Literate and Illiterate

Literacy rates in the ancient world were very low. Less than ten percent of the population would have been able to read and write, and only the wealthy were likely to receive an education. Papyri show this wide range of literacy, from people barely being able to write their own name, to professional scribes writing swift and fluently, to fine calligraphic hands that were used for the books of antiquity.

People who did not know how to write entered into agreements by having somebody who could write sign contracts for them.

image of page from the Epistles of St. Paul Epistles of St. Paul. P. Mich. inv. 6238 (P. Mich. IIIa 122). Greek. – Provenance unknown, Egypt. –late 2nd/third century C.E. Also referred to as P46.

This is one beautifully written page of a codex, containing the Letters of St. Paul to the early Christian churches. Their exact date is unknown, but some scholars believe them to be the oldest surviving copy of this portion of the Bible. The quality of the handwriting demonstrates the work of a skilled professional scribe.

image of official list of names Official list of names. P. Mich. inv. 6875 (P. Petaüs 47). Greek. – Ptolemais Hormou, Fayum, Egypt. - January 25, 185 C.E.

A text from the archive of Petaüs, a village scribe, who did not know how to write, or at least not very well. In the Roman period the office of village scribe was imposed upon men of some means regardless of whether they could write or not. As is clear from the fluent handwriting of this text, Petaüs employed a scribe to write it. His own lack of fluency can be seen in his signature (third line from bottom), which is clearly the handwriting of somebody who is called a "slow writer".

image of a writing exercise Writing exercise P. Koln inv. 328 (P. Petaüs 121). Greek. – Ptolemais Hormou, Fayum, Egypt. - c. 184 C.E.

On this papyrus from the Cologne collection we can see Petaüs practicing his signature. Compare the exercise with the final result shown in the Michigan papyrus.

image of a contract for the sale of a donkey Sale of a donkey P. Mich. inv. 3238 (SB XVI 12559). Greek. – Kerkesoucha, Fayum, Egypt.- January 30, 155 C.E.

A contract for the sale of a donkey written by three different people: an assistant wrote the date and the place of the contract (lines 1-9), a professional scribe wrote the contract itself (lines 10-21), and the seller acknowledged the sale (lines 22-end). Judging from the handwriting, all three writers were experienced and fluent. However, the text itself mentions that the third part was written by Neilos on behalf of the seller, who was himself illiterate in Greek.

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