Human population graph, showing a huge dip at the time of the Black Death. The population in Europe was much higher in 1300 than it was in 1400. The second dip is due to the devastating 30 Years War in the mid 17th Century

The 14th Century: Famine, war, plague and demographic collapse.  The rise of the vernacular and vernacular literature.  The paper mill spreads north of the Alps.  Secular schools.  Precursors of the printing press.  The Three Fountains of Italy.  The Brethren of the Common Life, Devotio Moderna, and the lay scriptoria.  Maeren and the Pratica della mercatura.  Books of Hours, the Commonplace book.  Books of Adventure and Romance.  The Humanists and the new Universities.

This is the third in a series of articles about literacy in medieval Europe, intended as a resource for historical fencers, researchers in the HEMA and WMA communities, and historical researchers in general, as well as for anyone interested in the period.   The goal of these papers is to provide both a general overview as well as some links to specific academic literature and primary sources related to the subject, as well as some analysis.  This series so far has been broken up into roughly one essay per century.  Part 1 covered literacy leading up to the 12th Century, Part 2 covered literacy in the 13th Century, and this this essay will review literacy in the 14th.

As I pointed out in Part 1 of the series, when we consider the context of historical fencing literature, it can be valuable to include the literary side of the equation.  What I hope to do with these articles is examine who could read and write in each century, (and therefore how much of a market existed for books of any kind) what kind of institutions were available related to producing and copying books, to public and private education, and the development of literature, and what specific kinds of books were people reading.  In parts 1 and 2 I reviewed the spread of the water-powered paper mill throughout Spain and Italy and the rise of translating schools and the first universities in Spain, France, Italy, and England.

While the 13th Century was still very generally speaking a period of prosperity in which the European population and economy grew rapidly, the 14th Century was characterized by disasters, (famine, economic collapse, climate change and plague), wars (esp. the arrival of the Turks in the Balkans) and social upheaval.  The European population plummeted to levels it never recovered from for several generations, but socially and politically, it recovered fairly quickly, and at the same time there were strong technological and economic advancements which continued from the previous long-lasting boom periods.

The most important event of the century by far was the onset of the Black Death which had a catastrophic effect on population, which didn’t fully recover until midway through the 16th Century.   Towns in the 15th Century had much smaller populations than they did in the 13th.  The effects on the European economy were drastic and initially damaging, but those specific technological developments and social changes related to literacy continued and even surged ahead.

Spread of paper mill north of the Alps


15th Century map of Nuremberg, from the Nuremberg Chronicle. The Stromer mill complex is depicted in the lower right of the image.

By the dawn of the 14th Century paper was a major export product of Italy and Spain and there were dozens of water powered paper mills active especially in Italy.  Venice in particular had become a substantial exporter. The first ‘proven’ paper mill north of the Alps is the famous one associated with the Stromer family of Nuremberg. The Stromers were merchant-manufacturers who owned a series of water-mill production complexes on the Pegnitz river south of the city. At some point around 1387, a certain Ulman Stromer either stole, was given or purchased the plans for a paper mill from Venice, amidst some intrigue between Nuremberg and Venice that was going on at that time.   Within 3 years he had the mill set up and running just outside the city walls. The Stromer mill is shown clearly in the ‘map’ of Nuremberg from the Nuremberg Chronicle of the late 15th Century, outside of the city walls because as anyone who has ever lived or been near a paper mill knows very well, paper mills stink and towns had regulations against smelly industries which prevented them from being inside the walls.


Closeup of the Stromer mill

There were several other possible paper mills in Germany and in France dated to the early 14th Century, but it’s hard to distinguish in the records between certain types of stamping and fulling mills and the much rarer paper mills, and the records from the 14th Century aren’t definitive on this subject. Personally I believe that paper mills were probably north of the Alps by the 1320’s but it would be well beyond the scope of this essay to try to prove that. We can say definitively that they were established by 1390 and spread very fast from there, since paper mills seem to already exist in all of the cities that later established printing presses starting in the mid 15th Century.

Block Printing

Printing using cut wooden blocks on cloth began to become a common ancillary of the textile industry by 1300. As paper became more and more available through the next several decades, artists began experimenting with block-printing on paper. By the end of the century an industry of block printing cheap religious images and playing cards (including the Tarot) had spread widely throughout the urbanized zones of Europe (northern Italy, Flanders, the Rhineland etc).

Laws against playing cards started to appear as early as 1334 (in Spain) and their use was regulated in a Paris law of 1377. Centers of Card (block) printing appeared in Ulm, Nuremberg and Augsburg by the end of the Century.

Secularization of urban schools

Another important change which started in the 13th Century but accelerated in the 14th was that of towns establishing their own grammar schools outside of the control of the Church. Until the late 13th Century, most urban schools were controlled by the Mendicant Orders of Friars, particularly the Franciscans, Carthusians and Dominicans.   The scale of this could be impressive, in part II of this series I pointed out that a period observer noted that 8,000 boys and girls were being educated annually in the municipal schools of Florence by the end of the 13th Century.  Municipal tax records show us that schools in Paris run by the four mendicant Orders taught 12,000 boys and girls each year (source, page 289).  Paris was unusual in France for having such extensive public education, Tours for example only had 100 students enrolled as late as the mid-15th Century.   The only other region of France where it was common was in Langeduc, and in Northern France near Flanders and Burgundy.  However in medium to larger towns in Flanders and the Low Countries, Northern Italy, and the urbanized parts of Germany public grammar schools were already commonplace in the 13th Century and were almost universal by the 14th.  They were also well established in Aragon in what is now north-eastern Spain, and in some of the larger towns in what are now Poland and the Czech Republic.

The schools run by the Dominicans and Franciscans generally taught a Latin curriculum, but the schools set up by the municipal authorities (the first of these were called ‘song schools’) taught reading and writing and other subjects in the local vernacular.

School typically began at age 6 or 7, and continued until at least age 14 for boys, or 12 for girls.  Some students went further into one of several types of secondary schools, though these were more exclusive and students only attended them for a short time.   The merchant Jan Sloesgin, who moved from Holland to Cologne in the late 14th Century, mentioned in his memoir that he sent his daughter to school at Klein St Martins at the age of 6 (source, page 289).  School typically began on 12 March.  Secondary schools included ‘schools of commerce’ where students were taught arithmetic, book-keeping, commercial correspondence, foreign languages and geography.  As I noted in part II of this series, the public school in Wroclaw / Breslau, founded in 1267 was teaching the subjects of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, grammar in the vernacular, logic, philosophy, and the physics of Aristotle (at a very basic level) to children of both sexes up to the age of 14.  Most urban schools taught at least grammar and arithmetic.

In some places the rivalry between the municipal schools and those run by the religious Orders caused serious social tension within the town. For example Lübeck obtained a papal dispensation to found a municipal school over the objection of the local Cathedral in 1262.  The Hamburg Chronicle relates that riots and street fights between students of the Dominican school and students of the municipal school in the Altstadt got so bad that the city council had to intervene, in what the Chronicler called the “schoolboy wars” of 1286-1292. Hamburg created a new school in the Neustadt in 1286. Boys from the Cathedral school in the Altstadt fought with the boys from the new school. Each side had their own ‘war cries’. Parents got involved, there were religious vs. secular overtones, as well as class and neighborhood loyalties involved. By 1287 large mobs got into fights so often, that according to the chronicle “So many men and women were killed the city council intervened and tried to establish a truce.” The Altstadt and Neustadt municipalities officially merged in 1292 which reduced tensions. But the violence continued intermittently until 1337.  By 1300 disputes between town and Church authorities over control of the schools were common throughout Europe but particularly North of the Alps (source, page 290)

By about 1350, most of these town schools taught reading and writing in the vernacular, which further contributed to the systematic development of vernacular written language.  By the 1280 Flemish had replaced Latin both for town schools and municipal record keeping in Ghent, and this had spread to Bruges by 1300.  Special writing school that appeared in German, Italian and Flemish towns in the late 14th Century taught specific techniques for writing various types of letters in the local vernacular language (German, Italian or Flemish) instead of Latin.  Wax tablets found in medieval latrines near the St. Jacob school in Lübeck from the 14th Century show that students were being taught to write (whether they appreciated it or not) by copying commercial letters in Low German.  The city council of Hamburg founded several of these schools in 1402 (source, page 291).

The most common text book used for arithmetic in secondary schools was, interestingly, Leonardo Fibbonacci‘s abbaco “the abacus”, originally written in the 13th Century.  It’s worth noting that in spite of its name the book does not rely on an abacus but assumes that the reader has access to paper or parchment.  The book covered arithmetic, algorithm, algebra and geometry, and perhaps taught readers to use the “Arabic” (Indian) number system instead of the far more cumbersome Roman numerals.  Other books which were used for instruction included Aesop’s Fables, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Boccaccio’s Decameron, various works by Cicero (particularly valued by municipal authorities due to the overt urban patriotism in his writing) and Aristotle’s Politics and Nichomachean Ethics (source, page 293)

Increasing prominence of vernacular literature







Vernacular literature as such was still fairly rare in the 13th Century, when writing in the vernacular was still largely limited to pragmatic and mercantile purposes, i.e. receipts, bills, letters of credit, commenda contracts and so forth. In the 14th Century however, there was an explosive growth in the stature and popularity of literature written in the vernacular. By far the most important figures in the development of this literature were three Italian poets: (Giovanni) Boccaccio, Dante (Durante degli Alighieri), and Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca), together known as “the three fountains” of Italian literary culture.

Just as Chaucer and Shakespeare contributed to the development of English as a written language, the “the three fountains” cannot be underestimated in their importance of literally creating the written vernacular language of what eventually became Italian.

The development of the vernacular as a written language through literature was not limited to Italy but grew at this time in different regions. Bocccaccio’s Decameron is of a very particular type of literary genre, collections of somewhat risqué short stories, which is similar in structure to that of the famous Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, and even The Arabian Nights.   In southern Germany, Bohemia and the Rhineland this type of literary form took on a very interesting and unique regional variation called the Maeren.


Maeren or Mären were something like a fusion of contemporary detective or noire genre stories with Brothers Grimm fairy tales, if they had been produced by HBO. The stories are titillating and hinge on violent incidents, scandals, and (especially) erotic situations and liaisons, but typically also feature a moral or didactic subtext. They depict a combination of the world as it really is with the world as the author feels it should be. The former is largely populated by scoundrels, fools, and reprobates: devious priests and monks, adulterous wives and husbands, femmes fatale, rapacious princes and murderous robber knights, and spooky alchemists. The world as the author wishes it would be is represented by the protagonist: a man or (quite often) a woman of unique intelligence. These protagonists are similar to the heroes of detective novels in the sense that they typically overcome the malicious people and dangerous situations they must contend with by their cool intelligence, and they stick to their guns in terms of their own ethical code.

The nature of these stories are also somewhat subversive.  Mären were typically written from the point of view of urban people and are usually set in towns.  The Church, Kings, Princes, and even town authorities are frequently ridiculed. The erotic and criminal aspects of the stories defy moral standards, but they also depict a way for more or less honest people to navigate a morally dubious world. We know of at least one fight-book author, Hans Folz of Nuremberg, who wrote Maeren.

Mären often start with a formulaic opening before getting into the story, one common theme is to describe who told the author the story and claims of its veracity, another is to introduce the author (often a psuedonym) and describe how long it took to write the story. And perhaps the most common is to begin with an admonition which should be familiar to HEMA fencers: “young man, honor women…” 


The city of Florence, from 1490

The Pratica della mercatura

Another very interesting literary development of the 14th Century was the Pratica della mercatura.  This is a modern (18th Century) name for a book written by a Florentine merchant named Francesco Balducci Pegolotti some time between 1339 and 1340.  Pegolotti’s fascinating manuscript describes the authors own extensive travels around Europe and the Mediterranean, (Surviving records show that he traveled widely, appearing in Antwerp in 1315, London in 1317, in Cyprus from 1324-1327 and again in the 1330s) but also included mercantile lore and practical knowledge compiled by Italian merchants over several generations.  One of his most important sources was another manuscript called Hec est memoria de tucte le mercantie come carican le navi in Alexandria e li pesi come tornano duna terra addunaltra, compiled in Pisa in 1279 AD.   By the end of the 13th Century of course, Italian merchants had reached very far afield indeed, and the maritime republics of Genoa, Florence, Venice, Pisa and others, had established permanent trading centers not only throughout Europe, but also in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and even as far away as China.  By the 14th Century we know there were established colonies of Italian merchants in China.  There has even been a gravestone found of a Genoese woman, Katarina Villioni.

The Pratica della mercatura represents a specific type of mercantile literature of the high to late medieval period, which began to mature in the 14th Century.  It combines some elements of a travelogue, with an enormous amount of useful practical information related to travel and trade in distant lands.  These often cryptic manuscripts and letters were collected and compiled into newer and better documents.  Just as Pegolotti’s book was inspired by an earlier Pisan work, he in turn was a major influence on the Venetian Tarifa zoè noticia dy pexi e mexure di luogi e tere che s’adovra marcadantia per el mondo, published in the 1340’s, and they also appeared as part of larger tomes, such as Luca Pacioli‘s Summa de arithmetica, published in 1494.


This is just a small part of the Catalan Atlas, but it gives you a good idea of it’s surprising accuracy, more than 100 years before Christopher Columbus

Not all of these works were Italian in origin, another fascinating example of this genre was the Catalan Atlas, a combination trade book of the Pratica della mercatura type, with a beautiful and sophisticated map of the world. Scholars believe the Atlas was written by a Jewish scholar from Majorca named Abraham Cresques, a self described master of maps and charts and of geography and geometry.  Cresques was hired by Prince John of Aragon to make nautical charts for 150 golden florins, which ended up becoming the Atlas, published in 1375.  This book created a sensation when it was produced and is stunning in it’s accuracy, depicting not just Europe but also Asia all the way to China.  For a closeup view of part the map, click here.

Perhaps the most remarkable book of this type was the Codex Cumanicus, a Genoese guidebook, originally written in the 13th or possibly even the 12th Century, but gradually improved by generations of Italian merchants until a definitive copy was produced around 1330.  The first part of this books containsthe first known dictionary translating words from Latin to Cuman (or Kipchak) one of the principal languages of the Mongol Hordes of Central Asia, in addition to numerous phrases and words in Persian.  The rest of the manual included the usual technical details and advice to the traveling merchant, covering travel all the way to China.  These manuals cover basically everything a merchant needed to know about trading in Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and along the Silk Road, including such details as security, weights and measures, currencies and exchange rates, and what trade goods were sought for purchase and available for sale in different ports.


A page from the Codex Cumanicus, depicting a parrot

Goods listed as traded to the Chinese included: wax, tin, copper, cotton, madder, cheese, flax, and oil, honey, saffron, raw amber, amber beads, vair-skins, ermines, foxes, sables, fitches and martens, wolf skins, deerskins, and all cloths of silk or gold, pearls, wheat, Greek wine and all Latin wines “sold by the cask”. Malmsey and wines of Triglia and Candia “sold by the measure”. Caviar “sold by the fusco, and a fusco is the tail-half of the fish’s skin, full of fish’s roe”. Suet “in jars”, iron “of every kind”, tin, lead, zibibbo “or raisins of every kind, and the mats go as raisins, with no allowance for tare unless they be raisins of Syria. In that case the baskets or hampers are allowed for as tare, and remain with the buyer into the bargain”. Soap of Venice, soap of Ancona, and soap of Apulia “in wooden cases. They make tare of the cases, and then these go to the buyer for nothing. But the soap of Cyprus and of Rhodes is in sacks, and the sacks go as soap with no tare allowance”.

The goods purchased in China are equally interesting: Raw silk, silk-gauze, dressed silk, ginger, cubebs, lign-aloes, rhubarb; mace, long pepper, ladanum, galangal [an aromatic root], broken camphor; nutmegs; spike (spike lavender? Spikenard?], cardamoms, scam-mony, pounding pearls, manna, borax, gum Arabic, dragon’s blood [?], camel’s bay, turbit [a drug from the East Indies], sweet-meats, gold wire.

The Codex Cumanicus also describes several riddles, on the pretense that a traveler may need to know the answers.   Some examples include:

  • Aq küymengin avuzı yoq. Ol yumurtqa.
“The white kibitka has no mouth (opening). That is the egg.”
  • Kökçä ulahım kögende semirir. Ol huvun.
“my bluish kid at the tethering rope grows fat, The melon.”
  • Oturğanım oba yer basqanım baqır canaq. Ol zengi.
“Where I sit is a hilly place. Where I tread is a copper bowl. The stirrup.”

These books, while of immense practical value to merchants of their day, are almost equally useful to modern researchers due to the insights they provide into the time period.  They also give us a model of a certain type of medieval book which was becoming increasingly ubiquitous, compilations of practical knowledge of many different  types, such as we see in some of the commonplace books which would later include fencing manuals (such as the 3227a)


Marco and Nicolo Polo leave Constantinople, from a 15th Century book

 Travel Literature

Less pragmatic but equally interesting travel literature was also very popular in this period.  Perhaps the most important was the wildly famous account by the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, Il Milione, first published around 1300.  More than enough has been said about this amazing manuscript, and it’s wild popularity was only matched by it’s influence.  Perhaps seeking to exploit the growing interest in literature about traveling to distant lands, someone, probably a Flemish monk or physician from Ypres, claiming to be an English Knight called Sir John Mandeville, wrote a fantastic and at least partly spurious travelogue.  The real author was probably an individual by the name of Jehan a la Barbe, an educated man and collector of travel books.


Spread of the scriptoria

The rate of the production of manuscripts in Europe increased somewhat during the Carolingian period, but suddenly doubled between the 11th and 12th Centuries, and then doubled again from the 12th and 13th Centuries, from less than one million manuscripts to almost two million.  During the 14th Century the output continued to increase, reaching 2.7 million by the year 1400, though not as fast as before due undoubtedly to the Black Death and subsequent demographic collapse. The role of Christian communities, both part of the official Church and outside of it particularly the Religious Orders, continued to be very important in the 14th Century for the continued spread of literacy and the accelerating production of books.   The scriptoria became one of the most important businesses for several religious orders. In particular, cloistered monks and friars from the orders of the Benedictines, Cistercians (starting in Citeaux in Burgundy in the 12th Century), and Carthusians were producing psalm books and written sermons as well as manuscripts of all kinds which were approved by the church, especially the Classical and Arabic translations which continued to be very popular.


Production of manuscripts in Europe doubled between 1100 and 1200, and doubled again between 1200 and 1300, but slowed slightly in the 1300’s only to surge forward (and almost doubled again) in the 1400’s.

Lay Christian communities, including the Beguines and a very important new group that appeared called the Brethren / Sisters of the Common Life, helped establish an important reform called the Devotio Moderna which emphasized a type of Christian meditation and was associated with popular religious literature such as psalters, breviaries, psalm books and new types such as Books of Hours. This further developed the scriptoria as an industry, one which the brethren themselves became involved in. These new lay scriptoria, which existed outside of the control of the Church or the Universities, but under the protection of town governments, started in Flanders, then spread into France, the Rhineland and southern Germany, and then to some towns in Northern Italy such as Venice (towns outside of Papal authority).

The lay scriptoria also allowed the demand for popular literature such as maeren and romance novels and poems and so on (considered frivolous by the Church) to be met, and for various other types of lay literature, much of it in the vernacular, to be copied and widely spread around. Both lay and clerical scriptoria developed into growing industries and were a booming business in most of the 14th Century. As the demand for books fed the demand for paper, the increase in the number of paper mills and the growth of the paper export industry in turn made books cheaper and brought more of the public into the business of buying and selling books.

Spread of booksellers in the marketplace

Booksellers are recorded as entering the marketplace in many towns in the 14th Century. Starting in 1346 in Paris booksellers known as Librarii were given special dispensations to sell books to non-University students, and to rent books. They were given special tax exemptions and had a regulated profit margin controlled by the Paris University, which could be 4 deniers for books sold to students but 6 deniers for books sold to non-students.

Booksellers and libraries in taverns

One of the more interesting (and to me very unexpected) places that booksellers show up in the 14th Century is in inns and taverns. In her book Bacchus and Civic Order, professor Ann Tlusty notes that taverns in Germany often had small libraries and were host to booksellers on a weekly or monthly basis.

Personal ownership of books, private reading


Depictions of people reading from the Wolfegg housebook.

In previous centuries reading, especially of non-religious texts, was something done in public, or in small groups. By the 14th Century, in the more developed parts of Europe, manuscripts had become common and cheap enough (though still expensive) and literacy widespread enough, that people began to collect books for their own personal use. This meant books were increasingly read alone by individuals, and we see many changes to how books were organized and the style of prose and poetry in them which re-orient the literary medium to individual use.

Late manuscript culture

Part of the above change is reflected in what we call Late Manuscript Culture. From circa 1350 added tables of contents, lists of chapters, running headlines, page numbers in Arabic numerals, indexes. New standards established in Scriptoria in the Low Countries late 14th C. Manuscripts increasingly made from paper of improved quality instead of parchment . New scripts like Hybrida, Cursiva and Textualis were invented or became more standardized at this time, establishing trends which would become the basis for the scripts used by Gutenburg in his first printing press (for his 42 line bible he used the textualis script as the basis for his new typeface font).

Spread of public and private libraries

In addition to inns and taverns, in this period we begin to see records showing public, semi-private and private libraries in Cathedrals, castles, churches, monasteries, guild halls, and private homes (especially the palaces of wealthy gentry and the elegant “hotels” of the urban patriciate). Many people who could not afford books of their own thus gained access to books and to the knowledge they contained.

Spread of Universities, dawn of Humanism

Universities continue to spread, particularly North of the Alps, though not at the explosive pace of the 13th Century.  New Universities were founded during the 14th Century in Prague, Vienna, Cologne, Erfurt, Heidelburg, Krakow and Buda.   Within the Universities, Aristotlean Scholasticism began to face a rival with the rise of Humanism especially toward the end of the 14th Century. To the previous Trivium (Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, with a heavy emphasis on Logic) and Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy) which together formed the Seven Liberal Arts, was now added a new context, the studia humanitatis.  Unlike the remarkable new works of the “Three Fountains” of Italy, Humanist writings were almost exclusively in Latin or (more rarely) Greek.  Some Humanist scholars even went so far as to criticize the likes of Dante for writing in the ‘vulgar’ language of the common people.  So while Humanism in some respects represented what was arguably and in certain limited respects a more enlightened worldview, in celebrating the literature of the Classical world, it was also an elitist movement.

Literate and Illiterate Europe: the rise of the new literati

In Latin Europe in the 14th Century there were three levels of literacy: those who could read and write Latin, who were considered the truly literate, and could communicate easily with other literati around Europe; those who could read and write only in their own local dialect or the vernacular, who were considered literate but to a limited degree (especially since they could only communicate with those who also read their own dialect) and those who were illiterate.

The first type of literacy, the true literacy in the eyes of educated people of this time period, was still mostly restricted to the more educated members of the Church and to a professional cadre of clerks and administrators of the Royal and princely governments. By the 14th Century, the second type of literacy, literacy in the vernacular, was widespread in the urban middle and working classes and among the lower levels of the Church, and some of the gentry and peasants in the more developed zones of Europe. This usually included limited exposure to Latin and also Greek, depending on the curriculum of the local school system, but not true literacy or fluency in those languages.

In the 13th Century vernacular literacy was limited largely to business use, receipts and invoices and so on, as well as private letters. The explosion of new vernacular literature published in the 14th Century did more than anything else to elevate the written vernacular dialects to the level of true written languages, establishing norms of grammar and spelling and so on, as well as a characteristic regional style of writing, and creating a baseline of literary tradition. By the end of the 14th Century the vernacular was an acceptable means of writing almost any kind of literature, including technical manuals like fight-books, though most religious texts were still strictly controlled by the church.

In addition to the local dialect, there could also be some training in other trade languages and dialects. Many Genoese merchants of the 14th Century for example learned Cuman, the dialect adapted by the Mongol hordes for trade along the Silk Road. In Europe too vernacular dialects began to coalesce into broader ‘meta’ dialects as written languages during the 14th Century. For example, around 1350 a new ‘meta’ dialect we now call Early New High German began to develop in Southern Germany and the Rhineland, which made it easier for townsfolk and nobles to communicate in the vernacular to more distant places. This became the language of the Imperial Court of the Holy Roman Emperor. In the north of Germany along the Baltic coast Low German, a mostly German dialect with a mixture of Saxon, Frisian, Dutch, Scandinavian and Polish elements, became the lingua franca of the trading cities all the way from Hamburg in the West to Tallinn and Riga in the far north East. Low German (‘low’ meaning that it was from the low-lying lands close to the sea in Northern Europe, not in any pejorative sense) was the language of the Hanseatic League and was the administrative language of the vast territories of the Teutonic and Livonian Orders.

As the “Three Fountains” were developing the regional language of Italian in Italy, more broadly in the Mediterranean, a new Lingua Franca trade language called sabir was coalescing, which made trade throughout the Mare Nostrum possible.  Originally developed by Venetian and Genoese merchants colonies in the Middle East around the year 1000 AD, it came to include Iberian, Greek, Turkish and Arabic elements, and was used for commercial transactions across a distance of thousands of miles.

By 1400, while there were significant literate zones (Northern Italy, the Low Countries, the Rhineland, parts of Catalonia, Prussia and Bohemia and the larger towns throughout Europe), much of Europe outside of these areas was still illiterate. In rural France, England, Castile and Muscovy (most of Russia), as well as certain districts in Germany and Austria, the Balkans, and much of Southern Italy to name just a few places, literacy was still rare. In some cases we can see that even priests and nobles could only leave a mark on documents that they had to sign, whereas in towns like Florence, even lowly apprentices were expected to be able to read and write and perform arithmetic at a young age. Literacy also varied enormously in quality.  While Italian merchants were writing accurate travel manuals with minute technical details for trading down the Silk Road all the way to Persia, India and China, aristocrats in France and England were not even sure ‘Cathay’ really existed and were more amused anyway with the fantastical tales of Sir John of Mandeville, with his stories of one-footed giants and lambs growing on trees.

Literacy was a gift to the people of the more developed and urbanized zones of Europe experiencing what we now call the early Renaissance, and it gave them a distinct advantage economically and technologically over their cousins in other parts of the continent.  But all that of course, was destined to change at the end of the 15th Century, with the opening of the Atlantic.

Examples of 14th Century books

The works of a 13th Century Muslim alchemist named Hasan Al-Rammah were translated and copied many times in the 14th Century. His manuscript included 107 gunpowder and saltpeter recipes, as well as plans for what may have been the world’s first ever naval torpedo.

Boccacio’s Decameron

Dante’s Divine Comedy

Petrarch’s Pro Archia Poeta

Discovered by Petrarch in 1333 during a visit to Liège, in the Low Countries, that other crucial center of medieval culture which rivaled Northern Italy, he copied down the words of the already well regarded Auctore, the Roman poet Cicero, in defense of a poet of his own time, and by extension, a strong intellectual defense of literature and poetry:

These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity; they delight us when we are at home without hindering us in the wider world, and are with us at night, when we travel and when we visit the countryside”

Because of Cicero’s recognized role as an Auctore, this effectively also meant a strong legal and theological defense of poetry, poets, and art in general, for its own sake, which was a departure from orthodoxy as interpreted by some educated authorities of 14th Century Europe. It helped establish the basis for the onset of Humanism, but also for other vernacular literature, and particularly, self consciously urban literarue.

Chaucer’s Canterbury tales which everyone knows from school

Vegetius De Re Militari arguably the single most important and influential military manual for medieval scholars and soldiers.

Liber Ignium

Arguably the most current and up to date manual of pyrotechnics available in the 14th Century, it had better gunpowder formulae than in the works of Roger Bacon or Thomas Aquinas, as well as critically important methods  for refining the salt of St. Peter (potassium nitrate) so that it in fact formed potassium nitrate and not calcium nitrate which caused severe problems with moisture when made into gunpowder.  A copy of the Liber Ignium was included in the 3227a.

Codex Cumanicus

A fascinating guidebook for trading on the silk road, apparently compiled over several generations by Genoese and Venetian travelers, the earliest known copy of which dates to 1330 AD.  The Codex Cumanicus includes a Cuman to Latin / Italian dictionary as well as partial Persian -Latin dictionary.  In addition it includes all kinds of useful information about trading on the Silk Road including policies, dangers, places where certain commodities could be bought or sold, advice on dealing with local officials and so on.  By the 14th Century both Genoa and Venice were trading directly with China.

The Mirror of Simple Souls, and other works of Heilwige Bloemardinne

We unfortunately do not have the pamphlets, book or books written by this unique and fascinating character, Heilwige Bloemardinne, what we know about her is mainly derived from the works of her main enemy, a Flemish priest and mystic named  John of Ruysbroeck.  John was alarmed by Lady Bloemardinne’s extraordinary popularity and particularly, by her evidently even more popular writings which espoused what were to the church, heretical doctrines of ‘seraphic love’, which sound to me somewhat similar to Gnostic doctrine.  Lady Bloemardinne was a Sister of the Common Life and was herself a Christian mystic, though apparently like the Beguines, her doctrines were unacceptable to the Church.  Though many similar female mystics in France had been burned at the stake for writing similar ideas, it is testament to both the reverence with which the citizens of medieval Brussels held Lady Bloemardinne and to the power and independence of the town itself that she lived a long and apparently happy life and remained untouched by the Inquisition.  Bloemardinne wrote in the vernacular and the priest John of Ruysbroeck wrote to contradict her and accuse her of heretical thought, also in the vernacular in an attempt to influence the citizenry.  But he failed, and while Lady Bloemardinne was carried around in a silver chair and revered as a living saint, Ruysbroeck was banished from Brussels, apparently due to the controversy.

Nürnberger Handschrift GNM 3227a,

Perhaps the single most fascinating book in this list, the 3227a a housebook or commonplace book which in addition to a copy of the Liber Ignium and other miscellanea such as magic spells, paint and tooth-paste recipes, and alchemical formulae, it includes excerpts from several fight-books, and is the second earliest known fencing manual after the I.33.


Chronicles of Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck  An early 20th Century summary of the Chronicles of those three cities, including a wealth of information about the Hanseatic League and life in a north-German town of this period.

Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages

Microcosm A comprehensive history of the City of Wroclaw in what is now Poland

The Culture of the medieval Merchant (this is perhaps the single most useful article on medieval literacy and related topics that I’ve found to date, for those interested in this subject I recommend downloading it while it’s still available online)

The Later Medieval City, published in the late 1990’s, this is a useful compilation of data about Urban life throughout Europe in the period roughly 1300-1500, and includes many specific details on matters of urban education.

The Spread of Lay Literacy in Late Medieval Castille

Erotic Tales of Medieval Germany a fascinating collection of Maeren from the 13th-15th Centuries.

Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft

Bacchus and Civic Order by professor Ann Tlusty (note, this very interesting book can be had for about $2 unlike some of the professors other published work)