Re: European Education #general


Judith Romney Wegner
 


I was telling a friend that another friend has traced their family back
to the 1500's. My friend told me that this was impossible because that
period of time was considered the Dark Ages and that written records were
not kept and that there was no possible way of this person or any person
going back that far in search for a Jewish family. She, being a teacher,
told me that the Jews back then did not write or read. I know that this
sounds ridiculous but I must check it out. I have searched my personal
library but unfortunately I cannot find any information on this. I really
need your help.
TIA,
Lois Friedman
The idea that Jews as a whole in 1500 were illiterate is indeed ridiculous,
as you say. As in other cultures (both then and now) some people could
read and some could not. Furthermore, if your teacher friend characterized
the 1500s as the Dark Ages, he or she is way out of line and should go
back to school on the other side of the desk! 1500 was not the Dark Ages,
even in the (then relatively backward) lands of Christendom -- and
certainly not in the lands of Islam for centuries prior to that -- a
flourishing and literate culture in which many Jews lived. The
expression "Dark Ages" is usually applied by Europeans to a much earlier
period, namely the early Middle Ages in Europe (say, between about 600-
1000 CE), and is in any case it is a very ethnocentric designation, as it
ignores the highly literate Islamic culture that flourished in those early
centuries (not to speak of others such as the Chinese).

While it is certainly true that most individuals in most cultures could not
read or write in 1500 (or for that matter even in 1800) this was probably
less true of the Jews, at least for males, many of whom were taught to read
Hebrew in order to recite lengthy daily prayers (the earliest written
Hebrew prayer book goes back to the 10th century) and the mitzvah of Torah
study. But in any case, people who were illiterate could seek the services
of scribes when they needed to record important information.

However, this much said, it is difficult (except for famous dynasties,
which among the Jews means the leading rabbinic dynasties) to trace
families back that far in almost any culture, because official record
keeping hardly existed back then, except for the church and the nobility.
One notable exception is Holland, where I have learned that general b/d/m
records do in fact go back to the 1500s.

Judith Romney Wegner

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