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  Historical Study - Next  |Page 1
book From ancient times down to the renaissance most of the world's population was illiterate or semi-illiterate, condemned to a world of superstition and darkness, labouring from dawn to dusk at labour intensive tasks merely to put food on the table. The general public could neither read nor write, had little or no rights of its own, and was often persecuted by the local prince, king or ruling magnate. Today literacy is the norm, we vote for our government, we work more efficiently, and we go to the supermarket, or, for those of us with computers, the supermarket comes to us.

P r e m i s e
Those who were unable to read or write, which was the larger part of humanity, were entirely reliant on the interpretations of others for their general knowledge and education, which includes knowledge of ethics, law, and philosophy.

Until the renaissance in the 15th Century most literature and science was in Latin or Greek, and indeed, even more remote languages, and was presented to the populace at second hand, often wrapped up in religious dogma.

From 337 A. D. to c.1000 A. D. most of the world lived under the threat of ongoing war, pestilence and famine. There was little time left over for self education and, in the vast majority of peasants, not a lot of inclination to do so anyway. Those who could read and write, shut themselves up in monasteries or cathedral schools, or, if they were wealthy, in the palaces of kings and princes, keeping as remote a distance from the ignorant masses as possible.

It is small wonder then, that much of the valuable knowledge of mankind was burned or destroyed in such a time. The ancients recorded Sophocles as having written 123 plays for the ancient festivals of drama. Of these some ninety titles and but 7 tragedies have survived. Greek records show that Euripides staged at least 67 plays of which only 19 now survive.

Although the Greeks and Romans recorded their statutes and laws on papyrus and vellum, it was not until the written word was recorded on paper that the public had any real exposure to reading and writing. Speeches, drama and epic poetry were only for the educated, or for those who were prepared to devote their lives to the church, the only place where an education in Greek or Latin could be obtained.

woodcutUntil the advent of paper-making and printing, most literary works of the ancients, were archived in monasteries, buried in city walls, or yet to be discovered. The loss of industry in the production of papyrus and vellum after the fall of the Roman Empire ensured that few of the writings of men during this period ever saw the light of day.

Paper making first developed in China around 105 A.D. and reached Central Asia circa 751 A.D. The first recorded use of paper in the Middle East was in Baghdad in 793 A.D. In the seventh century the great and profound words of the Qur'an, which traditionally is the literal word of God, emerged from the revelation of Muhammad.

Indeed, Muhammad considered his revelation to be so important, he arranged for his surahs or chapters to be written on 'pieces of bark, stones, and bits of leather' ie, whatever writing material there was at hand.

In A.D. 633, shortly after his death, Zayd ibn Thabit, a companion of the prophet, is said to have collected the revelations from all their sources and to have made a copy, from which we now obtain the authoritative text of the Qur'an.

Islamic lands also gave us the great leap in mathematics brought about by the introduction of the Arabic numbering system, which included the placeholder zero, or the concept of nothingness. Traditionally the zero comes from India, although ancient records show that the Babylonians in the 5th Century B.C. used a marker for the empty or unoccupied postion in their sexagesimal positional notation system.

A citizenry that could neither read nor write would have been severely handicapped in many ways. An illiterate peasant would not have argued finer points of ethics and law with erudite monks, let alone scripture and theology. The mass of uneducated rustics in Europe spoke regional dialects of the Romance languages, and although the bishops preached to the laity in the vulgar tongue, they preached to the clergy in Latin, and kept liturgical works and business documents in Latin.

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