The Blogs Are Alive With the Sound of Underpants

As my recent bloghits testify, mixing the word “underpants” in with your “medieval” is a surefire way to increase your web traffic. Exhibit #2 for this trend is the sudden flurry of posts and articles referencing the possible role that underpants had in increasing medieval literacy rates. The nutshell version of this is that when people moved to towns, they started wearing underwear, and when their underwear was no longer worth wearing, it became rags. The rags were made into paper, and paper, being much cheaper than parchment, spurred literacy.

I highly doubt that the major news organizations of the world have many correspondents staking out the International Medieval Conference in Leeds, which is where this titillating news item originates, in a paper given in one of the Urban Literacy sessions. From reading the various versions of the story linked and posted, I suspect that all the accounts trace back to one ur-version, possibly the version I linked under ‘sudden’ above, transmitted through The Guardian’s story, then on to various bloggers, then quoted back and forth and back and forth again.

Since I can’t afford to jet off to Leeds for the conference, I didn’t hear the paper that contained this shocking underpants-related news item, either. I assume from the source of the quote and from a quick browse through the convention program that the paper in question was Dr. Marco Mostert’s “Urban Schools, Urban Literacy, and the Development of Western Civilisation — A Hypothesis.” Since the title doesn’t mention underpants at all, and since the two other papers in that session were titled “The Use of Records in Medieval Towns: The Case of ‘s-Hertogensbosch, Brabant” and “The Use of Records in Medieval Towns: The Case of Bolzano, South Tyrol,” I’ll go ahead and admit that I would’ve skipped that session even if I had been there. And I’ll further theorize that the underpants point was a very small bit of a larger argument that had to do with urbanization as a whole, or else the other two speakers were probably pretty miffed when all the questions went to Dr. Underpants.

But in the blagosphere the subject of underpants has legs, and the use of records in medieval towns not so much. From the original quote, the distilled lesson for this factoid has become, for most blogs, “Ah, the power of unintended consequences,” which I think is an OK conclusion to take from the facts, but also a bit weird.

It’s not as if there were piles of soiled underwear lying around the towns of medieval Europe, covering all the available surfaces, thoroughly stinking up the place, until someone finally said, “I know, we’ll make paper out of them, that’ll solve that problem,” and then with all the paper lying around, people started reading and writing out of self defense. Then, bam, we had ourselves a Renaissance in celebration.

As the titles of those other papers from the Underwear History session suggest, the fact that people were living and working in cities with increasing frequency is at least as important as the fact that they were wearing, soiling, and discarding underwear while they were there. Exposed to more and more writing, these new urbanites created a burgeoning market for cheaply produced and easily distributable written material. In response, the paper makers and the commercial scriptoria churned out products to meet that demand using up whatever raw material they had around, including the ragged out underpants of all these new urbanites. But “urban” is not as interesting a word as “underpants.”

Of course, everyone needs easy-access handles to grab onto new facts by, even pedantic medieval bloggers like me. But let me add a second handle that’s at least as interesting as “unintended consequences” that’s currently popular: try “survival bias.”

The grand old narrative of medieval literacy that people like Dr. Mostert are trying to complicate is, in large part, based on surveys of the texts and manuscripts that remain extant today. Since very few books survived the passage of time, and those that did survive were things like prayer books, histories, and collections of deeds, there’s a tendency to conclude that 1) medievals didn’t have much to read and 2) they read mostly prayer books, histories, and collections of deeds. What boring, stupid people they were!

Recognizing that paper was actually quite abundant before the printing press also means recognizing that there’s the possibility of a whole lot of medieval written material and textual activity that no longer survives, because it was written on less than durable paper and treated as disposable.

It’s kind of like how the bookcase that people have in their living room is a very poor indicator of what they’ve been reading over their lives. You don’t put the trashy paperbacks out on display–they probably got wet at the beach and dog-eared rattling around in your briefcase anyway. And all the books you had as a kid are probably too precious to just put out there, and too fragile besides. Newspapers and magazines hit the recycling bin. Pamphlets, drafts and notes get tossed in the trash, along with books you once liked but later decided were not what you were into anymore. The things that go in the living room are selected for permanent display because they’re 1) impressive looking, usually hardbound 2) the sort of books you want people to think you read, 3) sturdy enough to survive being read by multiple parties, 4) gifts from family that you have to have out in case they visit, 5) bought during a time when you could afford to buy things in hardback, and so on and so on.

Historians have a hell of a time figuring out what the people of the past thought, because the people of the past were just as busy as the people of the present trying to convince other people that they were different people than they actually were. And even if those people were completely honest, the records they left are at the mercy of people of later generations and what they wanted to keep around. What remains is not necessarily representative of what was.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anonymous Medievalist

    Nice blog you’ve got here. Keep up the good work. Also, it’s nice to see someone criticizing Harry Potter who isn’t from the camp of ‘hey look at me, my name is Harold Bloom and I am a huge elitist douchebag.’

  • Ancrene Wiseass

    Historians have a hell of a time figuring out what the people of the past thought, because the people of the past were just as busy as the people of the present trying to convince other people that they were different people than they actually were.

    I love this sentence.

    Also, yeah, this whole underpants = literacy (despite the examples of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears) seems pretty unconvincing to me.

  • Dr. Virago

    Like Ancrene Wiseass, I love the sentence she quoted.

    This post resonates with something I was just reading yesterday in a book about commonplace books form the 15th century. In the introduction, the writer argues that *paper* probably had as much or more impact on growing literacy than the printing press. (Yet another nail in the coffin of the “the renaissance changed everything” meme — which isn’t *exactly* what this post was about, but related.)

  • Mark

    This recycled underwear leading to increased literacy isn’t even a new idea really, as I’ve discussed briefly in my blog.

    Mark Sundaram

  • Matthew Gabriele

    You know, a certain part of me is just happy that people now know that people in the past wore underpants and cared about hygiene. Also, putting “underpants” in the title of a post is just a good way to get readers.

  • Th.


    For the first time, I really regret not becoming a mideivalist.

    Although since it’s a word I cannot spell, the regret is not likely to last long.

  • Catanea

    “Historians have a hell of a time figuring out what the people of the past thought, because the people of the past were just as busy as the people of the present trying to convince other people that they were different people than they actually were.”
    Yes, I agree. A very concise and useful sentence. Thank you!
    BUT some people’s sitting-room bookshelves just have the books THEY ARE GOING TO WANT MOST OFTEN TO REFER TO IN SITTING-ROOM CONVERSATIONS.
    Except for Dictionaries which are too heavy for the downstairs shelves. So don’t judge everyone by the same standard.
    Gosh, though…this post just makes me crave linen enough to have lots of underpants made of it…so our local “rag and bone” man (who mostly harvests fridges…) could revive a whole industry.
    Capellades, where are you when we need you?

  • OanaVS

    I think prof. Mostert's approach to literacy is just part of the trend they have at Utrecht. Otherwise, he's a really nice guy, that I can tell you.

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