Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Medieval Communication

 These days most of our communication is done by means other than talking to someone who is right next to you.  We telephone, we skype or zoom call, we email or text, we make posts on Twitter or Facebook, sometimes we even write letters.

Other than the last of these, all were impossible during the Middle Ages.  The ability to allow one's friends and relatives and co-workers, or thousands (or millions) of social media followers, to know what one is thinking has of course changed communication drastically in the last century and a half, especially the last twenty years or so.  But medieval people of course did communicate, just not the same way we do.

For them, almost all communication was of necessity face to face.  Whereas today most of feel overwhelmed by the amount of information coming in, via various communication sources (and I haven't even yet mentioned radio, TV, streaming news services, or newspapers and magazines), medieval people would have been starved for news.  Any new person coming to town, or any person returning from a trip, would have been expected to provide all sorts of information and updates, from personal news to details of battles, births of royal heirs, or miracles at a shrine.

Medieval cities were run by mayors and town councils, as I have discussed earlier, and their meetings of course would have to be done in-person.  New regulations would have to be promulgated by someone going around and telling people (hence the image of the "town crier," which persisted into early New England).

Kings would have to rely on personal representatives to spread their orders.  Charlemagne, for example, had a whole system of so-called missi (meaning "those who are sent"), people sent out from court to convey royal commands and to check up on his local counts.  Although medieval people were all comfortable with the idea of kings, they might not always know who their king was.

Then there's writing. When you think about it, it's almost magical, not only can you communicate with people who are far away, but you can receive messages from people who have been dead for centuries, or leave messages for people of the future.  Many of the messages sent out by kings would have been in writing, to avoid confusion.  Writing was valued, because preparing parchment (or in the late Middle Ages paper), making ink, and writing carefully by hand  was difficult.  The problem was that most of the population couldn't read.

If they received a written communication, they would have to have it read out to them.  For that matter, letters were normally read out loud, even if the recipient could read.  Until the thirteenth century, letters were in Latin, and even someone who could read Latin might prefer to have a number of people read and comment on a letter, to make sure the meaning was clear.

Because writing letters was rare, there was nothing like a postal system.  Letters had to be hand carried.  We know that husbands wrote their wives from Crusade, and that monks wrote to their friends at other monasteries, because these letters were preserved and often copied into books.  They only could reach the recipient if someone was going that way and could carry the letter.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval communication, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback from on-line retailers.

No comments:

Post a Comment