Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 2: Illiterate Knights and Ignorant Barons

I  continue with my series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that barons and knights were brutal and largely illiterate. 

A squire reading a monument. From Renee d'Anjou's Livre du Cuers d’Amours Espris

The notion that medieval knights and even barons were illiterate is so deeply ingrained in people’s minds that many novelists, even those who have carefully researched the events described in their novels, insist on making their knightly heroes uneducated.  I recently read a novel that made John d’Ibelin, one of the most respected legal experts of the 13th century, semi-illiterate. It was embarrassing even as a reader!

The reality was very different. Let’s start with basics. Barons were the elite of feudal society. They were the closest advisors of the kings. They were the pool of men from which kings drew their most important officials, from chancellors to sheriffs. They came from the same class as the “princes” of the church. They conducted diplomacy. They passed legislation. They dispensed justice. Is it reasonable to believe that these functions were carried out by illiterates? No.

If medieval noblemen left few letters in their own hand-writing it was because they were busy executives. As such, they employed scribes (secretaries) to take dictation and then write up important documents in a clean and neat hand ready for posterity ― just as cabinet ministers, ambassadors, judges and CEOs still do today. But the use of secretaries was even more important in the Middle Ages before we had electronic devices that could easily correct “typos” and when everything was written on expensive parchment or papyrus. The more important a document, the more likely it was to be copied into an elegant hand and richly decorated by a professional ― but that does not mean that those who conceived of, drafted and dictated the document couldn’t read or write!

Knights were, obviously, one level down the social scale, but most knights came from the same social class. They were the younger brothers and sons of noblemen. With a single sword thrust, fall from a horse, or a glass of dirty water, theycould suddenly find themselves in the shoes of an elder brother or father. They had to be ready to assume the full responsibilities of lordship, and that meant reading and writing and understanding finances. Even less privileged knights with only a small fief still needed to be able to manage it, and that meant reading deeds, contracts and accounts etc. Household knights, on the other hand, might be entrusted with a wide range of tasks by their lord, and were also expected to be literate. Only at the very bottom of the knightly class, where men who had been raised to knighthood not by birth but by exceptional service (usually on the battlefield), would illiterate knights have been found.  Yet such illiterate knights would have been rare by the High and Late Middle Ages because by then literacy had spread far down the social scale. 

Furthermore, not only were barons and many knights literate in the sense of being able to read and write, we have numerous examples of secular lords and knights who were poets, novelists, philosophers, and scholars. William Duke of Aquitaine is credited with inventing the tradition of poetry in the vernacular and sparking the troubadour movement. Richard Count of Poitou and later King of England likewise wrote poetry and music. Chretien de Troyes, the man credited with inventing the modern novel, was not a monk or priest but a (comparably humble) member of the knightly class. The same can be said of Walther von der Vogelweide, another wonderful writer of both romantic and politically critical lyric poetry. The great legal scholars of 13th century Outremer came from both the high nobility (Count of Jaffa) and the class of humbler knights such as Philip of Novare, the latter being a significant historian as well. 

Clearly, regardless of class or century, creative genius is the exception. Yet lords who lacked creative talent were often great patrons of the arts. One need only think of Jean Duc de Berry and his exquisitely illustrated Book of Hours, or Renee d’Anjou and his delightful Livre du Cuers d’Amours Espris. In the Holy Land, Baldwin d’Ibelin is only one of several crusader lords credited with translating Arab poetry into French. 

Although these are just random examples that came readily to mind, I hope they make the point that neither lords nor knights of the Middle Ages were likely to be illiterate. 

Knights and barons in my novels reflect the high level of literacy expected of this class.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

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  1. There does seem to be some conflicting evidence for the petty nobility in the high middle ages — as, for instance, the case of Wolfram von Eschenbach, the 13th century minnesinger.

    Wolfram von Eschenbach (ca. 1170 – ca. 1220) is depicted as a knight in a number of Middle High German MSS., and given the title “her” (= Sir”); though that title was not exclusive to the nobility, yet clerics and bourgeois more commonly received the title “meister” (“master, professor”). He is believed to have been a ministerial, a petty noble attached to a greater noble by service, not by heritable property, and thus in a sense “unfree,” though of higher social rank than a free peasant with a hereditary claim to his own land. The fact that the coats-of-arms attributed to him (either a vase of flowers or a pair of what may be battle-axes or cleavers) cannot be attached with any assurance to a particular family suggests that he was of fairly obscure origin.

    Sir Wolfram claims in his “Parzivâl,” “ine kan decheinen buochstap” (“I do not know any letters”) and in his “Willehalm,” “swaz an den buochen stât geschriben, des bin ich künstelôs beliben” (“I remain unskilled in whatever stands written in books”), despite his being an author of several romances and a number of lyric poems.

    Wolfram’s claim to illiteracy has been argued away in a number of ingenious methods: he was joking, he is contrasting himself with the claims to learning of rival poets, he means he can’t read Latin, he means he cannot read and write French (though he claims to be able to speak it — badly), he means he cannot read theology and philosophy, he is alluding to the Biblical statement that “the letter kills, the spirit gives life,” etc., etc. The very number and variety of these excuses tends to render them somewhat dubious.

    On the other hand, it is certainly possible to combine some of these theories plausibly: Wolfram certainly had a extravagant sense of humor and a particular fondness for exaggeration, and it’s likely enough that a humorist of merely ordinary education would overstate his own illiteracy to make game of clerkly writers like Master Gottfried von Strassburg and Sir Hartmann von Aue (who “was so learned that he read in books whatever he found written there” — according to himself!). Wolfram, who is very proud of his knightly service, might have found these pæans to clericalism irritating; the conflict between “miles” and “clerus” is of long standing in mediæval literature.

    Some scholars have noted that Wolfram tends in his romances to arrange his stories in “paragraphs” of about thirty lines apiece, perhaps suggesting that he was actually writing and would break off when reaching the foot of a page. Others have noted that he cites certain French “books” as his sources. However, as A. T. Hatto points out, Wolfram could simply have observed a scribe writing his words down, and become accustomed to delivering them in units of thirty lines apiece. (Hatto himself believed very strongly in Wolfram’s illiteracy.) Other scholars believe that Wolfram’s claims to be following a text are themselves dubious, as he seems to introduce a great deal of material not found in previous treatments of the subject, and continually purports to derive his information from authorities that seem not to have dealt with his subject at all.

    With Dr. Schrader’s main contention I think there can be little dispute; the vast majority of the greater nobility were almost certainly literate by the first quarter of the 13th century. I do think there is room for greater caution regarding those farther down the social scale. Still, she provides a very necessary corrective to the silly notions prevalent in popular conceptions of the middle ages, notions about of equal stature with the outmoded and nonsensical notions that people didn’t bathe, that lords commonly asserted the “droit du seigneur,” that romance played no part in mediæval marriages, and that mediæval parents held no great affection for their children.