The year is around 1150, and Robin (of Sherwood Forest fame) has returned to England after years in the Crusades. Much has changed in his absence—Maid Marian has even become a nun. Middle-aged, confused, and stung by his woman’s seeming abandonment, Robin asks how she could have taken vows. Marian patiently explains she had no way of knowing Robin was even still alive:
“You didn’t write,” she chides.
Robin’s innocent retort:
“I never learned how.”
In this imagined sequel to the familiar saga, the film “Robin and Marian” starkly captures the great linguistic divide between medieval and modern times in European-based cultures. Marian presupposes a twentieth-century view of the written word (“Drop a line to let me know how you’re getting on”). Robin, a product of his times, makes no apology for being unable to write. And apologize he shouldn’t, for literacy in the Middle Ages was hardly widespread. Your average warrior or nobleman had no more use for reading or writing than for eating with silverware or regular bathing.
The written word is an integral part of contemporary communication. People who can’t read and write are called illiterate, which presupposes literacy as the norm. Yet the relationship between writing and speaking isn’t straightforward, even in societies that take literacy for granted. Asymmetry sets in from the start. With rare exception, we start to speak