'I wyl wright of women prevy sekenes'

Imagining Female Literacy and Textual Communities in Medieval and Early Modern Midwifery Manuals

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 Allegheny College jhellwar@allegheny.edu
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Defining the term ‘literacy’ in medieval and early modern England is not a simple task; it defies the more modern (and relatively uncomplicated) definition of having the ability to read and write. In medieval terminology, a litteratus was someone who was learned in Latin, while an illitteratus was someone who was not. Eventually, litteratus and illitteratus came to be associated with the clergy and laity respectively. But these terms were not used for describing literacy in the vernacular, or the various categories and levels of competence in both reading and writing, either in Latin or in the vernacular. Recently, scholars have increasingly been thinking in terms of multiple ‘literacies’, especially when considering the more elusive female literacy. In her 1998 book, Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England, Eve Sanders asserts that literacy practices following the Reformation played a role in the formation of gender identity, and that ‘different levels and forms of literacy’ were assigned to each gender. Sanders contributes to what is the project of a growing number of literary scholars, such as Margaret Ferguson and Frances Dolan, who study literacy using gender as a category of examination. By adding gender to the mix, these scholars challenge the more narrow definitions of literacy such as those established by David Cressy’s influential Literacy and the Social Order. They have sought instead to define literacies by exploring the multiple ways in which the ‘products of a culture can be acquired and transmitted.’

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