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The Book and the Transformation of Britain, c. 550-1050: A Study in Written and Visual Literacy and Orality.

The Book and the Transformation of Britain, c. 550-1050: A Study in Written and Visual Literacy and Orality. By Michelle P. Brown. (London, England: The British Library, 2012. Pp. 184. $70.00.)

How does a people unfamiliar with reading, writing, and books become literate? What does "literate" mean, anyway? And how do changes in the amount and nature of literacy in a society contribute to transforming that society? These are the big questions that Michelle P. Brown explores in this brief but perceptive work. Her definition of literacy is wide, comprising the ability to interpret visual depictions as well as to read written texts.

The first section, "Scribes, the Sacred and Social Change," looks at how the introduction of books, especially The Book--that is, the Bible--mediated the introduction of Christianity to Britain and permeated both religious and elevated lay society remarkably quickly and deeply. The second section, "Creating Communities of Reading," discusses the further penetration of habits of literacy through the growth of writing in the vernacular, the role of women in producing and consuming written works (discussed again in the third section), and the significance of inscriptions on everything from standing crosses to minor secular objects like combs "and even a fossilized sea anemone" (79). The final section, "Language, Literature and Libraries," takes up education, the development of libraries and their role in "the collection and retention of cultural memory," how writing transformed legal transactions, and King Alfred's purported authorship of translations (Brown is skeptical) (127).

The sections are organized more topically than chronologically, though one certainly gets a sense of progression from the earliest days to the eleventh century as one moves through the book. Along the way come valuable discussions of the interchange of cultural elements across the Christian world from Ireland to the Sinai, of books as objects of veneration and prestigious gifts, of their use to record actions and events, of the iconography of monarchy, and of many other things. A remarkable amount of valuable analysis and commentary is packed into this work.

The book is heavily illustrated with sixteen color plates and eighty-eight black-and-white figures, many of the latter consisting of two pictures. Indeed, one can follow many aspects of the argument almost as well from the captions to the illustrations as from the text. The text is consistently cross-referenced to the illustrations. All of this is wonderful. Unfortunately, however, some of the cross-references in the text are incorrect, and it is not always easy to determine which figure is actually meant.

A few cautions. This is not a book for beginners. Considerable knowledge of early medieval history and bibliographical terminology is probably necessary for a reader to be able to perceive the general tenor of the argument of the book and the brilliance of many of its insights. Nor is it an easy read. Finally, despite its title, the book is mostly about the Anglo-Saxons, not all of Britain. There is a fair amount on the Irish but not much on Wales or Scotland. Although the reason is undoubtedly practical--many more manuscripts and other pieces of writing survive from England and Ireland than from Scotland or Wales--the title of the book is a bit misleading.

Emily Zack Tabuteau

Michigan State University
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Author:Tabuteau, Emily Zack
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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