Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation
Literacy and the Alphabetization of Europe and America
Latin writing and Vernacular Writing
Did people speak Latin in the Middle Ages? For the most part, Latin was the language of reading and learning; vernacular languages, like French, Italian, and Spanish were the spoken languages, and most often, the language of poetry, music and theatre. Comparatively speaking, the writing of vernacular works developed later and after the innovations of Latin scholarship. until about 1200, most stories and poetry was composed orally and dictated. Only later are works like Dante's Divine Comedy composed in writing.
The growth of written vernaculars combined with the introduction of the printing press to lay groundwork for an explosion in literacy. From the period of about 1300-1600, literacy (and numeracy as well) became something not only sought after, but often necessary for various trades.
Of course technology-- whether spaces or printing press-- would have meant nothing without major changes in education and it is here that renaissance Humanism and the Protestant Reformation helped the process along. One of the principle aspects of the Protestant movement was its focus on breaking the control of the Catholic church on the minds and bodies of the faithful. Protestant reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin etc.) often stressed the need for individual bible reading and study as one path towards salvation. Without the successes (as well as the successes of the Catholic counter-reformation) literacy in Western Europe would have advanced less aggressively.
Comenius and Humanist Pedagogical Reform
We skip forward in time to the 1600s and the introduction of one of the most successful literary genre's in history: The Dick and Jane Book.
John Amos Comenius was a 17th century Reformer and philosopher whose philosophy was called "pansophia": knowledge of everything. It was explicitly Christian, though he was a Protestant Reformer whose works were often banned by the Pope and the monarchies. He spent most of his time in England, the Netherlands and was actually invited to be the head of Harvard College arounf 1650.
Comenius is most famous for the Orbis Pictus of 1657. This book was part of a much larger universalist "pansophist" project to reform education, to increase literacy, to make good Christiam boys and girls and to advance the knowledge of the world in general. Comenius imagined the curriculum of learning as a graded architectural space, along the lines of a memory system vestibule, courtyard, palace, treasury etc. In which learning of all kinds was stored. The universalist aspect of his reform program meant that the entire universe would be represented and named in a rational and structured order.
Patricia Crain's book The Story of A begins by looking at Comenius' book. She calls the alphabet primer a genre which "cloak[s] the fact that the unit of textual meaning-- the letter-- lacks meaning itself." Why is it a genre, and not a simply a guide?
Primers, according to crain, start with the hornbook, or "battledore" which taught both the alphabet and the lord's prayer at the same time. Crain's argument is that the alphabet itself is therefore allied with Christian teaching in the mind of the learner. She suggests something that might seem familiar even to modern readers (consider these symbols, do they generate ritual practice? do they indicate ownership or control?) Most of these hornbooks and primers were used with very young children, and in nurseries rather than in school.
The Orbis Sensualum Pictus and the Universal Language
Some plates of the Orbis:
|Christopher M. Kelty Last modified: Fri Jan 31 09:52:13 CST 2003|