A Medieval Lesson for the Modern Reader

My family and I are renting a house right now from some friends who speak mainly Portuguese and German. But we both speak Spanish, so that’s how we communicate. Upstairs, they have a library stocked with a fair amount of books they left behind. It’s really fascinating to look at all the titles and see what they’ve read. The problem is, most of the books are in Portuguese or German. Due to the similarities of Spanish and Portuguese, I can sort of get an idea of what the Portuguese books are about. When it comes to German though, I’m at a complete loss.

It’s the strangest feeling to stare at a page, see letters than you can individually sound out, but can make no sense of the way those letters are combined. You feel as though you should be able to understand. But can’t.

On the spine of one of the books on the shelves, I read Brüder Grimm. Intrigued, I wondered what Brothers Grimm story I might find. It was a picture book. So, I opened it up, staring at the letters and not making out a word. Then, I turned to the pictures.

It started with a lump of something yellow on the left side of the page. A young man carrying a knapsack walks away from a rich man waving goodbye. The story progresses with him trading his lump out for a horse. Then the horse bucks him off and he trades the horse for a cow. He trades the cow for a pig. The pig for a goose. The goose for a grinding stone of some kind. Then he drops the stone into a well and saunters off happy, without any possessions. I was very confused.

I looked up the title, Hans im Glück. In English it was called Hans in Luck. My mom joined in on the investigation and we found out the plot of the story. The moral is one of anti-materialism. That material possessions are not everything in life and letting them go can make us feel free. The character’s goal was to return home to his mother. At the end of the story he is happy because he is burden-less and goes to his mother and tells her his “lucky” story.

It’s interesting to find new stories, new tales that have been around for centuries. Before the Brothers Grimm wrote the story down, Hans in Luck was a story told orally, part of Germanic folklore.

I wanted to tell this story because it made me think of something I’d heard before, or maybe I read it somewhere. In the middle ages monks would make illuminated manuscripts. They would make lavish pictures to accompany the words in the story. This served as an aid for the reader, and a way to understand the story for those who were illiterate, which was almost everyone.

Now, this is the part I’m not entirely sure is historically accurate. The monks would put a book on display in the church and flip a page every day. The people could come and “read” the story by means of the picture they saw each day. This made people want to come to church, so that they could learn more of the story.

When trying to read the German fairy tale, I felt like those peasants. Trying to understand the story by means of the illustrations. I had quite a hard time with it. I wonder if there’s a certain skill to it, that those medieval laymen had acquired. If they were much more equipped to imagine what the tale might be.

Reading picture books is something that we lose after early childhood, and I think it’s sad. That our imagination dwindles away, and as we grow-up we lose talents we once possessed. The common person in the Middle Ages was capable of the talent of reading pictures. We, the readers of today need to re-harness that ability. Picture books are fascinating, they shouldn’t just be for children, they have a certain quality that can’t be found in novels. They have pictures. And pictures tell a thousand words. Picture books are beautiful for their simplicity.

Let me know…

  • Is the medieval story true? Did peasants really have that opportunity for “reading”?
  • Do you know any stories about the history of reading?
  • Do you think picture books should be for more than just children?

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