Literacy and the Rise of Vernacular Literature

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Literacy and the Rise of Vernacular Literature


Limited Skill. Literacy, the ability to read and write, was a skill limited largely to clerical elites in Medieval Europe. These elites read and wrote Latin, the language of the church and the universities. The late medieval growth of cities and towns included a dramatic increase in the number of merchants, traders, and artisans. These towns-people maintained businesses that required the ability to write basic correspondence and maintain account books. By 1300 most European merchants were literate, and by 1500 many of their wives could also read and write. The growing numbers of functionally literate urbanites sought educational opportunities for their children as well. Townspeople broke the clerical monopoly on learning and created schools.

Schools. Italy, with four cities of populations about or more than one hundred thousand, led the way in education of urban boys and girls. Northern European schools served mainly to educate young boys for a career in the church. Similar schools existed in Italy, but Italian towns also had two other types of schools: Latin based “grammar” schools for boys from elite families, and arithmetic based “abacus” schools for the remainder of the boys. The “abacus” schools, named after the instrument for mathematical calculation, prepared boys for business with a curriculum of mathematics, accounting, and basic writing skills. The church and “grammar” schools taught students Latin, whereas abacus schools taught in the local dialects. Girls found their educational opportunities limited by gender as well as class. Girls were limited to elementary education unless the family hired private tutors or took an active role in home schooling. As a result, they were rarely taught Latin and had no access to the universities. Nonetheless, females constituted an active audience for the growing number of works published in the vernacular, or native spoken language of the region.

Writing for an Audience. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, authors across Europe began to write popular works in the vernacular. Dante (Durante Alighieri), Francesco Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, Christine de Pisan, François Villon, Geoffrey Chaucer, and a wave of others chose to bypass the language of the Church (Latin) and write works for a local audience. Latin was still necessary for authors seeking a European-wide audience of literate elites, but the vernacular provided a local audience of individuals more apt to share the sentiments of a regional storyteller. Vernacular authors drew on the twelfth- and thirteenth-century troubadour and courtly romance predecessors but also wrote for a broader, nonnoble audience. Vernacular literatures tended to include more romance and sensuality than the Latin literature of the period, while still maintaining the moral and ethical emphasis evident in the Latin literature.

Divine Comedy. Three Italian poets from Florence, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, turned their native Tuscan dialect into the standard Italian literary language. Dante's Divine Comedy (circa 1308-1321) is an allegorical trilogy that describes one man's journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Virgil, an antirepublican poet of Imperial Rome, guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory but is unable to proceed further because he is a pagan. Reason, represented by Virgil, can lead one only so far. Beatrice, the love of Dante's youth, leads Dante through Paradise. Dante's beloved Beatrice stands metaphorically for God's love. The poet utilized the logic of medieval theologians throughout the book. Hell is divided into levels, and the sinners are placed into a level that corresponds to the evilness of their sins. The work is a fine example of medieval scholasticism and its mathematical structure and reliance on reason and logic. The poem reflects many cultural issues such as the relationship between reason and faith, the tension between supporters of the emperor and those of the pope, and the psychological aspects of medieval religion. Dante offers poignant criticism of church authorities and a descriptive analysis of social and political problems within his profoundly Christian poem.

Father of Humanism. Petrarch's vernacular works are more secular than Dante's works. Petrarch's writings mark a clear shift from the medieval scholasticism evident in Dante to a new tradition known as Renaissance Humanism. Petrarch is known as the “Father of Humanism.” He and the humanists who followed him studied and imitated classical forms as they revived classical culture and promoted an educational program based on rhetoric and philology. Humanism, or the Studia Humanitatis, was a curriculum that focused not on the mathematical logic and reason of the scholastics, but rather on the study of Latin and Greek texts. Humanists studied grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and ethics, whereas the scholastics studied arithmetic, astronomy, music, geometry, rhetoric, grammar, and logic. Early humanists, such as Petrarch, were frequently poets or orators. They were not bound to Scholastic traditions of logical analysis of recognized authorities. Rather than provide mere commentaries on previously written works, humanists created original literature in both the classical and the vernacular languages. As a young man, Petrarch wrote stunning love poetry in a four-teen-line format that has come to be known as the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet. His popularity is evident in the name of the sonnet form and in the fact that in 1341 he was crowned “Poet Laureate” in Rome.

Influence of the Classics. Petrarch and other Italian urbanites of the fourteenth century shared a kindred spirit with the great urban cultures of classical Athens and Republican Rome. Merchants and urbanites, steeped in the daily administration of Florence's republican government, found the call to political activity of the classics more pertinent than the contemplative life of the scholastic theologians. Petrarch studied classical Latin and learned some Greek. He read the classics, imitated their style, and was so indebted to the ancient authors that he published a collection of “Letters to the Ancient Dead” in which he carried on a correspondence with Cicero, Seneca, Horace, and Virgil. His enthusiasm for the classics was contagious, and twenty years after Petrarch's 1374 death the Florentines invited a Byzantine scholar and diplomat named Manuel Chrysoloras to lecture in Florence. In the decades following his visit, a revival of Greek studies and literature in Italy profoundly influenced science, astronomy, and philosophy. Petrarch's legacy to Renaissance humanism includes his efforts to revive classical Greek learning, his support of stoic ideas of virtue as “greatness of soul,” his balance of the active and contemplative life, and his faith in human potential.

Decameron. Boccaccio, a countryman, friend, and student of Petrarch, assembled an encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology but never mastered Greek. His failings as a language student are largely forgotten because he was so successful at drawing on his interest in myths to tell a good story. He is best known for Decameron (1353), an innovative work full of lively and irreverent descriptions of Italians during the 1348-1351 plague. This collection of short stories recounts how seven women and three men fled Florence because of the plague. Their fear of the plague forced them to travel to remote villas in hopes of remaining healthy. On ten days of their adventure, each traveler told a short story to entertain the others. This situation amounts to one hundred short stories, filled with scatological humor and lively characters. Boccaccio's bawdy discussion of sex and his frank creation of ordinary and realistic characters distinguish Decameron from previous works. His characters are stock literary figures, but he shows none of the medieval contempt of the world evident in earlier works. Boccaccio's Decameron also differs from earlier works in the scope of his intended audience. The book was dedicated to a noblewoman, but the narrator opens by addressing an audience of bourgeois women: “Most gracious ladies.” Boccaccio's social commentary on sexual, economic, and religious misconduct was written to a lay audience of women and men who shared his sympathetic perspective of human behavior.

Female Readers. The new audience of urban women readers became avid readers of two types of vernacular literature: works of devotion and romance. This dichotomy reinforced the late-medieval misogynist notion that women were destined to inferior positions. The church offered two extreme models: the temptress Eve, who ended life in the Garden of Eden, and the Virgin Mary, who gave birth to Jesus. The romance tradition was largely condemned as a potential corrupter of women because it encouraged contemplation of unregulated love. The temp tress-virgin mother models of women evident in the devotional tradition found a new expression in the romance tradition when Jean de Meun revised the famous thirteenth-century Romance of the Rose. De Meun's fourteenth-century revision satirized human follies of the clergy and women. Moreover, he drew on a wide range of cultural beliefs (folklore, theology, and classical authors) to depict the vanity, depravity, and weakness of women.

Pisan. Of the many refutations of de Meun, Christine de Pisan's The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) stands out for its eloquence, its strong refutation of the medieval stereotypical woman, and the uniqueness of its author. Christine de Pisan was the daughter of an Italian physician and astronomer at the court of Charles V of France. She was educated at the French Court in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian literature. The death of her father and husband left her with limited resources and three small children. From 1389 until her death, Pisan supported herself by writing poems and books at the French Court. She wrote about love, religion, morality, and the role of women. The Book of the City of Ladies opens with the question of why so many male authors have depicted women so negatively. She maintains a dialogue with three celestial ladies: Reason, Prudence, and Justice. The solution is that women need to build a city of women where reason, prudence, and justice would protect women. This imaginary city was far away from the real settings of women's lives that she outlined in The Book of Three Virtues (1405), also called Treasures of the City of Ladies. The book describes three worlds of women: the court, the city, and the village. Unlike the early humanists, Pisan saw little reason to look for truth in the past. Pisan was an heir of the medieval world, yet she embraced a new set of attitudes.

Villon. This postmedieval mentality is evident in the realist poetry of another fifteenth-century French poet named François Villon. Duke Charles of Orleans organized a poetry contest in 1453 around the contradictory phrase, “I die of thirst beside the fountain.” The Duke himself wrote a traditional medieval poem centered on

the sufferings of love. Villon wrote a poem from prison that emphasized the physical sufferings of the downtrodden. Villon was speaking from personal experience. He had studied at the University of Paris, but his poor upbringing rendered him out of place in academe. Villon was a tavern brawler who killed a man in a 1455 fight. Banished from Paris, he spent the remainder of his life wandering the countryside with a band of thieves. He is best known for Grand Testament (circa 1461), a bawdy string of bequests that reveal much about the life of the wandering poor. Villon used medieval verse for his poems but wrote them in the vernacular of the downtrodden. His psychological depth and the obvious message of social rebellion distinguish him from the medieval tradition. His celebration of the human condition, faith in the beauty of life on earth, and reliance on individual experience distinguish him from medieval poets such as Dante in Italy and Chaucer in England.

Langland. Fourteenth-century English literature emerged from a medieval tradition vastly different from that of the French and Italian literatures. The high nobility in England spoke and wrote French, so the English language lacked the courtly literature tradition. Early English authors relied heavily on their continental predecessors. William Langland and Chaucer were profoundly influenced by Boccaccio. Both followed Boccaccio in offering cultural criticism of a broad cross-section of society while still telling a good tale. Langland provided the perspective of the common person in Piers Plowman (circa 1370). His peasant hero criticized worldly injustice, the pain of plagues and wars, and the general poverty of the peasants. Lang-land used traditional medieval allegorical figures and forms, such as the dream vision, to comment on the evils of society. Like the Bavarian knight Wolfram von Eschenbach, who wrote Parzival in the late twelfth century or early thirteenth century, Langland remained tolerant toward Muslims at a time when most authors condemned them. For instance, Dante placed Muhammad near Satan in the ninth circle of Hell. Langland, Boccaccio, and Chaucer all wrote for a broad audience of literate urbanites, but Langland's heavy reliance on symbolism and allegorical language is more consistent with Dante and the medieval tradition.

Canterbury Tales. Chaucer followed Boccaccio's tradition of telling realistic and bawdy tales that offered critical analysis of contemporary society. Modeled on Boccaccio's Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (circa 1375-1400) was supposed to consist of 120 stones told by several pilgrims making their way to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas a Becket. To pass the time, each pilgrim was to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two more on the return trip. When he died in 1400, Chaucer had completed only 22 of the tales, and therefore Canterbury Tales is an unfinished work. The storytelling device allows Chaucer to provide a wide range of perspectives and to address a rich panorama of the moral and social ills of fourteenth-century society. Chaucer's pilgrims share an ironic view of good and evil. Though pilgrims, and thus Christians, they are also materialistic, worldly, and sensual. Chaucer and Boccaccio both tell realistic tales in the vernacular, which offer clear social and cultural commentary. Both expected their audiences to share common values and ideas that included criticism of the Church and contemporary society.

Religion and Society. Criticisms of the Church and social conditions were common themes in vernacular literature across Europe. In Prague, the Bohemian intellectual Jan Hus had sought church reform. His followers merged the religious issues with a political critique of German control of Bohemia. Their success is evident in the unique fact that the first book published in Bohemia was not a religious text, such as the Bible, but rather a secular text. Literary German, on the other hand, is based on the dialect used by Martin Luther in his German translation of the Bible. Vernacular German had been used in the many local chanceries for centuries, but rather than standardize the chancery dialects, printers usually employed the dialect of the local chancery. No attempts were made to create a uniform written language in all of the chanceries until the rule of Emperor Maximilian I in the early sixteenth century. Shortly thereafter, the language of the chancery of the electorate of Saxony in Wittenberg became the model for Luther's German Bible and thereby became the standard for vernacular German known as High German.


William Anderson, Dante the Maker (London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980).

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, ed., The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan: New Translations, Criticism, translated by Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee (New York: Norton, 1997).

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, translated by Guido Waldman, edited by Jonathan Usher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Nevill Coghill, trans., The Canterbury Tales (Baltimore: Penguin, 1977).

Robert Allan Houston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe: Culture and Education, 1500-1800 (London & New York: Longman, 1988).

Robin Kirkpatrick, Dante: The Divine Comedy (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Sarah Lawson, trans., Treasures of the City of Ladies (Baltimore: Penguin, 1985).

Earl Jeffrey Richards, ed., Reinterpreting Christine de Pisan (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992).

François Villon, Complete Poems, edited and translated by Barbara N. Sar-gent-Baur (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994).

Charity Cannon Willard, Christine de Pisan: Her Life and Works (New York: Persea, 1984).