Strand Definitions: Literacy and Communication

One of the most important developments in European history took place in the field of communication. A transition is clearly visible from illiterate societies to societies in which most members are active users of the written word. This complex process, which started in Antiquity and which is still not complete, gained momentum during the Middle Ages. Many disciplines have recently made contributions to our understanding of the history of medieval communication: codicologists and historians of the book, anthropologists and psychologists, but also philosophers, sociologists, literary historians, classicists, theologians, economists, art historians, and historians. Interest in the subject is now widespread within the worldwide community of medieval studies, and more and more scholars are becoming convinced of the potential of studying the tensions between 'oral' and ‘literate' modes of thought.

This strand is intended to provide for sessions and papers on the history of non-verbal, oral, and written communication in the Middle Ages. There is obviously much overlap with other strands, not least because the discourse of communication has by now become part of mainstream medieval studies. Broadly speaking, the emphasis in this strand is more on the uses of (written) texts and other instruments of medieval communication than on their content – even if it will be clear that content will always have a bearing on use. Sessions will be considered addressing one or more of the following topics: the theory of literacy and (written) communication in the Middle Ages (including anthropological, sociological, and psychological contributions to the debate); the debate on orality versus the culture of the written word in the Middle Ages; forms of non-verbal communication (smells, colours, gestures, symbolic objects, clothes, the visual arts, the relationship between visual images and texts, music); ritual (e.g. political ritual and ceremony); oral communication (silence, language, the problem of Latin, the problem of the vernaculars); oral and written memory (e.g. lieux de mémoire , the past in primarily oral societies, oral tradition); teaching literacy skills; the production and use of written texts (script and script forms, book production and use, reading and the reception of texts, the relationship between manuscript culture and print culture); the preservation of written texts; correspondence; mandarin literacy; the uses of writing by the various social groups (clergy and laymen, aristocrats, peasants, town dwellers, women); the uses of writing in government, management and trade (e.g. legislation, charters, jurisdiction and dispute settlement); literature as a form of communication (e.g. ‘oral' literature, the composition of 'oral' literature, performance); religion and writing (including the magic of the written word); the symbolism of the book; the development of ‘literate mentalities' and a concomitant (dis)trust in writing.

If you have any queries on matters relating to this strand, please contact its coordinator, Marco Mostert (, who will be more than willing to assist you, e.g. with proposals for sessions and individual papers.