Book Review: Literacy in Lombard Italy, c. 568-774

23 Oct

Everett, Nicholas, Literacy in Lombard Italy, c. 568-774. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2003). ISBN:978-0-521-17410.

This is a book which discusses the uses of writing and written forms of communication during the period of Lombard rule in Italy. Whether this truly represents literacy will be discussed below. 1

Everett opens by providing a brief historical narrative discussing Italy prior to the Lombards and detailing the first years following their arrival. He then examines examples of Lombard writing, dividing these by chapters in well-ordered, logical categories. The titles of chapters three through seven are simple and descriptive of their contents; “Language and Literacy,” “Law and Government,” “Charters,” “Inscriptions” and, “Manuscripts.”

Everett spends most of the book closely examining surviving texts. Charters, law codes and monumental inscriptions are described in some depth regarding their form, functions, evolution and authorship. Manuscript production in Bobbio and Monte Casigno receive considerable attention. A section on the use of scripts is particularly detailed and informative. (306-16) If you want to know what Lombard writing has survived, this book will prove to be a very good resource.

However this is the high point. In examining the quality of this book the first question which comes to mind is; Does Everett in fact address literacy? I believe he does not. He extensively discusses the forms of writings, their uses and dissemination. He provides detailed information on various forms of texts and inscriptions. He provides excellent information regarding the evolution of Lombard law codes. Yet nowhere is there a discussion of the level of literacy among the population. Instead he resorts to a sort of “literacy by implication.” As many texts are in existence and many more must have been present during the period, literacy must have been at a fairly high level. There will have been significant numbers of literate, certainly among the higher levels of society. Unfortunately, Everett never attempts to quantify this or even provide detailed evidence regarding it and the existence or nonexistence of lay literacy is never addressed. Indeed, the most substantial argument for literacy is contained in the introduction where Everett argues that while literacy levels may not have been high, the use of formulaic subscriptions and the number of witnesses signing charters indicates that a substantial portion of the population recognized the importance of writing, though they may not have been literate. (10) This is less a book about literacy than one which examines the uses of writing. To truly explore literacy, a focus must be on the authors and readers. While the former receives some attention, the latter does not. 2

This examination of the writings is the most valuable part of the book. The discussion of surviving texts and inscriptions is detailed and well done. Everett’s structure in examining writings in various contexts is useful in helping to describe various aspects of Lombard administration and governance.

More difficult to assess is what it means. Everett provides several bold statements. He believes that, “… a unified, widely diffused native Lombardic language may never have existed.” (100) As a result, the Lombards quickly adopted Latin for their texts. This raises the question of the survival of Germanic terms in many texts, including law-codes. He believes these may have originated from a variety of dialects, not a single one, and represents allies and other barbarian groups the Lombards may have been in communication with, not from a Lombard language. (110) This is an interesting thesis and may be true, however Everett provides little evidence in support of it. Subsequently, he argues against a period of bilingualism such as others have proposed. This is an important point, however again the argument is insubstantial. 3

Another interesting thesis is that of Roman continuity. Everett argues that Lombard administrative structures and documentary practices illustrate a high degree of continuity from the Roman period; “The form and content of Lombard charters suggest that, far from being products of a less organized and less literate post-Roman political order, the charters of Lombard Italy have deep Roman roots in a legal culture of property law and practice that changed little, if at all, with the arrival of the new barbarian overlords.” (198) With this statement, Everett displays a belief that not only did administrative practices continue from the Roman period, but the literacy level among the population involved in political activities was equivalent during the Roman and Lombard periods. Both of these assertions lack supportive evidence and with regards to literacy levels remaining unchanged, considerable evidence to the contrary exists. Such a bold statement requires substantial, detailed evidence however this is not forthcoming. 4

It is worth taking some space to explore one of his arguments in detail. For this I am going to select a discussion of the Lombard use of seal-rings on pages 170 and 171. Everett discusses the finding of a seal-ring from a mid-seventh century grave at Trezzo d’Adda. He then considers whether a seal-ring was commonly used including, “Although Rothari’s law did not specifically mention a seal or seal-ring, the wording of ‘aut recognitum seu requisitum’ is sufficiently indeterminate to render it plausible.” (my emphasis) Later he adds, “Admittedly, seal-rings are not much evidence of literacy per se – the use of seals may even be termed ‘sub-literacy’ – but they are a visual counterpart to written communication, icons which help to validate the message and thus are part of the message itself. Their existence presupposes a literate stratum of communication and testifies to the tenacity of Roman traditions of government.”

In examining this, several aspects of the argument are missing. For one, in equating Lombard uses of seal-rings with Roman, a discussion of how they were used in Roman administration followed by comparing and contrasting these uses with Lombard uses, would be entirely appropriate and, in my opinion, necessary if such a connection is to be made. The use of the term “plausible” in the argument is insufficient. To make this connection, “plausible” must become “likely” or “probable”. This should include a discussion of alternatives such as the likelihood that Lombard use was either due to independently coming up with a similar solution to a similar problem or even to Lombard uses being “inspired by” Roman uses, but not through a continuous use handed down from the fifth century. The structure of the argument and the evidence presented is not sufficient either to support Lombard use as stated by Everett or the connection he proposes with Roman uses. His footnotes in this section provide little help, noting one secondary source arguing that the passages actually preclude the use of seal-rings and another in which the author is undecided.

This type of argument is not an isolated case. The seal-ring discussion is interesting however to truly examine it requires more than a few hundred words and much more detail. This reads more as a thesis statement than as a statement of proof. Overall, his arguments for Roman continuity are among the weakest in the book and are peppered with statements such as “plausible” and “possible”. This is unfortunate as the concepts he proposes are interesting and important, if sufficient evidence is given. I am unable to flatly state that he is wrong with these arguments as I do not have the knowledge of the sources or other secondary books to make such a judgement however I am comfortable in stating that I believe the structure of his arguments and the evidence given are often insufficient.

Overall, this often reads as some sort of Lombard apologetic. While it is unlikely that the Lombards were the cause of the bulk of the damage done to the Italian peninsula in the sixth century, they did inherit a scarred region, one in which it was difficult to pick up the pieces of Roman society for inclusion in the kingdom. Everett’s assertions of Roman continuity and high levels of literacy on a par with Roman society are questionable, at best, at least without substantially more evidence than is provided here.

In the end this book shows promise but disappoints. While Everett provides detailed examinations of Lombard writings, he fails to provide the type of evidence to support many of his conclusions. The book contains a great deal of information regarding charters, texts, inscriptions and scripts. There are some interesting, possibly even exciting concepts proposed. Unfortunately, the arguments in support of these concepts are frequently flawed and lack sufficient evidence. Lombard society provides evidence of literacy, and writing was important in administrative and social structures, at the elite level at least, and within this context, this book is valuable. However when Everett steps beyond these discussions, the flaws in this book become apparent.

1 I rarely review a book where I am not fairly familiar with the topic under discussion. This book is an exception. I have read some on the Lombards but do not consider myself to be any type of authority on them and have only a passing familiarity with the texts discussed. However the major issues here are with the author’s arguments and I am comfortable discussing these.

2 You’ll note that one of my problems with this book is in its title. It should not have been titled as a book on literacy rather than one on the uses of writing. While the existence of texts is an aspect of literacy, to truly be considered a book on literacy, I believe more attention must be given to those who wrote and those who may have read. The former receives some attention, though not enough, the latter receives almost none, beyond the vagueness of the general theme that if written materials existed there must have been someone to read them. Such is true, but this is not enough for a book on literacy. This would be less of a problem if the promotional materials did not repeat and emphasize the error. For example, the back cover on my paperback edition opens with, “Italy had long experienced literacy under Roman rule but what happened to literacy in Italy under the rule of a barbarian people?”

3 For an argument in favor of a bilingual period see, Wolfgang Haubrichs, “Langobardic Personal Names: Given Names and Name-Giving Among the Langobards,” in, Ausenda, G., Delogu, P., and Wickham, C., eds., (2009). See p. 217 and the subsequent discussion on pp. 242-50.

4 For arguments conflicting with this see Wickham, (2006), pp. 115-22 and Paolo Delogu, “Kingship and the Shaping of the Lombard Body Politic” in Ausenda, G., Delogu, P., and Wickham, C., eds., (2009). Wickham provides substantial evidence against Everett’s argument for extensive Lombard taxation structures through Everett’s period while Delogu substantially discusses the differences in Lombard Italy from Roman with emphasis on Roman society having been so fractured due to the Gothic Wars that developing a successor kingdom utilizing substantial Roman structures was impossible.

Ausenda, G., Delogu, P., and Wickham, C., eds., The Langobards before the Frankish Conquest: An Ethnographic Perspective. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press (2009). ISBN: 978-1-84383-490-8.

Wickham, Chris, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19-921296-5.


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