The world we live in today is busy and filled with countless opportunities – a fantastic time to be alive. As we look back a bit at what life was like for the peasants living during medieval times in Europe, we see that their lives were also busy but they did not have the chances we are allowed today. In J.M. Roberts remarkable book, A Short History of the World, medieval Europe is described: “Everyday life was cramped and confined by the absence of much that we take for granted. There was nothing much for laymen to do, after all, except pray, fight, hunt [or] farm; there were no professions for men to enter” (Roberts, 231). It is hard to imagine not having the opportunity to train for and enter a different line of work.
One of the things mentioned by Roberts that we “take for granted” is the chance to read. During these earlier times, literacy was nearly non-existent and it was usually only the monks of the Church that could read or write. This would not allow many people to improve their minds or be introduced to new ideas, truths or even captivating tales. We must also remember that women were lower on the social ladder than men so their chances for learning were severely limited during this era.
One detail of medieval life that contributed to the high rate of illiteracy was the fact that there were actually not many books available. One of the great inventions of the fifteenth century that changed this was the printing press, which allowed more people access to printed material as opposed to the few copies of mainly scripture that were produced by monks. Once the printing press caught on, the most printed book was still the Bible but soon people began to want copies of the works of great theologians and ancient authors and as more printed materials began to circulate in greater numbers, more ideas began to be shared as well, giving the people a hope in the future.
Even though the printing press led Europe to becoming a more literate society, many of the poorer Europeans still could not read even in the 1800s. They might, however, have books read to them to help them understand the ideas and issues being discussed at this time.
J. M. Roberts, A Short History of the World, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).