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Were medieval peasants all illiterate and uneducated? Well in this episode of Medieval Misconceptions we take a look at one of the most pervasive ideas about medieval times.

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Sources:
Follow up video going through the evidence:
I’ve looked up so many things over the years that it’s impossible to list every source, from documentaries, academic articles, online videos and websites. Here’s a great article on the mater: Studying Medieval Urban Literacy, A Provisional State of Affairs:
A decent summery article:

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33 Comments

  1. POINT OF CLARIFICATION – Follow up video going through the evidence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kISM2od3BJ0&t
    When I said if a person did not read and write Latin they would have been considered illiterate, I was referring to the medieval academic standard of literacy, according to the local standard, they would have been considered literate if they could read and write their local dialect.
    Also the statistics at the end are averages. There were localized pockets of higher and lower literacy varied by region and time.
    Original comment – Hi guys, so this video was recorded before my surgery, of which I'm still recovering from, and would have been out sooner, but I wanted to add in some additional points of clarification and couldn’t do it until I could speak, well speak enough. You might notice my voice is a bit weird in the additional parts as things are still healing. Recovery is going good and I hope you enjoy the video!

  2. If you look at the medieval period and the Roman imperial period there was much more innovation in the former than the latter. Though admittedly the status quo in the Roman Empire was generally better for those who weren't slaves or quite poor, so that stifles invention.

  3. Could you review the netflix movie The King Shad, it seemed really quality stuff to me about Henry the 5th and the start of the 100 year war

  4. Recently, I've been trying to figure out if the people of Arendelle in the movie of Frozen were in fact educated in literacy, because I'm trying to figure out what kind of monarchs Agnarr and Iduna were. If they wouldn't have been kind rulers to their subjects, and said subjects did knew how to write and read, then this could've led to a civil war by the citizens enlisting the help of an outside country to help take Arendelle from Agnarr and Iduna during the period of Elsa's isolation. However, if they were kind rulers, and the people were educated, then nothing would've changed in the plot of the movie. Granted, I think that sneaking out pictures or repeated drawings of the monarchs doing bad things to the populace through trade ships would eventually raise the attention in some places, but still, knowing how to read and write would've improved their odds.

  5. Thanks Shad for another wonderfully enlightening video about medieval times. I always felt they were far from illiterate after discovering they had the very books about farming & cooking that you mentioned. Also ty for mentioning that awesome history channel, i have been watching/subscribed to that channel for a ling time. His video about medieval lighting with rushes was very good & he even showed how they made them too. My son & I love watching your channel cuz we both love medieval (and all other) history & info about castles, that series on castle building that you mentioned was amazing Ruth, Peter & their sidekick did an amazing job on that one.

  6. I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but really though if you go off on incoherent ramblings too much your arguments start to sound like Gish Gallop and I think that's really a shame, you could be way more convincing if you changed your presenting style.

  7. Anglo-Norman was the "official" language of England for the majority of the Middle Ages, so many many many peasants could at the very least speak french if not read and write in it. This is very clear by one single fact, when Richard I The Lionheart (Duke of Aquitane), the first English King to be born of Occitanean Nobility, Lenga D'oc became the in vogue french spoke in England, as opposed to Leng D'oil of northern france, Burgers and Peasants attempting to imitate the noble class is what led to the sheer amount of French "loan words" that are pronounced in modern english.

  8. Conversely, you can be illiterate and still be educated. Some cultures and societies have a tradition based on oral learning. The Incan civilization didn't have a formal writing system that we would consider a "written language" today, but they had plenty of people educated in astronomy, architecture, engineering, agriculture, etc that was taught by oral learning.

  9. 1 person per household… what size was the household? Was it an extended family, with cousins and multiple generations, etc.? One person per household on average? A poor family may not have prioritized reading particularly if they had less need and access to someone who could help them if needed.
    A popular book? How many copies made a book popular?

  10. 8:00 This is even true in modern times, albeit to a lesser degree. You can still see people getting subtitles on german language tv because their dialect is so thick it's unintelligeble to a speaker of standard german (which differs between germany, austria and switzerland to about the same degree british english differs to american english). Most common culprits are bavarians and swiss. The latter sometimes even use their dialect when writing so swiss comment sections and the swiss subreddit r/buenzli can look quite crazy

  11. After watching this video, I kind of had a thought to the actual years we're talking about here (I'm majoring in English and studying linguistics and literature at the moment). The medieval period in the UK specifically started with the Battle of Hastings, which is when linguists who are interested in English mark the divergence from the Old English (you can look this up by searching for poems like The Wanderer or The Wife's Lament) and mixing with the French at the time in order to make the Middle English, a completely different language. It's speculated that this happened due to the deaths of the majority of the noblemen at the time, hence nobody was left speaking the old language, the proper one, at least, except the common tongue which was frequent among the peasantry and the 'working class'. So, when talking literacy, we have to take into account the change which was happening to the language at the time we're considering – English was actually becoming an entire new language at the time. Also, we can consider the pre-medieval period to see the state of literacy in the UK – a great marker here is King Alfred's (mid to late 800s) Preface to the Translation
    of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, which actually addresses the state of literacy and language throughout the country. This would give us a better look at the whole picture of pre-medieval and medieval English, in my opinion.
    I hope this is an interesting addition to the conversation.
    Lots of love for the channel!

  12. I love your videos, very informative and interesting. I would however like to point out one thing.
    The Bible was not always in Latin, not even in the roman-catholic area, even if it was more common. Some of the earliest translations include Greek (LXX) and Gothic (about 4th century); the Vulgata was not the first Latin translation, although it got popularized eventually (I've read also that Hieronimus, who translated the Vulgata, was facing criticisms very similar to what translations other than his got later on).
    It seems that many people actually tried to ratify this by devaluing other languages, but at least the modern Church interpretation points out another fair point: the problem of translation. Things could be lost in translation (unintentionally) or even deliberately changed, added or removed. So heresy was not out of the question.
    But let's get to my boys Cyril and Methodius. I've done (and am still doing) research on their work specifically and it hurts so much that the guys that have done so much for my people are getting forgotten from history in the historically catholic world (it seems different in the historically orthodox world, which makes sense because that's where their students fled to after being banished)
    But anyway. I'll try to keep this short. Cyril and Methodius lived in mid to late 9th century (before the great schism). They are most famous for spreading Christianity among Slavs (who had been in contact with Christianity before, but were still largely pagan), inventing a whole new alphabet and translating the Bible for them. The language they translated to is now called Old Church Slavonic, though at the time it was known simply as the Slavic language (językъ slověnъskyjь). They were sent from Constantinopol at the request of Moravian king (not sure how kъnędzь translates to but let's say king) Rastislav. They were given explicit permission/blessing for their work from two different popes (Hadrian II., John VIII.), and only Stephen V. (still late 9th century but like 3 popes later… it was a tough time to be a pope then, the forementioned John VIII. was actually killed) was the first to forbid their translation and the students were banished. Stephen V. was convinced they were indeed heretics, and the brothers were dead so they couldn't defend themselves, and the students just weren't given the chance to, and even as the brothers were alive there were clerics such as Wiching who would just love to see them excommunicated because they saw them as a threat to their power. Still, the usage of church slavonic in liturgy remained active in Croatian seaside for centuries (the last book was printed in 1905), though with varying degrees of approval from the church top.

  13. Sure they could read, but they where not very good at higher level reading. No peasant could read Shakespeare and actually understand it. That’s why they watched it. And ye I agree with you on being educated and being able to read as different

  14. The global literacy rate for all people aged 15 and above is 86.3% according to Unicef. Now if this was 50% during the middle ages already without any real, widespread schooling/education system available for most people… this raises a lot of questions for me. Would be good to know what exactly is meant by a literate person in all of these sources. I can't imagine having 36.3% difference between today and say the 13th century.

    I am absolutely not saying that the video conveys false information at all! I was of course not there during the middle ages to know for certain. I am just astonished by these numbers…

  15. You are informative but, you need to slow down and stay away from the rabbit trails. Stay focused on the main thread. But most important is to slow down the presentation and calm down.

  16. I think this all kind of misses the point. If the standard being applied is one that says knowing what you need to in order to be able to do your professions properly then humans have had high education for as long our species has existed, as knowing what to in order to survive as hunter gatherers, or then specialized skills in order to make a society function are just base necessities. Honestly the standard of education from the classical period (and not just in Greece; antiquity the world over can be seen to have scholarly classes) until now is rather the learning of abstract thinking, and about subjects which don't necessarily impact your daily life. This could be in the form of knowing trades that aren't necessarily your own or in the realms of more abstract logic, debate, theology etc.

    People of the middle ages certainly weren't stupid by any means. But education the level Abelard and Thomas Aquinas was far from the norm, and they (as example from amongst numerous others) are a good example of what was considered educated at the time.

  17. Hiya Shad. I know this video is a bit old, but I wanted to comment this anyway. If you've corrected this since, please forgive me. When it comes to medieval studies, my area of focus is primarily on religion and the idea that translations of the Bible were banned or discouraged is probably THE biggest misconception in this area. I love your content so I wanted to correct you here and then offer some topics for further reading in case you're interested.

    First, I would like to correct your use of the word "heresy." In Catholic theological teaching, that word has a very specific meaning. It refers to a theological belief that is contradictory to an established point of dogma or doctrine. So, a peasant claiming that priests could not forgive sins? Heresy. A man making an unauthorized translation of the Bible? A rule break. It would be illicit and immoral by the metric of the time, but heresy it was not. This is doubly true because a lot of bans were local, in that bishops or rulers ordered them, not the Pope, though he might assent to them and lend his approval.

    I think I should also point out that you actually contradicted yourself immediately after claiming translations out of Latin were banned. Right after stating that, you mention the 1199 ban by Pope Innocent (which as I recall was his ban on private meetings with Bibles, not unauthorized versions, but that's splitting hairs), which was, as you said, against UNAUTHORIZED versions. This implies some translations were, in fact, authorized. The Old Church Slavonic controversy is a good example as that translation was written by a saint in the 9th century, though permission to use it was temporarily repealed.

    There are some good examples of authorized ones just in English alone. The Wycliffe translation is, as I recall, the earliest translation of the Bible as a whole into English and that was in the end of the 14th century. It was not without controversy, but it wasn't banned outright. Earlier, and again with another saint involved, St. Bede was, according to writings on him, translating the Bible into Old English when he died in the early 8th century.

    On that note, there weren't a lot of Bibles going around anyway before the printing press, so most translations were approved translations of excerpts or single books. The Psalms got that treatment a few times I believe. If you wanted to write a whole Bible, then you want as many people as possible to read it and if you translate it into a local dialect then you've lost a much bigger audience. The local priest could be expected to tell what was in the text. One might reasonably object that we can't always trust priests to be completely honest with their telling of what is in the book, but trusting uneducated peasants with no background in philosophy to make informed decisions in their private interpretation of a theological text is how the thousands of churches following the Reformation came to be, so there are concerns with both methods.

    I would like to know what sources you are using when you discuss other translators being punished. I'm sure that this happened, but the way you phrased that comment made it seem like every other translation was outlawed, which is not the case. Tyndale is a good example of an unauthorized translation: his work was notoriously bad, which we know through commentary by other experts in Latin and Greek from the time; Thomas More might be the most famous of those critics. This poor quality, not the fact that he was translating into English, was the reason for his arrest. You might sometimes see that he had the first translation printed and that's because it was the first one PRINTED. As I mentioned above, there were translations before him.

    Most of the bans on translations and the like coincide with threats to Church authority in the form of major heretical movements. Church (and many secular) leaders worried that people without sufficient training would simply fall into one heresy or another. Given that a few heretical movements made their own translations so they could use them to support their views does seem to lend credence to this concern.

    All this said, there were a lot of bans in place, especially near the end of the medieval period, and it wouldn't be wrong to say that vernacular translations were effectively banned. However, as a historian I thrive on technicalities and nuance, so I just wanted to point out that they were not, technically, banned in all circumstances.

    If you're looking for some good places to do some reading, here are some suggestions:
    The Mentelin Bible
    Peter Waldo and his Romance translation of the New Testament
    Catharism and Bible translations
    Waldensians and Bible translations
    Sts. Cyril and Methodius, especially the latter, and translating the Bible

  18. Oh yea, I remember back in the middle ages when we used to get "The Peasantry Herald" twice a year and sit down in the middle of the hut and read by fire light and listen to the wolves howling all around us and …. what? No?

  19. I think a great example of medieval peasant world building is ascendance of a bookworm, go watch it it is a god tier anime

  20. I'll never forget the guy who asked our teacher what it was like in Japan in 'the dark ages' and his complete lack of comprehension when told that stuff that happened on one side of the planet doesn't always apply to the other side od the planets.

  21. all humans are uneducated you do not even know how to use subspace and photo transports HA HA you silly uneducated slugs.

  22. I think this misconception is heavily influenced by Masonry and Protestantism specifically American Protestantism.

  23. Obviously you can be literate and uneducated. Just look at the flatearthers and antivaxxers – they're both!

  24. Someone once described Shad to me as the "Wikipedia of medieval knowledge," and while they clearly intended it to be an insult, I find it to be ironically quite the opposite, since Wikipedia is more factually correct than most encyclopedias, it is fiercely policed, corrected, and most importantly, sourced. So I will continue to think of Shad as the Wikipedia of medieval knowledge. Now, bring on that random button.

  25. Translating the Bible into vernacular was generally frowned upon because the translations were so poor. You had to be a proven scholar for the Pope to approve your participation in translations. And then you had to get the finished product reviewed.

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