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Bagnall on “Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman World”

March 30, 2012

I made a mental note some months ago to get my hands on the new book by Roger Bagnall, Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman World(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), and a recent email from Brent Nongbri nudged me to get to it today. Bagnall is a leading figure in papyrology with numerous major contributions to the study of the subject. In this book, he surveys the evidence (and the reasons for the limits of that evidence) for “everyday” writing, by which he means the sort of writing that is more functional, pragmatic, and some of it ephemeral. In social terms, these materials serve to help us judge how much writing was used for purposes other than monumental inscriptions, official proclamations, religious and philosophical traditions, and high-literary works of history, poetry, etc.

Bagnall begins with graffiti (to which I return in a separate posting soon), focusing on a body of graffiti from ancient Smyrna, and then surveys the “ubiquity” of “documentary” texts (legal texts, letters, etc.), texts reflecting slavery, the rise of written Coptic and the use of written Syriac/Aramaic alongside Greek, and the use of ostraca (potsherds).

The broad import of the book is to caution us still more about simplistic views of the Graeco-Roman world as one in which texts and writing were the exclusive domain of a few elite. A few of his summarizing judgments will suffice here: “The ubiquity and pervasiveness of everyday writing in Greek is clearly visible; that in the other great metropolitan written languages, Aramaic and Latin, is less well documented but starting to come into focus as well” (141); “Even in a world where many people could not read or write, the use of written languages was not something restricted to a small, high-status group. Writing was everywhere, and a very wide range of people participated in the use of writing in some fashion” (142); whereas some have claimed that writing was restricted to “a small class of literate mediators,” in fact “writing was far more pervasive and important than that; it was used all the time for private, informal, spontaneous, and ephemeral communications, writing for which one would not wish to spend the time and money to go to a professional scribe” (142).

Bagnall’s book offers another strong reason to avoid playing off “orality” against “textuality”, and should further caution those biblical scholars who have done so on the basis of an inadequate consideration of the evidence. Early Christianity emerged in a world heavily shaped by texts of many kinds, and was, in fact, in that very textual world itself a movement remarkably given to the production, reading, copying and circulation of texts.

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One Comment
  1. Bobby Garringer permalink

    So good.

    Thanks for real historical studies vs. conventional speculations.

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