Literacy and Numeracy

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Mr Dreadful
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Literacy and Numeracy

Post by Mr Dreadful »

How widespread were literacy and numeracy in the Middle Ages?

Like many people I was taught as a child that only Clergy and Nobility could read, write and count (and the latter only barely) but surely the average bloke on the street would at least be able to spell his name, count up to twenty (fingers and toes!), etc.?
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Post by Malvoisin »

I should imagine that most people knew there wieghts and measures, you would have to or you get ripped off at market all the time. Also tallies would be the simplest way to count.

Remember Oxford uni was established inthe 12thC and Cambridge in the early 13ThC. And Paris had been a centre of learning for the whole of europe for a while before that.

Nobility where probably never educated (in the early middle ages) as much because they had clerks (secular and church) to do all the clever stuff for them.
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Post by Brother Ranulf »

Speaking for the 12th century at least, education depended entirely on your social class.

For the bulk of the poulation, Parish priests often provided a very rudimentary education for the children - teaching them how to count, how to write their own name perhaps, but not much more. The main element would come from parents and that would be everything to do with raising crops, farming generally, perhaps a trade if the father had such a skill, with cooking and needlework for girls.

If you happened to be in the middle or upper class, then far more opportuntites were available, including schools in Paris or elsewhere on the Continent. Alexander Neckham, journeying to school in Paris around 1178, was accompanied for at least some of the journey by a Scot (but he says very little about him). As has been mentioned Church-run universities were starting up, aimed at producing monastics, priests, scribes and so on - but by no means everyone who got such an education remained in the Church.

Merchants would certainly need a fair degree of education and knowledge, dealing as they did with foreign trade, keeping accounts and so on.

Education at this level was available for much longer than is usual today - Gerald of Wales stayed in Paris in the 1160s and 1170s when he was well into his thirties.

The youth of the nobility certainly had these opportunities, but in many cases they chose not to follow them up, being schooled in the arts of war as a squire instead.
Last edited by Brother Ranulf on Fri Nov 16, 2007 5:15 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Post by Phil the Grips »

You'd have to be educated to some level if you wanted to write it all down for accurate record keeping but there are dozens of "folk" methods for counting that exist such as you can still see with Cumbrian shepherds, and methods using the various knuckles of the hands to keep track and I once worked with a pikey (his own description) who was illiterate but had some counting system I could never fathom that was always spot on when we checked with tape measures and bits of jotting down.

Imperial measurements were also designed to be "practical" rather than for doing sums and abstract "science". For example, a bushel is as much as you can hold in your arms, most measurements can relate to body parts (I used that method in a timber yard for approximations and could do from 1" to 6' with reasonable accuracy), an acre is as much as you can plough in a day and so on.
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Post by Grymm »

Yan, tan, tether, mether, pip ,azer, sazer, acker, conter, dick,yanadick, tanadick, tetheradick, metheradick, BUMFIT(my favourite) yanabum tanabum tetherabum metherabum JIGGET, pick up stone start again.
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Post by Mr Dreadful »

Grymm wrote:BUMFIT(my favourite)
Tetheradick is rather amusing as well.
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Post by Grymm »

Sounds like summat that goes on at Torture Garden.
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Post by Neil of Ormsheim »

Everyone should be able to count to 144 on their fingers (unless they are polydactyl or have had a diget removing accident).

Hold your left hand out in front of you, use your thumb to count up to three up the joints of your index finger, then up to six on the joints of your middle finger. By the time you get to the third joint of your little finger you are at 12.

Use the thumb of your right hand to count the first group of 12 on the first joint of the index finger of the right hand. By tallying each group of 12 counted on the joints of the LEFT hand by using the joints of the RIGHT hand you can count up to 144 without having to take off your shoes and socks.

This is one of the reasons that the traditional counting systems in the UK (e.g. 12 pennies in a shilling) were based on the number 12 and its multiples.
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Post by Phil the Grips »

Then there are tally sticks- one notch per unit and I remember seeing Miners using folding rulers, though this is more C19/20th. They never used the numbers but used the different sections as one "unit" so a tunnel would be described as "two open and one shut" ( ie twice the lenght of the ruler fully opened and one fully folded)etc- as long as everyone bought their rulers at the same shop it was OK :)

You can see where folk with slightly longer forearms having been building sections of old buildings ( especially at Hadrian's Wall) and met with another team with shorter arms as their "cubit" varies by a few inches and the difference has to be fudged.
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Post by Brother Ranulf »

We seem to have wandered into measurements slightly, but it's all linked I guess.

If you were pushing a plough you would be an adult male (it's a tough job even for an adult) - a youngster would act as "ox-goad" to coax the team along. He would have a very long stick, termed a "rod", "pole" or "perch" depending on which part of the country you are in. This would also be used to measure the furrow-length (furlong) and the actual distance must have varied considerably. No wonder Domesday book has so many different regional land units.
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Post by Laffin Jon Terris »

Neil of Ormsheim wrote:Everyone should be able to count to 144 on their fingers (unless they are polydactyl or have had a diget removing accident).
By using binary you can count up to 1,023 on just ten fingers, my dad taught me that one years ago it was great at school!

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Post by m300572 »

If you were pushing a plough you would be an adult male (it's a tough job even for an adult)
Its a darned sight easier if you get an ox team to pull it for you :lol: I have only ever ploughed with an ard and a two cow team - once you get the hang of it its not too bad as long as you have the muscle and stamina - both of which have sadly gone long since- but you still end up knackered at the end of the day.!
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Post by Eric the well read »

Grymm wrote:Yan, tan, tether, mether, pip ,azer, sazer, acker, conter, dick,yanadick, tanadick, tetheradick, metheradick, BUMFIT(my favourite) yanabum tanabum tetherabum metherabum JIGGET, pick up stone start again.
Actually, most shepherds put in an extra nomenclature of "Hello Darling" somewhere in that list. :wink:

I'm also told that, as counting sheep sends you to sleep,
so there is an action list that goes along with it. at about 'pip' you trap your hand in the gate,at 'sazer', you poke yourself in the eye with your right forefinger and so on.........by 'jigget', you have a mole trap on your groin.
This tends to keep you awake. The effect of all these actions seem to be the origins of Morris dancing.

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Post by gregory23b »

It depends on the part of the middle ages, and who you were.

Documents exist that were written by people, lower gentry like the Pastons could read and write, they had to as they were lawyers - the men at least, the women of that family could also read. They employed people, lower in status than them who could read and write, Richard Calle to name but one.

Apprentice indentures often mention being taught letters as part of their contract of learning, makes sense, as Phil says, if you are in a job where literacy is needed, then you will learn to read. My guess is the guildsmen, freemen etc were pretty much literate in the modern sense, ie read and write English, but often illiterate in the medieval sense, ie not schooled in latin or greek.
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Post by Cat »

The version I heard starts
Yan tan tethera methera pimp...hmmm!

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Post by Grymm »

There are loads of variations different dales in yorkshire use slightly different ones to each other and more turn up in Cumbria, Sussex in fact any area that used to have large amounts of sheep.

Yan tan tethera, tethera pethera pimp
Fifty notches up to now, and one yow with a limp
Sethera methera hovera, and covera up to dick

Keswick Westmorland Eskdale Millom High Furness Wasdale Teesdale Swaledale Wensleydale Ayrshire
1 yan yan yaena aina yan yan yan yahn yan yinty
2 tyan tyan taena peina taen taen tean tayhn tean tinty
3 tethera tetherie teddera para tedderte tudder tetherma tether tither tetheri
4 methera peddera meddera pedera medderte anudder metherma mether mither metheri
5 pimp gip pimp pimp pimp nimph pip mimp(h) pip bamf
6 sethera teezie hofa ithy haata - lezar hith-her teaser leetera
7 lethera mithy lofa mithy slaata - azar lith-her leaser seetera
8 hovera katra seckera owera lowera - catrah anver catra over
9 dovera hornie leckera lowera dowa - horna danver horna dover
10 dick dick dec dig dick - dick dic dick dik
15 bumfit bumfit bumfit bumfit mimph - bumfit mimphit bumper -
20 giggot - - - - - - - - -

Then there's Welsh
Un, Dou, Tri, Pedwar, Pimp... Ancient welsh counting was based on units of 20 like the above but these days it's units tens hundred etc
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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

Given the way printing took off in the 1470's I'd guess that there was enough people reading to make the translation, publication and selling of books worth while. That handy Venetain invention that was being sold by German, Italain and Flemish mercahants up and down the British Isles called the spectacle becomeing widespead at the same time.
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Post by Phil the Grips »

Yup- then widespread reading came after that with the egalitarian nature of Protestantism and its various forms (*Marcus crosses himself* :)) as it encouraged personal reading of the Bible, rather than having it read to you by "authorised" sources, ie the priesthood, and more copies were around to be read due to printing.
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Post by gregory23b »

Pah! all printing did was to increase the volume of output and speed thereof, there was already a large market for secular works, albeit manuscript. I have just bought a 2nd hand copy of the pastons, by Davis, and I noted with some geeky 'joy' that John Paston and I have/had the same book, he had a copy of the Policy of Inglish Libel, a widely read book, and in manuscript, although I would rather his original copy rather than my transcribed early 20thc version, but hey ho.

Also by printing, we are generally referring to the moveable type, until then and also some transitional works were block books/sheets, whole tracts of text cut from the wood, no change, no melting down, a right pain in the fundament, but it did mean multiple copies. The V and A has a 1460 Paupers/ Bible, all block book, nice.
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Post by guthrie »

I've been reading about travellers around Europe, and unsurprisngly the ones we know most about are the ones that wrote about their travels. So from my poor memory, it seems to me that by the late 14th century a surprisngly large percentage of the populace (Still probably only a few percent, but encompassing nobility, merchants and master craftsmen types) could read and write. Of course by this stage the churches monopoly on reading and writing had long gone, in fact was on the way out in the 1200's.

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Post by Colin Middleton »

I've been reading a book called The Medieval Village, which is mainly concentrating on the 13th & early 14th C. The authors comment that documents & records are scarce from the early 13th C, but become increasing common and on varies subjects as we go through the 13th C, presumably accompanied by growing litteracy. They go on to describe various duties within the village and the Reeve was responsable for assembling the accounts to present to the steward (who represented the lord). This means that the Reeve could read, write and count, yet the Reeve was elected from amongst the villagers! Reading and writing, upto a reasonable level must have been much more prevelant than we normally think.

Also, assuming that the tradesman is using a counting board (and who wouldn't until mental arithmetic appears), you only need to be able to count to 5 (or 10 in some versions) to follow what is going on and ensure that you're not short changed.
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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

I think that the tendency for "wise men/women" and their like to come in for ridicule or slander as the middle ages progressed was as a result of more people attending "school" or university and becoming scornful of those "backwoods" types who were not able to support their knowledge being refering to degrees. The village priest was another source of learning, one of the reasons why the Lollards were able to convert so many to their cause was the lack of suitable candidates for the priesthood following the Black Death. Henry V made a concerted effort as did Henry VI and Edward IV to improve the literacy and numeracy of the priesthood and then require them to set up basic village schools. Of course this was to be of benifit to the economy and their own prestige but it was also for staunchly orthodox Catholic reasons, namely to counter heresy. Edward IV expected priests to be fully literate, ie in both Latin and the vernacular tongue rather than just in the vernacular.
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Post by ada-anne »

There is a link between upper-class women becoming more educated and the development of Books of Hours - as more women could read, things came into being for them to read, and it was desirable to be able to read in order to follow the Hours and show your piety and virtue. St Anne (mother of the Virgin) is normally shown teaching Mary to read, and you don't get those pictures until learning to read is something normal for girls. I think it's around the 13th century, but not sure.

In terms of education generally, it's about learning to do the things you will need in adult life. Nowadays we take it for granted that everyone needs to be able to read and write and do maths to earn a living. But for a girl in the middle ages the important things were about running a household, at whatever level, whether it's how to make one rabbit feed twelve or how to plan a month's catering when the king comes to visit. They would have as much literacy and numeracy as they needed, but only those at the top of society would have leisure to do more.

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