Rural and literate:
By the time I had gathered the bulk of my academic titles, my mother had shown me a high school essay by her own grandmother.  The assignment had been written out in a clear, round consistent hand that looked like the work of a professional.  The content was easily Ivy League college level honors work.  The copy was letter perfect. 

The family then as now lived in a beautiful little stone farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, something like Hoggett farm in “Babe” but more modest outside, better appointed inside.  They dug in the dirt for a living in those days and they studied hard. 

It seems sort of like the best of all possible worlds.  A small community of farmers can endure far longer than a big community of city dwellers.  And a high degree of literacy means that experience could accumulate over many centuries.  In an urban environment it is rare for a family to stay interested in the same subject for three generations.   It can be quite different for farmers.  My own relatives have held firm against the whirlwind of history there for over two centuries.

It had happened before.  When William Tyndale was working on his great translation of the Bible he remarked that he wanted to make the language of the translation clear enough so that every ploughman would be able to read it and understand it.  His worked turned out in the end to be the foundation of modern English, the most successful language ever.  But the point is that he assumed that every ploughman would be able to read and would be likely to be interested in reading.  Rural English life remained stable for a very long time.  The industrial revolution started in the same part of England Tyndale came from.

There was an equally momentous revolution in the lands of Israel and Judah, the Holy Land.  I have heard a very good argument made for the case that they invented the alphabet.  The argument, which belongs to my younger brother, is that the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt were well adapted to their use.  They were used by full time professional scribes.  For such a person, the more different available symbols there are the better.  Whether writing on papyrus or carving in stone, ease increases as the number of symbols that have to be written down decreases.  The more different symbols you have with different specific meanings, the fewer you need to convey the sense of what you are writing.  Exploiting their rich system, they had the convenience of being able to close every line with a symbol that conveyed the sense of the line, a little like the writer of a check records the amount of a check both in Arabic numerals and in English prose.  Such redundancy facilitates understanding and reduces errors. 

On the other hand, for one who is not a professional scribe but must make a living doing something else, an alphabet is far more convenient.  Learning time is reduced.  The tradeoff is that for any piece of information, the time it takes to write it down is increased. 

So we are looking at a literate rural society, one in which the vast majority were expected to be able to read and write.  If literacy began with the judges in 1410 BC and the society in rural form was stable until the Babylonian captivity and the destruction of the first temple in 585 BC, that almost matches England from the 1066 invasion by William to the Industrial Revolution.  Arguments can be made for much longer stability of both societies, but certainly both were more stable than all but a very few recognizable power structures. 

Just as the impact from the technological advances begun in the Industrial Revolution affects almost everyone alive, the religious insights of the Holy Land affect everybody.  The Muslims, Christians and Jews who hold the Old Testament in high esteem number over two billion.  Even those who do not share reverence for that part of scripture have to cope with decisions made by the immense number who do. 

I am quite fond of what I call the “treasures of civilization,” the highly developed technology, the science, the art, history, philosophy, music, literature, architecture and so forth.  They are products of urban society.  The Industrial Revolution and the Old Testament, I think it can be argued, were products of literate rural society.  And I am quite fond of them, too.  I concede that both have produced their horrors as well as their good things.  One might refer to the glamour of the city and the glory of the countryside. 

The Industrial Revolution initiated the great wave of urbanization that has engulfed us, but it was built on a well established cottage industry of textiles.  The Old Testament is largely about wars, international crises and power politics, about momentous events centered on Jerusalem and religious life centered on the Temple, but it was built on a cottage tradition of intellectual and religious study. 

Given time and the written word, people will produce incredible things.  I wonder what rural Pennsylvania will produce. 

Our visitor counter is still down.  This is research not advice.  Linton Herbert

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