Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe
Literary culture in Anglo-Saxon England flourished in two languages—Anglo-Latin and Old English—although the written record of that flourishing is uneven. The literature in these languages of culture did not develop in isolation from each other: vernacular literary works often show a keen awareness of Latin texts and textual practices. Vernacular literature in Old English was precocious in its early expansion from secular and religious poetry to homiletic and documentary prose, as well as translations of the Bible, saints’ lives (in prose and in verse), histories, and philosophical works. The best known of all Old English works is Beowulf, and close behind are the short lyric poems generally, though misleadingly, known as elegies. Not always clear from even the best Modern English translations is the way that these intense poems share techniques of composition and echoes of shared formulas with other long and short poems. The saint-heroes of Elene, Juliana, and Judith share heroic values and poetic language with Beowulf and The Wanderer. This kind of appropriation—where the language of secular poetry was repurposed for religious subjects—was the miracle Bede saw in Cædmon’s Hymn.
Old English literary prose developed in the late 9th century in conjunction with a program of translation from Latin associated with King Alfred. Within a relatively short time, Anglo-Saxon scholars translated into Old English Gregory’s Dialogues, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, the first fifty psalms, and, further, Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and Orosius’s World History. The late 10th and early 11th centuries saw an efflorescence of Old English prose, particularly in the works of Ælfric of Eynsham and Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Spanning the 9th century to the 12th, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports and reflects on the events of its time, in verse and in prose.
First known as a kephalaion in Greek, capitulum or caput in Latin, the chapter arose in antiquity as a finding device within long, often heterogenous prose texts, prior even to the advent of the codex. By the 4th century
Lars Boje Mortensen
Medieval European literature is both broader and deeper in its basis than what is usually offered in literary histories with their focus only on a narrow canon and on vernacular languages. One way to see this bigger canvas is to consider technical and statistical book-historical factors together with the authority of the two Roman Empires (Western and Eastern) and of their religious hierarchies (the papacy and the patriarchate). A coordinated reading of developments in the Latin West and the Greek East—though rarely directly related—brings out some main features of intellectual and literary life in most of Europe. With this focus, a literary chronology emerges—as a supplement to existing narratives based on either national or formal (genre) concerns: the period c. 600 to c. 1450 can be considered a unity in book-historical terms, namely the era dominated the hand-written codex. It is also delimited by the fate of the Roman Empire with the Latin West effectively separated from the Greek Empire by c. 600 and the end of Constantinople in 1453. Within this broad framework, three distinctive phases of book- and intellectual history can be discerned: the exegetical (c. 600–c. 1050), the experimental (c. 1050–c. 1300), and the critical (c. 1300–c. 1450). These three headings should be understood as a shorthand for what was new in each phase, not as a general characteristic, especially because exegesis in various forms continued to lie at the heart of reading and writing books in all relevant languages.
Angélica J. Afanador-Pujol
In the area known as Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, parts of El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize), indigenous writers between the 13th and 16th centuries produced manuscripts using both pictographic and alphabetic-based texts. They worked closely with noble and priestly elites to meticulously design and paint manuscripts. Before the arrival of Europeans, writers worked on a variety of media, from animal hide and textiles to paper. They folded long sheets into accordion-like manuscripts, covered them in a lime plaster, and, using rich natural pigments, recorded complex writing systems. These books contained historical, religious, political, scientific, and cultural knowledge. They not only recorded information, but guided the lives of individuals and communities. Only fourteen of these manuscripts are known to survive, as Spanish conquistadors and friars destroyed the vast majority of them in their effort to eradicate indigenous religions during the conquest of the region in the 16th century.
In the years following the Spanish invasion, Mesoamerican artists and scribes had to adapt to new demands from their indigenous patrons, the viceregal government, and the Catholic church. They learned to use the European alphabet and artistic conventions to produce new materials containing ethnographic, religious, and historical information. In addition, they transcribed and wrote speeches, songs, and poems, and produced legal documents to fight for their own rights and those of their communities, rulers, and patrons. Modern-day scholars have made great strides deciphering pre-Columbian writing systems and understanding the make, medium, and function of manuscripts. The vast corpus of colonial-era manuscripts has also been a productive field for understanding Mesoamerican thought, cultural practices, and the social and political forces that shaped colonial life and its literary production.
Literacy is a measure of being literate, of the ability to read and write. The central activity of the humanities—its shared discipline—literacy has become one of its most powerful and diffuse metaphors, becoming a broadly applied metaphor representing a fluency, a competency, or a skill in manipulating information. The word “literacy” is of recent coinage, being little more than a century old. Reading and writing, or effectively using letters (the word at the root of literacy), are ancient skills, but the word “literacy” likely springs from and reflects the emergence of mass public education at the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, then “literacy” measures personal and demographic development. Literacy is mimetic. It is synesthetic—in some languages, it means hearing sounds (the phonemes) in what is seen (the letters); in others, it means linking a symbol to the thing symbolized. Although a recent word, “literacy” depends upon the emergence of symbolic sign systems in ancient times. Written symbolic systems, by contrast, are relatively recent developments in human history. But they bear a more complicated relationship to the spoken language, being in part a representation of it (and thus a recording of its contents) while also offering a representation of the world, the referent: that is, literacy involves an awareness of the representation of the world. Reading and writing are tied to millennia of changes in technologies of representation. As a term denoting fluidity with letters, literacy has a history and a geography that follow the development and movement of a phonetic alphabetic and subsequent systems of writing. If the alphabet encodes a shift from orality to literacy, HTML encodes a shift from verbal literacy to a kind of numerical literacy not yet theorized.
John D. Niles
The human capacity for oral communication is superbly well developed. While other animals produce meaningful sounds, most linguists agree that only human beings are possessed of true language, with its complex grammar. Moreover, only humans have the ability to tell stories, with their contrary-to-fact capabilities. This fact has momentous implications for the complexity of the oral communications that humans can produce, not just in conversation but also in a wide array of artistic genres.
It is likewise true that only human beings enjoy the benefits of literacy; that is, only humans have developed technologies that enable the sounds of speech to be made visible and construed through one or another type of graphemic representation. Although orality is as innate to the human condition as is breathing or walking, competence in literacy requires training, and it has traditionally been the accomplishment of an educated elite. Correspondingly, the transmutation of oral art forms into writing—that is, the production of what can be called “oral literature”—is a relatively rare and special phenomenon compared with the ease with which people cultivate those art forms themselves.
All the same, a large amount of the world’s recorded literature appears to be closely related to oral art forms, deriving directly from them in some instances. Literature of this kind is an oral/literary hybrid. It can fittingly be called “literature of the third domain,” for while it differs in character from literature produced in writing by well-educated people, the fact that it exists in writing distinguishes it from oral communication, even though it may closely resemble oral art forms in its stylized patterning.
Understanding the nature of that hybridity requires an engagement not just with the dynamics of oral tradition but also with the processes by which written records of oral art forms are produced. In former days, this was through the cooperative efforts of speakers, scribes, and editors. Since the early 20th century, innovative technologies have opened up new possibilities of representation, not just through print but also through video and audio recordings that preserve a facsimile of the voice. Nevertheless, problems relating to the representation of oral art forms via other media are endemic to the category of oral literature and practically define it as such.