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This article is taken from PN Review 169, Volume 32 Number 5, May - June 2006.

A New Literacy George Steiner

The very notion of 'literacy' is inseparable from the history of monasticism and of church schools after the decay of the Roman empire in western Europe. To be 'literate' signified the ability to read Scripture, to form letters on the page. This capacity defined the cleric and the clerk, these two designations being closely related. Some familiarity with Latin, though often in hybrid and transitional forms and, only very rarely, with classical Greek attached to ecclesiastical, legal, bureaucratic and medical competence. The literate elite, the 'men of letters' in the most pragmatic sense, assured the preservation and transmission of ancient civilisation, a transmission qualified, corrected by Christian revelation. Literacy identified a 'clerisy' and the ideological and political power-relations which made possible the governance of church and state. It is from this legacy that all modern European concepts and usages of literacy - where 'modern' simply means post-medieval - derive.

This inheritance brought with it a blurring of the term. It took on at least two principal meanings. At the more elevated level, literacy came to stand for the shared communitas of the learned, of the privileged owners of the instruments of reading and writing. It underwrote, itself a suggestive image, the great age of the private library as it extends from Erasmus and Montaigne to the early twentieth century. It comprised the producers and consumers of 'literature' - note the source and content of that word - the law-makers and divines, the scientists both natural ...


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