15.04.07, Bubalo, Pragmatic Literacy

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Denis Crnković

The Medieval Review 15.04.07

Bubalo, Đorđe. Pragmatic Literacy in Medieval Serbia. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 29. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. Pp. xxvi, 428. ISBN: 9782503549613 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Denis Crnković
Gustavus Adolphus College

With this volume Đorđe Bubalo, Associate Professor of History at the University of Belgrade, offers a comprehensive and unique study of the history, production, preservation and loss of practical documents on all levels of society throughout the medieval Serbian Middle Ages. An expanded version of his doctoral dissertation, the book presents an important discussion of the general populace’s positive attitudes toward literacy in what is overall a fine contribution to the growing corpus of works on the attitudes toward and importance of reading and writing in medieval Europe. The work is unique in the adding the often neglected regions of southeastern Europe to this field of inquiry, delving deeply into the political, confessional, mercantile and diplomatic relationships among Serbia, Byzantium and the nations of Western Europe. Relying on in-depth and thorough research into the types of texts and their use in Serbia in this era, Bubalo confirms the widespread use of documentation in everyday Serbian life at the time and shows that there was a nearly universal acceptance of the importance of written documentation.

The book includes an introduction written especially for this English edition which gives the newly interested reader a thorough and relatively balanced overview of Serbian history from the ninth to sixteenth century. The remainder of the volume consists of three sections ("Written Records in Medieval Serbia," "Agents of Literacy," and "Domains of the Use of the Written Word") divided into a total of twelve chapters. Each chapter in turn provides detailed examples of relevant documents and evidence of how these and similar documents were produced, used, preserved and referred to in the given social milieu. A number of helpful addenda are present: a list of abbreviations, an annotated listing of the thirty-eight illustrations, maps, a transliteration scheme, a list of pertinent rulers, a select but thorough bibliography, and a comprehensive index.

In his introduction Bubalo successfully argues that for the purposes of this study one must include within the cultural patrimony of the Serbian literary tradition all of those territories that were ruled by the Serbian crown at one time or another in the medieval era. Consequently, clear and necessary distinctions are made throughout the book among the linguistic, confessional and political sources of the documents under discussion. In Bubalo’s view, the most interesting characteristic of the medieval Serbian pragmatic literary world is that Serbian society understood in a very sophisticated way the necessity of recording important social and historical events both for practical use and for posterity.

In Part I, after listing the works he has consulted (virtually all types of written communications, from the high-style Lives of the princes to contracts and marginal notes), the author acknowledges that the paucity of extant primary sources, especially of daily private and commercial correspondence and other similar documents, presents a serious challenge to the researcher. This lack of direct sources requires a less quantitative and more qualitative approach to the major questions of how widespread and how accepted literacy was in medieval Serbia. Thus, he argues, the scholar needs to investigate to what extent literacy played a role in daily life from the evidence of both primary and non-primary sources. This is especially so since the latter indicate that there was a much greater number of original sources than actually survive. Secondary and even tertiary references to Serbian documents alluded to in documents found outside Serbia (including most notably Venice, Dubrovnik, Barcelona and Byzantium, among others) indicate the existence of a significant number of documents that have been lost over time. Moreover, references in these widespread written sources testify to the practical use of such documents and attest to the value placed on written communications on all levels of society. Given this need for reliance on non-primary and foreign sources, Bubalo undertakes what he calls a "synthetic" approach to his study, seeking to offer "an approximate, primarily qualitative, picture of the range and spread of pragmatic document literacy in Serbian medieval society" (37). He accomplishes this through a "depiction of the circle of necessarily literate person, linked to the composition and use of documents" (37). By juxtaposing and combining this synthetic approach with more analytical methods, he argues, one can adequately approach and resolve the problem of the lack of primary sources. This combined method avoids the pitfalls of relying solely on an analytical level which could easily lead to a simple listing of available sources. For the most part Bubalo avoids this acknowledged trap, although at times the text may seem like tedious reading given the many examples and references to copious documents. In this way, however, the author effectively supports his wider contention that there existed more documents than we currently have and that they were of grave importance for and held in great esteem by their owners and users. Bubalo’s method is ultimately successful in providing a broad picture of Serbian writing culture that takes into account the "phenomena and peculiarities specific to literate societies... [and] to the peculiarities of the Serbian state" (37).

In subsequent chapters the author takes the reader through a varied landscape of sophisticated documents written for the ecclesiastical, civil, mercantile and legal society that constituted medieval Serbia. A premier example of Bubalo’s synthetic approach to his theme is found in chapter nine, entitled "The Towns." As is the case throughout this work, the author provides numerous examples of how primary and non-primary sources indicate a widespread acceptance of the importance of letters for the smooth and just ordering of society. While he acknowledges that there is but sketchy primary physical evidence for the use of the written word in urban settings, he convincingly argues that there would have been at least a minimum core of literate clerks who produced and maintained these documents since the numerous outside references to property deeds, litigation and the like, show that town governments had active chanceries and registry offices. One of the more intriguing and convincing parts of this chapter describes the documentary practices connected with the mining business and the town settlements that grew up around them. Moreover, the section on trade between the coastal merchants--from Dubrovnik and to some extent Venice--and inland areas also reveals a rich documentary tradition. From this evidence Bubalo is able to conclude that both industry and trade had a great influence on the flourishing of literacy in medieval Serbia. Other chapters provide equally thorough information about the widespread and frequent use of documentation. It is not necessary here to go through them seriatim and risk falling into Bubalo’s trap of simple listing; it is clear from Bubalo’s exhaustive presentation that writing was indeed more widespread than the physical evidence provides for.

The author titles chapter fourteen "In Place of a Conclusion" even though he does offer a preliminary "stock taking" for his study: the significance and scope of the written word in the Serbian medieval practical and pragmatic literature was qualitatively greater than the number of extant documents indicates. In this chapter he reiterates the argument that, since it is difficult from primary sources alone to make a quantitative judgment on exactly how widespread literacy was in any given part of the population in terms of numbers or percentages, we can see the use of the written word and the preservation and use of documentation and documentary witnesses as indicative of widespread participation in the world of literacy. Thus, the author "concludes" that in general the public in Serbia were highly aware of the value of written testimony on many levels and that in many sectors of society the written word was valued not only for its legal use but also for its preservation of knowledge. The volume clearly shows that production and retention of documents was widespread and that the significance of the written word was understood in all sectors of mediaeval Serbian society.

The drawbacks of this volume are a few and none of them should discourage the interested scholar from reading it. Bubalo’s main thesis, that there was a widespread recognition of the value of literacy, is logically presented, but his apology for not providing any concrete conclusion seems unnecessary. However effectively he discusses the shortcomings of making conclusions in both quantitative and qualitative ways, and however humbly he presents his "non-conclusions" in this chapter, he nonetheless offers valuable insights based on his very thorough research. His synthetic approach to the question at hand is ultimately quite successful.

Charles Ward’s translation from the Serbian is generally accurate, if a bit awkward in some places. For example, the Serbian phrase do danas (on page 76 of the Serbian edition) is given in English as "until today," whereas a more accurate and less ambiguous reading would be "even today" (96). Similarly, on page 109 one reads "till the end of the Middle Ages, around 30 mines were opened in Serbia and Bosnia," where the introductory Serbian phrase do kraja srednjeg veka (88) would be better rendered as "by the end of the middle ages." There are also some infelicities in the prose style, notably the use of the English "of" + noun + "of" + noun construction and its variations. For example, on page 24 the phrase "the procedure of the authentication of personally written wills" too literally reflects the Serbian syntax, which relies on noun phrases in the genitive case (postupak autentifikacije svojerečnih testamenata, [163]). English, however, is more comfortable with a gerund followed by a direct object, i.e. "the procedure for authenticating personally written wills." Such lapses in translation and style are happily few. Indeed, the translation makes the work accessible to the broader, English-speaking audience and these drawbacks should not deter the reader from appreciating the overall value of Bubalo’s work, offering, as it does, valuable insights into the world of practical literacy in medieval Serbia to the broader scholarly community.

Bubalo’s book presents a much needed opportunity for traditional Western scholars to expand their knowledge of this dynamic region of the medieval world. All comprehensive collections of works on literacy in the Middle Ages will want to have this volume in their catalogues.

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Author Biography

Denis Crnković

Gustavus Adolphus College