional writers to non-professional writers in urban contexts. In their introduction to the second volume, Mostert and Adamska emphasize the wide variety of types of literacy in urban settings, including literacy in a range of alphabetical and non-alphabetical writing systems, such as runes. They also observe that the lack of technical skills in either writing or reading was not a barrier to participation in literate culture. The eighteen essays in this volume are organized in four parts: 1. Alphabets and Languages: Multi-Ethnic and Multilingual Urban Literacy; 2. Making Books and Telling Stories: Book Production and Urban Historiography; 3. Individuals Resorting to Writing: Memoria and Business; 4. Reading, Seeing, Hearing: The Place of Writing in the System of Urban Communication. Essays in the first section treat the relationships among inhabitants of urban centers who not only spoke different languages, but also used different writing systems. The authors found that minorities, whatever their language background, frequently had to accommodate themselves to the dominant literate culture in the urban community. However, the distinction among languages frequently was not political in nature, but rather cultural and social. Thus, for example, as Anti Selart observes, native German speakers communicated orally with their neighbors in Slavic languages, but both native Slavic speakers and German speakers wrote in German. Consequently, being literate meant that functionally one became a German. However, in periods of great political tension, language could have political overtones, as Adamska observes with respect to the abrupt switch from the use of German to Latin by the aldermen at Cracow in 1312.

The essays in the second section consider the implications of substantial book production within urban centers for literacy of the populations living there. In the longest essay in this section, Eltjo Buringh introduces a method of statistical analysis that is intended to model the loss of book manuscripts that were produced over the medieval period, and thereby to track both the loci and rate of book production over the course of the medieval period. He concludes that book production generally shifts from monasteries to cities after c. 1200. The essays by Michele Campopiano and Iva Kurelac treat the issue of urban historiography, respectively, in northern Italy and Croatia, and the role that increasing lay literacy played in the desire to commemorate a useful communal past.

The essays in the third section investigate the penetration of writing into the private sphere and the gradual replacement of oral with written traditions. Thus, Mária Lupescu Makó observes the increasing use of documentation for recording the last wills of urban dwellers in Transylvania. Jakub Mysmulek provides a valuable comparison in his survey of the scholarship dealing with this same phenomenon in Polish urban centers. Focusing on a related theme, Karin Czaja discusses the ways in which private family record keeping in Nuremberg represents conscious decisions by individuals and families to remember and to "forget" the past.

The essays in the final section consider the role of writing in public urban rituals and ceremonies. In his investigation of Hungarian cities, Dusan Zupka concludes that writing was one of several forms of mutually reinforcing modes of communication that served to present the interests of urban dwellers vis-à-vis the king and other powerful interests with whom cities had to negotiate. By contrast, Andreas Zajic found that inscriptions in public spaces in late medieval Austrian towns represented the interests of local nobles rather than the powerful interests within the towns, themselves.

Each of the individual essays in the two volumes is equipped with an apparatus of notes that provide full citations to the relevant sources and scholarship. Each of the two volumes is equipped with an index of names and terms for the essays within the individual volumes. Volume one has six maps, and volume two has nine, and these provide a valuable orientation for readers who are not familiar with the regions treated in the essays. Mostert and Adamska also provide something of a general conclusion at the end of volume two in which they lay out possible lines of future research that can build upon the information developed by the collection of essays they edited.

The effort by the editors to recruit scholars to treat lay urban written culture in the period from c. 1200 onward certainly gave cohesion to the collection. However, in thinking about lay urban literacy more broadly, it may be beneficial to ask questions over a longer chronological scope. The editors of the volume give great weight to the idea that the late twelfth century marked a watershed in both the volume and variety of urban literacy. This may well be true as compared with the tenth century, although such a contention requires demonstration rather than simple assertion. However, it almost certainly is not true with regard to the fourth century. The exceptionally important collection of essays edited by Warren Brown, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes, and Adam Kosto in Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2013) makes clear that many of the questions raised by scholars with regard to the later middle ages also were pertinent in the late Roman Empire and in its various successor states in the Latin West. A comparison of the ways that secular communities in urban settings arranged their affairs in writing in the fourth and fourteenth centuries certainly would provide important insights to scholars. Similarly, the image of the transition from orality to writing for the purposes of storing and utilizing memory in the "peripheral" regions of Europe in the later Middle Ages might well benefit from an examination of the ways in which secular people living within the urbes and suburbes of Romanized Europe solved these problems, drawing upon late Roman practices.

These suggestions should not be understood as criticisms, but rather as encouragement for further research and reflection. Indeed, these two volumes represent a remarkable achievement, offering readers a sense of the state of the question regarding important aspects of urban literacy across a vast swath of Europe over a period of three centuries. These essays will be particularly helpful to specialists in medieval history who do not otherwise have access to scholarship in Dutch, Hungarian, and Polish, as well as the Scandinavian languages.

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David Bachrach

University of New Hampshire