Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Writing in the 15th century

Not many personal notebooks survive from the 15th and early 16th centuries in England. One reason for this is that few people were capable of producing them. At that time, reading and writing were taught as two separate skills. Writing was considered the more difficult and not an ability everyone needed to learn.
While it was essential for those embarking on a clerical career, it was superfluous to those whose livelihood depended on manual labour. The bulk of surviving manuscript material, therefore, was the work of professional writers, and oral communication remained highly valued in early Tudor culture.

This does not mean, however, that English people had little access to books. During the 15th and 16th centuries there was a growing proliferation of reading material, aided by two technical changes: the launch of paper in the early 15th century and the development of printing later that century.

Among Humphrey Newton's fellow gentry, reading became a familiar activity while those lower down in society increasingly formed part of a literate culture. Silent readers were fairly new to the 15th century and it was far more common to read out loud to a group.

There existed 'common-profit' books which were designed to be passed from one reader to another. A few books, usually chained, were kept in parish churches and could be perused by visitors. Just under four miles from Newton lay Pott chapel, which in the 1490s had a library of around 20 books, including a book of good manners. The founder, Geoffrey Downes, stated in his will (1494) that gentlemen could borrow any book from the chapel 'eather to read or to take a copy'.

While Humphrey Newton was unusual in terms of his scribal skills, he was living among an English society with a growing appetite for the written word. 

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