‘Send More Socks’: On Mentality and the Preservation Context of Medieval Letters
By Mary Garrison
New Approaches to Medieval Communication, ed. Marco Mostert (Brepols, 1999)
Introduction: The extant latin letters from early medieval western Europe can be compared to the tip of an iceberg. Yet they an unrepresentative sample. They can be demonstrated to constitute the merest subset of the total number of messages drafted and sent – namely the letters which were intentionally preserved and copied, usually because someone produced a letter-collection from some part of a sender’s drafts. Principles of selection varied of course, but in general the selectivity entailed by intentional preservation on parchment has ensured that entire categories of written communication either do not survive or else are barely attested. Informal letters, letters by the laity, ephemeral business notes (evidence of what is termed “pragmatic literacy”) and love letters are categories are all poorly represented in the extant corpus. This lacuna has sometimes led scholars to postulate reliance on oral communication for spheres of activity for which letters are lacking. Through circular reasoning, widespread lay literacy has both been seen as the cause of this lacuna, and has been inferred from it.
Comparing these Latin letters preserved in libraries with letters from other contexts which were deliberately discarded and subsequently recovered from archaeological sites can open the way to a more optimistic assessment of the extent of written communication in the early medieval West. A survey of the voices from the garbage dump – the letters on wood excavated at the Roman fortress at Vindolanda, the Bryggen harbour site in Bergen and Medieval Novgorod – can provide an illuminated contrast to the corpus of Latin letters from the early medieval West.