From “Writing Revolution” to “Printing Revolution”: European Premodern Literacy

Undergraduate Program Status

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Course Description: 

Ever since the appearance of the first electronic media and the dawn of the digital age, scholars and the wider public have been interested in drawing parallels between present-day and previous revolutions in communication. With it came the re-examination of the role the invention of the printing press played in the history of European literacy, challenging the popular image of the “dark ages,” that is, societies comprised of an almost completely illiterate population. This course offers a comprehensive overview of the introduction of writing and its consequences for premodern European societies and cultures from an anthropological, social, and literary perspective. It aims at exploring the development and dissemination of medieval texts, ideas, and modes of communication, and at explaining their transformative impact on various facets of life in premodern times. Focusing on the social and cultural significance of written records, we will follow the gradual formation process of the European literary mentality: from the renewed interest in writing during the so-called 12th-century Renaissance, the birth of universities, urban writing culture and bureaucratic administration, to the evolution of various textual communities and the invention of the printing press. We will combine the discussion of concepts and methodology based on recent scholarly surveys with the practical engagement with relevant primary sources.

Learning Outcomes: 

By the end of this course, the students will:

- be familiar with the growing significance of the written word in premodern Europe.

- will gain a nuanced understanding of literacy as the object of historical, anthropological, and sociological study, and of the multiple social functions of writing and written documents.

- will be able to navigate the fluid and dynamic field of communication, not only of premodern Europe but also of the contemporary world.

- will have an overview of the broad range of technical expertise necessary for analyzing premodern writing.


1) Timely completion of the assigned readings and regular participation in the in-class discussions. Grading will reward active participation and the relevance of comments to the specific primary sources and secondary literature discussed. (20 % of the final grade)

2) A brief oral presentation (7–10 min.) focusing on one of the topics discussed during the course. The topics will be chosen by students during the first two weeks upon previous consultation with the instructors. The presentation, which can later be developed into one of the response papers, will be followed by instant feedback by the instructor. (20 % of the final grade).

3) Every student is required to submit two response papers (ca. 1200 words) based on the readings from the session of their choice. The first response paper has to be submitted before Week 7, the second, after the end of the term, 7 days before the grading deadline.

In the response papers, students are expected to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the topics of the mandatory readings and to situate them in the broader context of premodern literacy. (2x30 % of the final grade).