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Literacy and Education of the Later Medieval Italian Laity
By Aelfgifu, 26 September 2007; Revised
Category: Medieval Europe
There is no doubt that in Italy in the later Middle Ages there existed a large class of educated professionals, with a good knowledge of Latin.But there is still much controversy about the exact level of education and literacy amongst the laity in this period. Thompson, in his Literacy of the Laity (1963), discusses the subject for the eleventh century, but can draw no further conclusion than the following: it cannot be proven that all or most of the non-professional lay nobility received some form of education, or that this was normal for them. Nor can it be proven that it was remarkable for them to get an education. The presence of a large professional laity is an indication that education was available, and therefore it seems plausible that it was not entirely uncommon for the lay nobility of the eleventh century to receive some education in the liberal arts. 
But from the twelfth century onwards, we know a great deal more about the literacy of the laity. Literacy, in any form, always has education as its basis. Therefore I will first be looking at education in Italy in the later Middle Ages. Then I will proceed to the next step: what was literacy used for in the late medieval society? I will discuss this by looking at the changes in the library, the literacy amongst the merchant class, and the emergence of the humanist movement.
Unlike in the rest of Europe, lay education in Italy seems never to have completely disappeared after the decline of the Roman Empire. Laymen able to read and write occur all through Italian history. One of the earliest appearances of a teacher dates from 941-958, in a document from the town of Novarra, near Milan. From this time onwards, the number of teachers mentioned steadily increases. By the twelfth century even small towns and villages in Tuscany seem to have had a teacher.  In 1270 e.g., the town council of Verona, the Commune, hired a grammarian for twenty-five pounds and the use of a house. But the first large scale numbers we have date from the late thirteenth century. In 1288, a schoolmaster in Milan, Bonvicinus de Ripa, estimated that there where at least seventy ‘teachers of beginning letters’ and a further eight ‘professors of grammar’. Giovanni Villani, the Florentine chronicler, states that in 1339 in Florence, eight to ten thousand boys received elementary education. On a total of about 90.000 inhabitants, this would mean that 10% of the population was receiving some education at any given time. Villani further states that one fourth of the boys would go on to one of six abacco schools in the city to learn commercial mathematics, and a further 550 to 600 of the pupils would receive further education at one of four grammar schools in Florence.
Three school types can be distinguished. First there were the church schools. There were both monastic schools and the cathedral or chapter schools. These church schools suffered a drastic decline during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Especially monastic schools disappeared rapidly, perhaps because of monastic reforms which opposed the teaching of lay children, as this was not considered the task of monks. Cathedral schools also declined, perhaps because of the increasing availability of education elsewhere.
Secondly, there were independent teachers. These independent teachers did not only include private tutors hired by a family or teachers teaching any pupils willing to pay his fees from his home, but also groups of teachers setting up (boarding)schools, or teachers hired by a group of families for their children. One such contract is known from the village of Cles, near Trent. Six fathers hired a teacher in 1373 to found an independent school. They paid him about 18 mark (180 lire) per annum to teach eighteen children of their households. In addition to these eighteen pupils, the teacher could teach as many other pupils as he liked. He was allowed to ask them a 1 mark (10 lire) fee. He could keep the full fee for the first additional 10 pupils, bringing the total number to 28. But if he took on any additional pupils, two-thirds of the fee would go to the six fathers. They thus ensured that the group of pupils would not become so large as to endanger the quality of education for their kinsmen. In larger towns, where independent teachers were more common, the arrangements were usually simpler.
Thirdly, there were the Commune schools. This is perhaps the most remarkable school type, because it was a new concept. Until these schools were set up, teaching had been a private matter between teacher and pupil. But now, the Communes started to involve themselves with education. An example of a communal school comes from Chioggia in 1386. A master is hired by the Commune of Chioggia. He receives a salary of sixty gold ducats and a house free of rent. Even though the Communes of the Italian towns realized that education for more people would be beneficial to the Commune, they saw no reason for it to be free. So in addition to his salary, the teacher was allowed to charge the following fees per annum: for beginners, learning to read and write, forty soldi; for pupils beginning to learn Latin and grammar, one ducat; for those who were more advanced in Latin, six lire; and the most advanced pupils, who were studying texts by e.g. Virgil and Boethius, two ducats per annum. One master could teach about thirty pupils, most of them beginners. The income of a teacher therefore would be somewhere between 75 and 100 ducats per annum. This is a good income, but not extraordinary: it is about four times as much as a labourer’s, but less than an artisan’s. 
Communal teachers occurred mainly in small provincial towns, and less in great cities such as Florence, Milan and Venice. An explanation for this can be that the smaller cities were too small to sustain independent teachers, while its inhabitants were overall not rich enough to hire private tutors. The hiring of a teacher by the Commune was often the only way to guarantee an education for the town’s children. A mentioned above, the communal schools even when paid for by the Commune where seldom free. The teacher was allowed to ask additional fees for his services, though occasionally the Commune seems to have supported a few poor but promising pupils by exempting them from payment to the teacher, or perhaps by paying for them. As mentioned by Villani, there were also communal abacco schools. Here boys learned the mathematical skills so important to a merchant culture, like how to work with double entry books and how to use the abacus (hence abacco).
Two of the largest centres of learning in Florence were the mendicant convents: the Franciscan convent of S. Croce and the Dominican convent of S. Maria Novella. Both where so-called Studia Generalia, places of secondary education for members of these orders. Theology was the main subject in the schools, and the main emphasis of the book collections in the libraries, especially in S. Croce. Here, only after the thirteenth century was the library expanded to include more classical works. Though the schools of these convents were chiefly intended for members of their own order, it is likely they also admitted lay students. The poet Dante, in his Convivio, claims to have been ‘in the schools of the religious’.
But the most important schools were the universities. Universities are exclusively a product of the later Middle Ages. In earlier times, they simply did not exist. The emergence of universities is perhaps the most convincing proof of the increase of education in Europe: only when there are enough masters, teachers and potential students will a university emerge. In the twelfth century there was an important change in scholarly teaching. It was no longer purely encyclopaedic, but became more organized and aimed at practical use. Thus learning was no longer a matter of learning as much as possible, but became dependant on a choice of what to learn. Universities split into faculties, each with its own speciality. The university of Paris became the most important place for the study of theology, but in Italy, where theology was only practised on a small scale, the main subjects where medicine and law. In Siena there seems to have been a university as early as 1240. Arezzo was an important centre of learning for the law, and from the early thirteenth century onwards the curriculum included grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, medicine and ars notarie. But the most important university in Italy was beyond doubt Bologna.
In 1890, the founding date for the University of Bologna was decided to have been 890, and consequently its 1000th birthday was duly celebrated. Though this date was doubtless chosen for purely nationalistic reasons in the fragile new state of Italy, Bologna is certainly one of the oldest if not the oldest university in Europe. There was a school of law from a very early date onwards, but its fame dates from the twelfth century. Somewhere around 1140-1150 a master Gratian made a compilation of texts on canon law called the Decretum Gratiani. This became the basis for the later Corpis juris canonici, the first authority on church law. At about the same time a master Guarnerius did much the same for civil law. He made a start on a new glossed version of the Corpus juris civilis, the book on Roman law which was written by order of Justinian, emperor of the Eastern Roman empire in the tenth century. Guarnerius drew on the Bible, Aristotle, Boethius and the anonymous glosses already made on the work by other medieval scholars. In time, he and his successors glossed the whole work, which subsequentially became the standard work for the study of civil law.
Bologna’s main focus always remained the law, supplemented by the liberal arts. The university never taught theology and only introduced medicine at the end of the thirteenth century. The liberal arts were taught, as they were considered preparatory for the study of law. The main focus of these studies was on grammar and rhetoric. There also developed a new type of study, which seems to have been purely Italian at least at first: the so-called ars dictaminis. This is the art of written rhetoric, i.e. the art of writing eloquently. This is a very useful art for drawing up charters and letters etc.
Bologna did not develop from a cathedral school as many other universities did; it was a fully secular institution. As a result of this, the teachers and officials of the university were not subject to canon law, which was much more lenient than civil law. This inconvenience was solved by Frederick I Barbarossa, who gave imperial protection to all travelling to and from Italy for study, perhaps as a reward for the support the Bologna scholars gave him in his claim for imperial power.
The normal form of teaching in the middle ages was the lecture. The teacher would read aloud a section from the text and then explain it in detail to the class. In 1250, a master Petrus Peregrossi wrote down exactly how he would go about teaching the law to his students. He declares that: “First I will give you summaries of each title before I proceed to the text; second, I shall give you as clear and explicit a statement as I can of the purport of each law (included in the title); third, I shall read the text with a view to correcting it; fourth, I shall briefly repeat the contents of the law; fifth, I shall solve apparent contradictions, adding any general principles of law … and any distinctions or subtle or useful problems arising out of the law with their solutions - as far as the Divine Providence shall enable me."
As writing became more common, and writing materials more affordable, it became normal for students to have access to a copy of their own. The university employed a Stationarus, who was responsible for making sure there were enough books. Books were rented out by the university for fairly reasonable prizes, but often a high security had to be given. Students were not allowed to take the books out of town, and had to turn them back in before travelling. Until 1334, all books were considered to be the property of the university and could only be rented out. After 1334 the students could also buy the books.
To make this system easier, in time it became possible to buy or rent parts of a book. These parts were called peciae, or in Italian, pezze. By university rule each pezza had to be 16 columns of text, 62 lines per column, and 32 letters per line. Thus a fixed price per pezza could be established. After 1334, it was the Stationarius who became responsible for the copying and sale of books. He was under strict supervision of the university. The university stipulated the prices, and issued fines if mistakes where discovered in copies. Anyone who found an error in his copy was under obligation to report it. The finder would receive a quarter of the fine. Rich students could buy their own books from these professional scribes, but poor students often copied their books themselves. Copying books was also a way to earn some money for students.
The rules for teaching were also very strict. Heavy fines where imposed for relatively small offences. In the early fourteenth-century Statutes of the University, it is stated that each year the rectors were required to pick out a number of students, both Italian and foreign, who had to denounce under oath any teacher who failed to meet with the lecture schedule, or had been late for class, or had in any other way failed to do his duty. The fine for being late in class was nine solidi; the fine the rectors had to pay when they failed to oversee this commission was twenty solidi. The Statutes even state that teachers are not allowed to travel too far from the city of Bologna, lest they miss a class.
The earliest libraries in Italy were of course the civil libraries of the Roman Age. Most of these declined in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, so that not a single one survived into the later Middle Ages. The new monastic and church libraries that emerged were not successors but a new and independent movement in the Middle Ages. Christianity and in particular the institution of the Church has a distrust of learning for its own sake and the new emerging libraries main focus were spiritual works. These were hardly ever accessible for outsiders. It is true that all classical works we have left have survived by virtue of these libraries, but often as not this was through accident and disinterest as through intention. It was not until the Carolingian Renaissance in the ninth century that a conscious effort was made to preserve and spread out the knowledge these libraries held. This however was a relatively short revival, and in the centuries after it, the number of books steeply declined again, to reach an ultimate low in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In Italy, this depression lasted well into the thirteenth century. Especially in the centre of Italy, including Rome, the classical influence was low. In the south it was a little better, due to the Greek and Arabic influences. But the strongest survival of the Roman tradition was to be found in the Lombard north. One of the causes of the low level of book production in Italy was the investiture controversy between pope and emperor. This struggle for papal power meant that most popes in this period tended to be of the political type/
In the Lombard north of Italy, libraries fared better than in the centre. One notable library was that of the monastery in Bobbio because it is here that a large number of the classical works we still have today have survived. It must have been extremely large for its time as a, presumably ninth or tenth century, catalogue states 666 volumes. Another important library is the cathedral library of Verona, which still exists today. The remarkable thing here is not the number of books, though there are plenty, but their age. No less than 26 codices have been in the library since the eighth century. Twenty-nine codices have been written before 800; twenty-eight were written in the ninth century. But the most remarkable feature of the library is the large amount of palimpsests in the collection. As most of these are codices that originally contained classical works it is possible that the library was formed around a Roman civil library, which is known to have existed in Verona. The monastic and cathedral libraries bloomed in the late thirteenth and fourteenth century, but after this they started to decline again, giving way to a new form of library. This change was a consequence of a number of factors, which I will discuss later. First I turn to the emergence of the vernacular as a written language.
In Italy, books in the vernacular came relatively late. The first texts in the vernacular appeared at the end of the twelfth century on flyleaves of codices. These were clearly not meant for copying, but simply for preservation. They also appeared on simple leaves of paper or parchment, sometimes several folded together to form a very primitive booklet. These were mainly used for writing down Chansons de Geste and other poetry, and circulated between professional entertainers and troubadours etc. These were texts meant for oral performance. Their written forms were only for preservation, again not duplication, and used by a small professional class.
For books in the vernacular to appear in considerable quantities, there must be a demand for them. There must exist a class of people who have had enough education to be considered literate and to have an interest in reading for leisure, but who are more fluent in the vernacular than in Latin. In Italy, these were the merchants. Interestingly, the rise of the merchant class was also a consequence of the increase in literacy and the use of the vernacular. Until the twelfth century merchants tended to travel around through Europe, conducting their business on the spot. But two major developments changed this. The first was the development of better accounting techniques which would eventually lead to the invention of double-entry accounting. The second were the increased possibilities for correspondence. With these new developments, merchants could stay at home and conduct business through agents. This meant that merchants no longer had to be on the road all the time, and therefore had time for leisure. Although these merchants were literate, their education had been mainly focused on numeracy and most of them had no knowledge of Latin. For them, the vernacular was the only language in which to read or write.
An example of the huge amounts of correspondence necessary to keep business running is the Datini Archive. In 1410 a merchant named Francesco Datini died in Prato, a small city in Tuscany. In his will, he bequeathed his house to the poor. When it was emptied out, a good hundred years ago, a room was found, containing the archive of Francesco Datini. More than 150,000 letters were found, of which 11,000 private, the rest business correspondence. The importance of these sorts of business letters for modern research lies in the characteristics of these letters. Unlike letters from professionals like notaries and scribes, these merchant letters were often in the vernacular, and written in an informal style. This gives us far more insight in the lives of these people as many other written accounts.
In civil government big changes also occurred. City councils in the north of Italy increasingly began to rely on written records, and the legal system also. This meant that there was an ever greater demand for notaries, lawyers and judges. This administrative literacy developed earlier in Italy than elsewhere. In the middle of the thirteenth century, Italian city-government was highly bureaucratic, and minute records were being kept of council meetings and court proceedings, most of them in the vernacular. The combination of higher levels of literacy in society and the acceptance of the vernacular as a written language led to the development of literature in the vernacular.
The best known examples of this vernacular literature are of course the writings of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). Dante especially had a large influence on vernacular writing, not only because his Divina Commedia is one of the earliest works written in the vernacular, but also because of his treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia which gives descriptions of the Italian dialects and their differences. He argues for a single volgare which should include all the best features of each dialect. He never finished this treatise. But his later work, the Commedia had a large effect on forming just such a common vernacular tongue. The Commedia, together with the new poetic style Dante had also contributed to, the dolce stil nuovo, established the Tuscan dialect as the language for Italian literature. This was the language of the elite, the readers of verse and prose. For daily use, the different Italian dialects continued to be used for centuries, even to the present day.Another form of vernacular literature which developed as a consequence of the increased literacy are the lay autobiographies, or ricordanze. This is a curious mix of diary and family history, which seems to have been unique for Florence during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These books evolved from the record books merchants used to keep track of their business affairs. The ricordanze were essentially the same, only involving the private affairs. But often the family was not the only subject. Many merchants while describing their life and family wrote extensively about the volatile politics in their city. Some of the ricordanze were purely private documents, like the one written by the merchant Goro Dati between 1384 and 1428. His Libro Segreto (secret book), consists mainly of business accounts and some personal affairs, but the most interesting part is where he confided his hopes and fears to the paper. Other ricordanze were more public, like the Ricordi written by Giovanni Morelli. Starting in 1393, he continues to write for twenty years about politics, his family and his private struggles, in an account clearly meant to be read by others.
In the paragraph about universities I have already given a short explanation about book production in Bologna. I now want to take this a bit further. Of old, the traditional place for book production is of course in the scriptoria of monasteries, who supplied the everlasting demand for Bibles, patristic works and liturgies. But a new market for books was emerging, and with it, a demand for different works. In the universities, the items studied were mainly Law and Medicine and books on the subject were required. The production of books slowly became more and more a commercial enterprise as lay scriptoria emerged close to the universities. Techniques also changed; differently cut pens made it possible for the fractured gothic letter types to appear, which made faster writing possible. Scribes were of various types. There were students needing money and priests seeking to fill out their incomes, but also women and young boys copied books, sometimes from their own homes. But the distribution of books in the vernacular was until well into the fifteenth century predominantly based on private copying. Professional workshops tended to make only small numbers of copies of books in the vernacular, so these were expensive. Copying for private use, mainly for leisure reading, seems to have happened on a large scale amongst the merchant class in Northern Italy. This was notable in the quality of the works produced, and at the end of a book the copyists often lamented the poor quality of their work. It is remarkable though that they did generally not make any remarks on the amount of work done or the heaviness of their labours, as was often done by professional scribes.
It is clear from inventories that books were common in the houses of the merchants of the thirteenth and fourteenth, especially books of a devotional nature, like the Gospels and Vitae. But romances, tales and chronicles could also be found. Translations of classical authors, not always of good quality were common, as were works on rhetoric, law and medicine. A copy of Dante's Commedia could be found in almost any house, and Boccaccio was also popular, as were works in French. In spite of all this, the curriculum seems to have been rather limited, and circulation through lending must have been high. As reading was done for leisure full comprehension was not necessary, and notes or commentaries were rare in these books. Books in possession of the merchant class were generally made of paper and cheaply bound, with little or no ornamentation and written in the merchant cursive script. A common form of book amongst the merchant class was the zibaldone, or hodgepodge book. These were notebooks in which the owners collected favourite stories, medical recepies, devotional tracts, lauds and love poetry, but also currency exchange rates and gate tolls.
Merchants were not the only ones reading for leisure, the nobility also began to read and collect books. In the Italian city-states, the difference between rich merchants and the nobility was vague at best, and the differences here described must be seen as between the top layer of society and the upper middle class, the difference between them mainly consisting of fortune. The nobility possessed books from much the same genres as the merchants. Reading seems to have been a favourite pastime for the nobility, and the public here also included women. But for the rich, books were not just for reading or entertainment; they could also be seen as a form of capital. Therefore the books in their possession were often of far richer materials, written on parchment and richly decorated and bound. They were also written in richer handwriting, gothic textura by professional hands.
Books in the vernacular, in whatever form they did appear, were hardly ever made as a so called 'desk book'. This desk book was a large format folio, with text in two columns and written in an elegant gothic textura with illuminations. Even the luxury books of the nobility, though elegantly written and decorated, were often of small size. This was a consequence of the low status of books in the vernacular. This low status can also be seen in the figures of a gabella, an excise tax, in Perugia. These show rates to bring books into the city: three soldi for big ecclesiastical books, missals, breviaries, Bibles and so on, two soldi for books of law, (small) grammar books and “books of Dante and the like” and for small books and writings, only six denari. But this low status is not what the authors wanted for their books. Boccaccio for instance wrote the author’s copies of his own work and the several copies he made of Dante's work in the desk book format, in book hand and with rubrication and large margins, perhaps in a conscious attempt to raise their status. The effort failed: the aforementioned gabella dates from 1379, several years after his death.
It was around this time a new movement became manifest, a movement which was intensely important for written culture all over Europe; humanism. There is no room here to describe the full impact and meaning of humanism on the educated world, so I will concentrate on what humanism meant for book production and possession. The greatest humanist this period saw was of course Francesco Petrarca. He made it his goal in life to collect and ‘save’ as many ‘lost’ classical texts as he could find. He travelled all over Europe to collect manuscripts. He also had a large network of friends and fellow scholars, whom he frequently requested to send him copies of manuscripts they found. Late in his life, he had a number of copyists in his home which he brought with him on his travels. In this way he managed to collect an astonishingly large collection, which is estimated to have included as much as 200 volumes.
The ideas of the humanists had their influence on the libraries of the time. As study for the sake of study became more and more an accepted activity, libraries changed their function. In the monasteries and cathedral schools, the libraries ceased to be private places, and became more and more open places for consultation and research. This had its effects on the physical appea