In the ancient world, education – learning to read and write – wasn’t a right and was accessible by only a small number of people. Only 5–10% of the population was literate. But what does this mean, what constitutes being literate? Does being able to write basic sentences fit the bill, or do you need to be able to write complicated compositions? By whose standards are we to judge literacy? Daily writing from the ancient world shows a wide range of abilities, showing that it is difficult (and probably not productive) to generalise about it.
When it comes to studying how people learned to write, we have a lot of education material – texts produced by both students and teachers from throughout Egyptian history, in the ancient languages of Egypt through to Coptic and the languages of its rulers, in particular Greek. Problems with teachers, funding, and other issues were recorded in letters, especially from students learning Greek in the cities (for the 2nd century CE, see this story). Outside of the major towns and cities, in the predominantly Egyptian-speaking villages of the Nile Valley in late antiquity, how did you learn to read and write? Who were the educators? Where did you go?
Two ostraca (pottery sherds) provide a very rare glimpse into these questions. Writing in Coptic, two priests – Sansno and Patermoute – declare that their colleague Isaac, another priest, hired another man, Pheu, to teach his son how to write and read. Once Pheu had fulfilled his contract, he will be paid one tremis, a small gold coin (one-third of the standard gold coin of the period). There is no mention of advance payment, everything was based on Isaac’s son demonstrating that he could write by his hand and read. Notice that the order is to write and read, not read and write, as might be expected today. People in the ancient world rarely learned to read just for the sake of it.
I, the priest and monk Sansno son of Daniel declare that I bear witness that the priest Isaac promised Pheu one tremis, saying ‘If you teach my son to write and read, I will give it to you’. And he taught (him) to read before he received it. I, Sansno, consent to this matter.
I, [the priest] Patermoute, know and declare by God that the priest Isaac promised Pheu one tremis, saying ‘If you teach my son to write and read, I will give it to you.’ Then, I declare that he taught (him) to read, before he received it, and he wrote by his hand.1 I, Patermoute consent to this matter. He spoke it, and I, Aaron son of Isaac, wrote the ostracon and bear witness.
The two priests confirm Pheu’s successful completion of the task and his subsequent payment. No other details are recorded – not even the boy’s name! No timeframe is noted, and so how long such a process would have taken is unknown. Neither priest mentions where they live, and so we also don’t know in which village this takes place, let alone the specific space. It has tentatively been suggested that the texts were written in western Thebes, but both the handwriting and the material are found elsewhere, so this is far from certain (there is also often a tendency to ascribe unprovenanced ostraca to Thebes, simply because so many ostraca have been found in that region).
It is striking that three of the four men mentioned are priests, except for Pheu who is hired to teach Isaac’s son. In the village Djeme (Medinet Habu) in western Thebes, many of the people who wrote or witnessed legal documents were priests. The signatures of the father-son priests, Chmentsney and Shenoute, are below. In this case, did Chmentsney teach Shenoute how to write? And, if so, did he train him completely? Their documents show lots of differences, in handwriting and formulae, so it’s hard to say. Maybe he taught Shenoute the basics, but in this case professional legal training was taught somewhere else, so that new scribes were kept up to date with all the latest practices.
As for the son of Isaac in our two ostraca, it is unlikely he ever advanced to the level of a professional scribe, as so few people ever reached that stage. But, Pheu at least taught him enough to satisfy the demands of his father.
*For Coptic literary evidence about the school experience, see this story.
Provenance: Unknown; perhaps western Thebes.
Date: 7th/8th century.
Language: Coptic, Sahidic dialect.
Collection: Paris,Cabinet des Médailles, #1894 and 1895
Designation: The text does not have a papyrological siglum; Trismegistos TM 85154.
Bibliography: Anne Boud’hors (2016) “Apprendre à lire et à écrire: Deux documents coptes revisités,” in Proceedings of the 27th International Congress of Papyrology, Warsaw, 29 July–3 August 2013, edited by T. Derda, A. Łatjar, and J. Urbanik, pp. 1027–1039. Warsaw: Raphael Taubenschlag Foundation; Spiegelberg (1903) “Review of W. E. Crum, Coptic Ostraca from the collections of the Egypt Exploration Fund, the Cairo Museum and others,” Orientalistische Litteraturzeitung6, pp 59–69 (pages 67–68 for these texts).