Thursday, 30 June 2011

Cara Jean Polk - Literacy and Book Ownership in the Congregations of Chrysostom

      In his work Ancient Literacy, William Harris examines Late Antique social and material evidence with a view to establishing the literacy rates of the period. Since Harris does not think the period was characterized by the social structures, ideological commitments, and technological advances necessary for mass literacy, he estimates that no more than 10-15% of the population was literate in Late Antiquity. The sermons of John Chrysostom suggest a higher rate of literacy, however, at least among the members of Chrysostom’s congregation.  This is because Chrysostom offers frequent praise for the activities of reading and studying Scripture.  Likewise his comments, especially regarding education, show he assumes many people in his congregation can engage in these activities. Moreover the evidence for book production technology and educational practices in Late Antiquity does not contradict the picture of literacy offered in Chrysostom’s comments and exhortations. Therefore, placed within their material and social contexts, Chrysostom’s sermons indicate substantial levels of basic literacy and potential for book-ownership among the Christian populations of late fourth- and early fifth-century Antioch and Constantinople.  

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