The art of reading in the Middle Ages

Beyond lingua franca

Development of reading in European national languages

Illuminated initial on a manuscript page

In the first millennium, the Balkan Peninsula was an area at the outskirts of the Byzantine Empire, inhabited by various Slavic peoples. The main Slavic realm was Bulgaria, whose borders roughly coincides with the borders of its modern day namesake. The regions on the Adriatic coast were predominantly under Byzantine control. To the west of the Balkan, in present day (South-)Germany, Austria and Italy, lay the realms of the Frankish peoples. This geographical position proved influential for the later history of the region, and consequently for the development of a reading and writing culture.

The Franks and the Byzantines differed in their religious beliefs. While the former adhered to Roman Catholicism, the latter followed Orthodox Christianity. The Balkan region, between the Franks and the Byzantines, was subjected to attempts at Christianisation from both sides. Local rulers sometimes had personal motives to opt for either side, but in general, the Byzantine Orthodox attempt was much more successful. This was in part due to the Roman Church insisting on celebrating liturgy solely in Latin. By contrast, Byzantine missionaries were more flexible, allowing vernacular languages for church services.

A 19th-century painting of saints Cyril (left) and Methodius

At that time, however, there was no written form, and coincidentally no alphabet, for the Slavic languages. For this reason, two Greek missionaries, brothers Cyril and Methodius, adapted the Greek alphabet to fit Slavic speech sounds. Greek words and grammar were added to fill up gaps in the syntax. This new script was called Glagolitic, from the Old Slavic word glagolati, meaning ‘to speak’. The new language is now referred to as Old Church Slavonic language, as it was originally used for the Bible and other religious fundamental texts. It prevailed as the main literary language in Slavic territories from the 9th century until the end of the Middle Ages. Old Church Slavonic language was adopted in different Slavic regions. In the following centuries, the Glagolitic alphabet further evolved. A specific development of this script spread to Bulgaria and eventually further north to Russia. This became the Cyrillic alphabet, named after the above-mentioned Cyril, which is still in use in the Russian-speaking world.

Page of Codex Suprasliensis with text  in Old Church Slavic, written in the newly developed Cyrillic script

The Codex Suprasliensis (above) is one of the most important testimonials to the integration of these new alphabets. Produced in the late 10th or early 11th century, probably in Bulgaria, the Codex contains saints’ lives, homilies, legends and prayers. The texts are all in Old Church Slavic, written in the newly developed Cyrillic script. The inclusion of this text in the UNESCO list of cultural heritage within the Memory of the World program illustrates its significance.

The success of Byzantine Christianisation did not mean that Roman Catholicism was unable to set foot unto land in the Balkan. Regions closest to the Franks (present day Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia) were successfully converted and placed under control of the Church of Rome. The regions were divided into episcopats, under the leadership of bishops. At the same time, monastic communities were founded, acting as additional beacons of Christianity in the less urban regions. Often, these monasteries were founded privately, by noblemen and noblewomen who either wished to care for the destiny of their souls in the afterlife, or saw it as an opportunity to expand their own power.

For example, around 1220, the Carinthian duke Bernard Spanheim founded a Carthusian monastery at Bistra in Slovenia. The monastery flourished, became a centre of learning and reached its zenith in the 14th century. From that period, a beautifully executed copy of Augustine’s De Civitate Dei survives.

Illuminated pages of De Civitate Dei

As is the case with this copy, reading and writing culture in the Roman Catholic areas was primarily in Latin. For the Orthodox Slavs, religious services had been in Slavic since the 9th century. For the Catholics, Latin was the liturgical language until well after the Middle Ages. This does not mean that vernacular Slavic was fully banned from the domain of religion. The example below depicts a 14th century manuscript containing a Psalter, liturgical texts and a calendar of saints, including several Hungarian saints. The alphabet used is the Glagolitic, while the text is written in a Croatian dialect - from one of the areas dependent on the Roman Catholic Church.

Page of text in glagolitic

In the later Middle Ages, parts of the Balkans bordering on the Adriatic Sea were influenced by yet another language: Italian. Italian city states, in particular Venice, founded trading posts all over the Adriatic coast which were governed according to their Italian laws. The area around Dubrovnik, a small republic known as Ragusa, was consecutively controlled by the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Hungarians between the 9th and 15th centuries. The Venetians imposed their dialect of Italian on the government of Ragusa.

Multilingualism was not uncommon in medieval Europe. This was certainly the case for political elites and certains merchants whose position entailed or was based on interregional contacts. In England, for instance, Anglo-Norman (an insular variation of French) and English were both in use. In Flanders and Brabant (modern day Belgium, France and Netherlands), French and Dutch were spoken side by side. All over Europe, elites were capable of understanding Latin, which served as a lingua franca. Switching between languages depended on the context, they co-existed in parallel cultural and literary environments.

In the Balkans, this situation was further complicated by the existence of multiple scripts, with scribes having Latin, Glagolitic and later even Cyrillic alphabets at their disposal. For instance, in 15th-century Dubrovnik (Croatia), the town scribe was able to turn seamlessly from Serbian (in Cyrillic) to Latin or vice versa should parties request their contracts to be written in a specific language. Similarly, the text of a 15th-century copy of the Anagrammatismoi, a song book for ecclesiastical feasts by the 13th century composer John Koukouzeles, is in Greek, but with additions in Bulgarian and Serbian (in Cyrillic). As this manuscript is thought to have been written in Serbia, it shows the ability of the local clergy to switch between neighbouring languages.

Decorated headpiece and initial from BL Arundel 527, f. 11

The results of the conversion attempts did not just influence medieval history, but are still visible today. In regions that were converted to Roman Catholic Christianity, the Latin alphabet was dominant. In regions that followed Orthodox Christianity, the Glagolitic alphabet, later developed into Cyrillic, was adopted.