Pragmatic literacy

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A book within a book. This illustration of a book with clasps is from a 13th century manuscript of Justinian’s Digest, one of the most important compilations of Roman law, Amiens, Bibliothèque Municipale, 349

People learn to read accounts, regulations and commercial texts before they learn how to read novels, poetry and philosophy. In the history of the West, the spread of literacy was through the medium of practical texts. Pragmatic literacy always comes first. The ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii are covered in electoral graffiti. The signs of widespread literacy are everywhere to be found, words on every wall, almost. Yet, this doesn’t mean everyone who left a mark on those walls was reading Homer, Virgil or Ovid at home. Everyone was a script user, and this had huge consequences for the centuries to come.

The ancient Roman society was far more pragmatically literate than we imagine. The written word, engraved in stone or bronze and inscribed on wood, papyrus or parchment, constituted one of the chief legacies of Rome, the tip of the cultural iceberg whose presence in Western waters shaped the future of European society. As the medieval West was confronted with the decline, and in many parts, disappearance of the Roman state, the effects of Roman literacy, boosted by the scriptural impulse of Christianity, were such that reading and writing came, in time, to define the character of European culture: rationality and philosophy, calculation and science, historical consciousness and record-keeping.

The emergence of the European logocentric culture is the result of widespread pragmatic literacy, whose long historical journey, meandering and fragmented, has put the written word, in whatever form it might be, at the centre of our lived experience.

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