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13 January 2007

Devon Book 21

Exeter Working Papers 
in Book History ; no. 12

A history of the book in Devon
by Ian Maxted

D-11: Early evidence of literacy

When did literacy first penetrate to the remote South West peninsula of Britain? The precise date must remain a matter of conjecture. Among the earliest pieces of evidence for contact with a literate society must be the copper axe-head from Mycenae found at Mount Howe, Topsham on the Exe Estuary. Probably dating from the 13th century BC it must have travelled through a series of intermediaries across southern France and then along the Atlantic coast via Brittany. There is no indication of any direct link with the Aegean (Fox 97). Later contacts with literate peoples are recorded from at least the sixth century BC. At that period Tartessians from Spain and Carthaginians from North Africa sailed to Brittany to trade and from there voyaged to Britain and Ireland according to an early fragment known as the Massiliote Periplus, which was incorporated into a fourth century Latin poem Ora maritima by Avienus. When the Carthaginians conquered Tartessos in about 510 B.C., thus cutting off the Greeks from their supplies of metal from the mines of the southern Iberian peninsula, efforts were made to tap sources in North-West Europe, including Britain. One voyage of exploration probably made for this purpose by the Greek Pytheas of Massilia (Marseilles) in about 330 B.C. is recorded in Strabo's Geography and elsewhere, but such direct contacts were probably rare.

The normal trade route to the Mediterranean was overland through Gaul using Gallic intermediaries, probably the Veneti of southern Brittany. This overseas trade in metal must have declined after 210 B.C. when the Romans captured the south of the Iberian peninsula with its mineral resources, and the destruction of the sea power of the Veneti by Julius Caesar in 56 B.C. must have struck a further blow. Such intermittent contacts are unlikely to have lead to any significant degree of literacy except perhaps amongst a small circle of merchants associated with the tin mines. The lack of Greek coins from archaeologically confirmed sites indicates that any general contact must have been very slight. (Fox 134-5)

It may have been disturbances caused by Caesar's campaigns in Gaul which were instrumental in introducing literacy into southern Britain. Belgic settlers, who had been in closer contact with the Roman way of life, crossed the English Channel to safety and settled in southern Britain. The Durotriges, a tribe occupying Dorset and southern Somerset, had a considerable overseas and coastal trading centre at Hengistbury Head and by the early first century B.C. they were minting coins, very debased copies of the gold stater of Philip II of Macedon. These were conveyed by coastal trade to Mount Batten at Plymouth, where a coin hoard has been found, and probably to other estuaries on the South Coast. In the early first century A.D. the Durotriges began to issue inscribed coins, the truncated chief's name Crab... on one of these belonging to one of the first recorded Westcountrymen. A bronze Durotrigian coin from this period has been found in Exeter. The Dobunni, the Dumnonians' neighbours in northern Somerset and Gloucestershire also issued coins which penetrated by way of trade to central and southern Devon. In the last half century before the Roman conquest the Dobunni inscribed a series of names on their coinage: Corio, Bodvoc, Anted-rig, Comux, Eisu, Catti, Inam, names otherwise unknown to history, but giving the Dumnonii of Devon and Cornwall, who themselves never aspired to a coinage, a growing familiarity with alphabetical inscriptions. The presence of native craftsmen who could incise inscriptions on dies for coins also implies that the Dobunni and Durotriges, and probably the Dumnonii, had scribes who could compose more ephemeral texts such as trading accounts, legal papers or business letters. (Fox 151-2)

The establishment at Exeter of the Roman legionary fortress of Isca in about 55-60 A.D. certainly brought with it a much higher level of literacy. Amongst the finds from the earliest period of Isca is a tile where the first letters of the alphabet have been inscribed in the wet clay. The repetition of some letters makes it look like a schoolboy doodle. A pottery kiln was producing wares stamped with the name Vitani in this period. (Bidwell 43)

In about 75 A.D. the Second Augustan Legion moved from Exeter to Caerleon and Isca now became the centre of civil administration for the canton of the Dumnonii. A forum and basilica were quickly constructed with the public baths located next to the basilica. The basilica three times underwent major rebuilding, once in the later second century, once at the end of the third century and once in the mid fourth century. The second rebuilding provides further evidence of literacy in fragments of inscriptions on the pieces of wall plaster scattered over the neighbouring street, including the phrase "[cav]e canem" (beware of the dog). In the third rebuilding the curia or council chamber was enlarged and a wall constructed partitioning off a small room four by seven and a half meters in size. It has been suggested that this office was used to store the town's archives (Bidwell 76, 78). It is known that libraries were established in an number of provincial Roman towns and fragments of business and private correspondence have been discovered at London, Chesterholm, the Roman Vindolanda, and elsewhere (Birley). In Exeter on the Exeter to Topsham Roman road at the site of Saint Loyes College three fragments of a wooden writing-tablet were found in 2010 in the waterlogged infill of a Roman well within what is thought to be a military supply base or works depot associated with the legionary fortress in the period between 55 and 75 CE. The tablet was recessed on both sides as the second leaf of a ‘triptych’ used for legal documents, but retained no trace of black-wax filling, and almost none of writing with a stilus. In the recess for the seals three vertical lines had been scored, either to aid the attachment of the seals or to remove them. The other face was been re-used for an ink text, apparently the address of a letter. Line 1 ends in two large letters, to the right of a vertical mark probably left by the binding-cord. Line 2 begins with three smaller letters apparently of cursive form, but badly smudged, so their reading is uncertain: [. . .]RO | ARM[. . .]. The spacing of line 1 suggests that only two letters have been lost to the left for a heading which consisted of a personal name in the dative case. The most likely restoration is [Ve]ro. Other possibilities are Caro or Varo. Line two should give his profession arm[orum custodi] (Tomlin 2009). A number of writing stiluses have been found in Exeter and there are several indications of literacy, even in an area where the Roman way of life appears to have had little general impact, something that was especially true in the region to the west of Exeter. There may have been an exception in the tin producing districts of Cornwall. Mining was an imperial monopoly and the administration would have involved the literate official classes. Certainly it is from that area that inscribed milestones survive, two being located in Tintagel, one from the churchyard bearing the name of the emperor Licinius (308-324, and other in Trethevy with the names of Gallus and Volusian (251- 3).

That literacy was concentrated in the governing and more especially the military classes is suggested by the dramatic decline in the usage of coins in the years after the departure of the legion. Over 1,600 roman coins have been found during excavations in Exeter. While the numbers are well above average for Roman sites in the reigns of the emperors Claudius and Nero, they are only average for the Flavian emperors (69-96) and decline to virtually zero in the mid third century. There is a revival in the later third and fourth centuries with virtually no coinage after 378. Nevertheless coins must have circulated widely, and the use of coins to spread political messages and news of triumphs was an early form of communication. Coins with inscriptions featuring Britannia were issued by Claudius (41-54), Hadrian (117-38), Antoninus Pius (138-61), Commodus (177-92), Septimius Severus (193-211), Caracalla (198-217) and Geta (209-12) and coins of the British usurpers Carausius (287-93) and Allectus (293-96), which were struck in London and Colchester have been found in Exeter, so people in the canton of the Dumnonii would have been well aware of major political developments (Holbrook 1991, 24-45).

There is some indication of a Christian community in Exeter in the fourth century from a sherd with a chi-rho symbol scratched on it (Bidwell 85). A community of this kind would be very dependent on access to the holy texts contained in the Bible and possibly the writings of the early church fathers. Familiarity with works of classical literature such as Virgil's Aeniad is likely among the romanized classes if the presence of a mosaic telling the story of Dido in the villa at Low Ham can be taken as evidence of something more than a client choosing a pretty design from a manufacturer's pattern book.

The departure of the Romans in the early fifth century may have disrupted life, but there is no evidence that literacy was lost. Memorial stones scattered throughout Devon and Cornwall show that in the fifth to seventh centuries there were nobles and chiefs who prided themselves on their Latin heritage and indeed their Latin names. There are 37 such stones in Cornwall and 18 in Devon, including four on Lundy and two on Exmoor but the majority of names are Celtic, and Ogam inscriptions, two in south-west Devon and four in Cornwall, also indicate Irish settlements in those areas (Thomas, Fox 187-95).

These Irish settlements may have been associated with the evangelization of the rural Celtic communities in Dumnonia, but a more important origin for such missionary expeditions was to be found in South Wales, where St. Illtud had founded an important centre of learning at Llantwit Major in the late fifth century. Many lives of the saints, often surviving in much altered medieval versions, must have originated at this time. One, the life of St. Samson (ca.480-565), probably composed at Dol early in the seventh century, may well survive substantially unchanged from the period before the Saxon conquest, but most provide unreliable material for the study of what was probably an important class of literature during this period. The next oldest versions of saints' lives to survive, those for saints Paul Aurelian and Winwaloe, date from as late the 880s when they were written down in Landévennec. Later lives are made up of vague oral traditions, folklore and not a little imagination to explain the names of parishes - some saints, Columb for example, even changed their gender. The majority of the saints seem to have been Breton or Welsh in origin with possibly one or two Irish and English and it is in Brittany and Wales rather then the south-west that early written records seem to have been maintained. The earliest list of Cornish saints is to be found in a Breton manuscript of the early 10th century. The earliest Celtic saint's life written in Devon seems to be that of St Nectan written in Hartland as late as the 12th century. Indeed in 1330 Bishop Grandisson lamented the loss of information on Cornish saints and ordered copies to be made of their lives (Orme 1992, 27-51). Thus the evidence of a literary tradition in the region in the post-Roman period is tantalisingly vague.

This page last updated 22 December 2019
© Ian Maxted, 2001.