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Historians don’t just formulate grand theories of historical processes and trends, more often they have to make arguments about very specific details so that they can support their big ideas. To outsiders, this focused, detail-oriented research that academic historians regularly do often seems trivial. (“Who cares about notaries in Toledo in 1300!” said my father.) What’s important is that the answers to these small, nuts and bolts questions are the very building blocks of the grand theories of history. You can’t do algebra if you don’t know how to how to add and subtract; you can’t make big statements history if you don’t have the detailed evidence about the little things that support your interpretation.
For example, while talking about the Renaissance (a very big historical process), I have repeatedly mentioned the rise of literacy rates in Europe as both a precondition and a result of the Renaissance. In fact, as you have seen, the case for the Renaissance existing as a phenomenon rests largely on more people in Europe being able to read and write, as does our on-going discussion about the growth of the middle class. But what’s the evidence for higher literacy, and what do we mean when we talk about “literacy”?
Ronald Witt, in his article “What did Giovanni Read and Write? Literacy in Early Renaissance Florence Download What did Giovanni Read and Write? Literacy in Early Renaissance Florence”, addresses two of the most important questions of literacy in Florence during the 14th century: how many students were in school and what was the curriculum?
So, for your second writing assignment, I want you to read Witt’s article (which I’ve uploaded to Canvas) and answer the following questions:
1) Why have most scholars prior to Witt been skeptical of Giovanni Villani’s claim that there were 8,000 to 10,000 young students in Florence in 1338? What is Witt’s argument for Villani’s statement being accurate?
2) Scholars disagree about the basic curriculum of primary education in Florence in the 14th century. Most, like Robert Black, believe that only Latin reading was taught in Florentine schools. Others, such as Paul Gehl and Paul Grendler, believe that students were also taught to read and write (leggere e scrivere) in the vernacular (volgare), the local Tuscan Italian dialect. Summarize the case for the two positions and why Witt agrees with Gehl and Grendler.
3) In your final paragraph or two, tell me why you think the answers to these two questions are important in terms of our bigger discussion about the Renaissance. This will require some critical thinking on your part, putting together your reading and, perhaps, your lecture notes. I should mention that I don’t think there’s only one right answer to this. I’m more interested seeing how you understand the connection between smaller questions and bigger theories.
Length: 750 – 1500 words
Formatted: According to the Chicago Manual of Style