Changes in Literacy through History Demonstrated in Popular Media

That fancy title actually means I read James McGrath’s post and was reminded of some late night viewing I did recently.

In HBO’s Rome (great plot and acting, but my, the nudity! I know it’s a cable show, you don’t have to remind me twice an episode!) a recurring character is the news reader (I know there’s a Latin term, but I’m lazy, as even the unobservant know by now) who gives out official announcements in the town market, presumably because there are too few people who can read to make putting up a written notice worthwhile.

Contrast that with Appaloosa, (R rated for language, violence, and brief nudity) where our hero become town marshal and proceeds to justify his “obey or die” tactic for cleaning up the town by telling the baddies that the new town laws are posted outside prominent buildings for everyone to read and obey.

So, the telling difference is (and of course it could be wrong, because we all know popular media is no place to get historical or scientific fact) that in ancient times literacy was low enough to be assumed absent, while in nineteenth century America at least, literacy was great enough to be presumed upon. That’s the popular perception, at least. On the other hand, my paternal great-grandfather apparently couldn’t read or write terribly well, and he was born in the late nineteenth century.

Anyway, there you are, for what it’s worth.


One thought on “Changes in Literacy through History Demonstrated in Popular Media

  1. Great observation on Appaloosa. I enjoyed the movie. Now need to see it again.

    Publication of law more recently often means that what’s published (statutes, codes, regulations, judicial opinions too) is a colloidal mass of black letter law. A mass of publication often disguising legislative disagreements (see just one e.g., Chief Justice Roberts on this in, “The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing,” v. 13, 2010 – really nothing new). Published law as a disguise (compromised vague language) makes for really tough questions about the edges of ‘literacy’, that is, what counts for ‘literacy’ in reading disguised texts versus the ‘literacy’ of mind-reading (judges trying to read the minds of legislators)?

    The long rifle in plain view and patrolling the streets in Appaloosa was ‘published’ – as the pretty much the ultimate big-bang arbiter of meaning. For those who couldn’t read texts too well.

    I’d like to ask a question. Maybe off topic. If this is of any interest to you?

    I’ll let the master speak for himself – Augustine, Book One, On Christian Doctrine, CHAP. 39. Please be patient with a slightly long quote – for context. The key words are at the end.

    “43. And thus a man who is resting upon faith, hope and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need the Scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others. Accordingly, many live without copies of the Scriptures, even in solitude, on the strength of these three graces. So that in their case, I think, the saying is already fulfilled: “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.”(1) Yet by means of these instruments (as they may be called), so great an edifice of faith and love has been built up in them, that, holding to what is perfect, they do not seek for what is only in part perfect–of course, I mean, so far as is possible in this life; for, in comparison with the future life, the life of no just and holy man is perfect here. Therefore the apostle says: “Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity:”(2) because, when a man shall have reached the eternal world, while the other two graces will fail, love will remain greater and more assured. Thus a man supported by faith, hope, and charity, with an unshaken hold upon them does not need the scriptures. . . And many live by these three things in solitude without books.”

    Anyway, I have always loved this text. I’m biased. I’m more a biologist at heart than a doctor of laws (blah, blah, blah). And this text confirms my science bias about a few natural facts about human behaviors of love, faith, hope. But I need my bias checked (I’m thoroughly Darwinian in this)!

    And so …

    Many? Live in solitude without books? Is Augustine okay here? – fairly correct? Was he just guessing? What’s ‘many’ so far as we know today about the literacy rates back then?

    I’m out of my depth on this question. But I’ve always wondered.

    Give it a go?



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