The Secret Life of Writing: People, Script and Ideas

It is time to share the news! I have been awarded an ERC StG for my project “The Secret Life of Writing: People, Script and Ideas in the Iberian Peninsula (c. 900-1200)”.

Open to the world: 51 nationalities among winners of 2019 ERC Starting Grants

I will regularly post about the project in the months to come; let me start by telling you what it is about.

The main idea

As a Manuscript Studies specialist and medievalist, I have heard too many times already the assertion “before 1200 the vast majority of the population was not able to write or read”. To me, that is completely inaccurate and, besides, it shows an approach to the Middle Ages from our modern times, not in its proper context. Sure thing, today we all write books (ecclesiastic for that matter) and our own legal agreements to stand trial. From my point of view, the fact that professional scribes, copyists and notaries were a minority does not mean they were the only ones who practised and, more significantly, understood writing (and reading) – writing (and reading) had a strong impact in social groups as a whole and lay individuals were not necessarily alien to it. The thing is to ponder to what extent.

It might be that this concept is easier to work with when dealing with medieval Italy, Carolingian France, or the Anglo-Saxon world than with the Iberian Peninsula – after the Roman Empire, it seems all public culture (oral and written?) went to oblivion (– I also strongly disagree with that). Yet, medieval Iberian sources provide evidence that shows lay individuals were not excluded from written communication: they hired scribes to keep records of their transactions, acted as witnesses to the documents that were read to them, and were exposed to ecclesiastic books filled with narrative illuminations. They, in short, integrated writing within their lives. From this data, I firmly believe (and my project defends) that the role played by the common people and the implications of writing in modelling a given society can be explored for the Iberian Peninsula too.

How to manage the evidence

The problem is that, in comparison with other European areas, Iberian sources (900 to 1200) are fewer, scarcer in personal data, and the resulting product of institutions and elites that had full control over written production – deciding not only what was produced but also what was to be preserved. If one is to extract information about lay people and the regular practice of writing and reading, one needs detailed private info, something that is not abundant in Iberian charters. How and from which sources to get it then? The thing is, the method applied to study other European corpora is not viable for Iberian sources for their intrinsic characteristics, but that does not mean that medieval written communication cannot be studied or that there is no sign of the relationship lay individuals had with writing, just that the approach used so far needs to be different – the information needed is in there, we just need to design a new method to compile and analyse it.

Here is where my project gets interesting… My proposal is: on the one hand, to focus on written evidence produced by rural communities from the north-western Iberia, for they were a consistent group in theory integrated within the central government but in practice independent – not under direct control of the elites –; on the other hand, to develop and test a new methodology to add the middle class and the peasants’ own voice to the discussion on writing: instead of relying on the historical information conveyed in the manuscripts to know about the people and their context, as has been done so far, I propose to go the other way round, focusing on the individuals, their social interactions, and their link to writing to better understand written production.

How to work with the evidence

My project starts with the compilation of all manuscript evidence produced in north-western Iberia between 900 and 1200, adding intensive archival research looking for new sources to the revision of published catalogues. All the documents collected will be studied, building an online database that has a vast potential for any kind of historical research. Then, digital reproductions of all the original sources will be uploaded to VisigothicPal – a software designed to make manuscript research more open and dynamic – and graphically analysed. Once there, all those documents that directly relate to lay people will be studied from a textual and diplomatic point of view, expanding the software by including markup techniques and the digital edition of all significant evidence.

From the data collected, the method relies on its analysis dividing individuals into three groups – scribes, signers, and readers – according to the role each played on written production:

Regarding scribes, the project studies who they were, who hire them, and how they developed their professional career by adapting the different scripts used in the period to the cultural context in which they lived. Then, the project explores those who signed the documents contained in the corpus focusing on the links between individuals, also studying how they individualised themselves in writing by designing and drawing their own sign. Finally, to contextualise cultural production, the project explores the readers. Those able to read were the archivists of their communities, deciding which documents were to be preserved and thus building the biased social memory of the past that has arrived to us. My proposal is to know more about their choices and how these fit in their specific context.

erc project metodologia 


During the next 5 years, my team and I will work to develop and test new tools and a novel method to open the Iberian Peninsula to the general European debate on Medieval Communication. Everything that we produce or discover, from databases to rough historical, palaeographical and diplomatic data, will be openly shared online (besides publications, as always) to allow the project to grow beyond its initial plan and to explore new avenues of research on Manuscript Studies, Linguistics, and Social History, among other topics.

Also, with this project my team and I seek to consolidate Manuscript Studies as a field in Spain and Portugal, improving teaching programmes and collaborating with cultural institutions to include the general public.


If you are curious to know more about the project, you can read the official summary here, or just ask below. I have planned this project as open research, where everyone has an opinion on the matter that deserves consideration and will be heard, starting with all the people who, because they were not part of the elites, have been left aside in studying communication in the Early Middle Ages.


by A. Castro

2 Comments | Leave your comment

John Contreni

This is a wonderful project. I look forward to watching it progress. It interests me because much of its methodology, tools, and insights can very well transfer to other fields of medieval written communication, i.e. the Carolingian kingdoms.


Ainoa Castro

Prof. Contreni, many thanks for your comment!

My goal is to build (and test) a consistent method hoping it can be transferred to other areas indeed. I strongly believe we still need to include many of the viable data preserved in the manuscripts, particularly regarding the common people (the vast majority of the population), to fully address such an exciting topic as written communication. Let's see how the project develops.

PS. It has been a long time since we met (University of Toronto, 2014). I still remember your talks and check the notes I took frequently. Thank you.

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