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 or
	      Hornbook "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:

In the Orbis Pictus, the young reader is invited by the scholar to enter the world of learning and to "become wise. He is, as is the case with all primers, first shown the alphabet. The alphabet of Comenius is a peculiar one. Given the inherent meaninglessness of letters, it is necessary, as Crain suggests, to attribute meaning to the letters. Notice the sounds of the animals (and a selection of humans) used to give meaning to the letters.

Following the alphabet, the child is led through the entirety of existence beginning with god, the world, the heavens and the elements (like air). This picture of the universe shares some characteristics with the "Great Chain of Being" inherited from Aristotle and the Scholastics, and yet differes in its remarkably secular imagery of trades, machinery, and other human activities.

Naturally, as we know in this class, birds come first (there are 6 plates of birds, a general plate showing the parts, and then varieties: domesticated, ravenous, singing, fields and woods, and aquatic). Other vermin and beasties follow. Then of course, Adam and Eve (but note the mysterious figures in the background...). The ages and parts of man (including deformed men, and the spooky soul of man) are detailed, and it is here that we can see the nursery-school function of these books, teaching the names and vocabulary in English and in Latin.

A very large section of the book is devoted to the various trades of humans, including everything from bread-baking to bookselling to tailoring to "carrying to and fro". The various arts and sciences are represented ( grammar, astronomy) as well as aspects of philosophy and ethics (esp. prudence who will return again later). The various associations of people are represented (family, marriage, and of course Master and Servant). And what would a universal history be without Judgment day?

The New England Primer

Crain also discusses the famous New England Primer, a book used from the late 17th century until even the beginning of the 20th in some places. It has been reprinted in hundreds of versions (our library has 128 different copies on microfilm). The alphabet in the New England Primer is another oddity, containing a number of images that Crain uses as clues to understand what life and early learning were like in the American Colonies. Of all the Reformationists, the Puritans were among the most committed to literacy campaigns, and it was therefore good luck for early American colonists that the Puritans settled first. The book itself was one of the most profitable products for an early Boston printer, Benjamin Harris. It contains fewer pictures than the Orbis, and many more catechisms and prayers for practice in reading, rather than recognizing vocabulary. However, even though the goal of the book was bible reading, the images are not all religious, many are secular or trade and market oriented. Why? Some of the images, Crain suggests, are folk images, from stories or songs, such as "The cat doth play and after slay" for which Crain offers two images from the past ( 1 | 2).

What would a A Modern Orbis Pictus look like? Perhaps a picture dictionary?

Frontspiece to Comenius Orbis Pictus
Christopher M. Kelty
Last modified: Fri Jan 31 09:52:13 CST 2003