How widespread was literacy in classic Greek in Europe during the medieval period? I assume "every" (?) educated person, such as clerks, monks, nobility, judges, doctors and similar knew Latin at the time, but how many knew classic Greek? By Europe I do not mean to include Byzantium. I am mainly referring to central, south and western Europe (todays Italy, Austria, Germany, France, Spain and UK).

  • What is Bysan?..
    – Anixx
    Sep 6, 2015 at 23:16
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    if your excluding Byzantium, classic Greek would have been limited to the clergy and perhaps a few nobles interested in classical studies. Not very widespread
    – Notaras
    Sep 7, 2015 at 1:20
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    You probably need to be more specific about the period to get a good answer. But even latin wasn't necessarily well known by the people you mentioned, many monks would only have elementary notions of the language, some of those busy copying manuscripts probably did not understand them (or not well) and the nobility mostly did not care, leaving only very few scholars.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 7, 2015 at 1:36
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    Nobility and judges were not necessarily educated. At least not during the High Middle Ages. Sep 7, 2015 at 9:07
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    In England at least, even the lower clergy would not have really known Latin, let alone Greek. The average parish priest would often be scarcely above his peasant parishioners, farming his glebe and reciting the Mass by rote with little understanding - hence the contemptuous term "Mass priest".
    – TheHonRose
    Sep 22, 2017 at 2:16

2 Answers 2


Knowledge of Greek was rare until the Renaissance. Scholars fleeing the fall of Constantinople brought to Italy their knowledge of Classical Greek, a good bit different from the popular Greek.

In fact, through most of the Middle Ages, anyone knowing Greek was assumed to be Irish, and one of their better scholars at that.

The habit of making younger sons priests to hold the bishoprics or lesser benefices a noble family controlled often meant churchmen had little more learning than their secular relatives. Priests and monks with no real knowledge of Latin were not uncommon, doing their offices and prayers by rote.

  • 1
    Why Irish? And how could classical Greek be revived if it was all but extinct?
    – d-b
    Sep 10, 2015 at 12:36
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    AFAIK many, or at least enough, scholars in muslim spain and all the areas you excluded in your question knew classical greek. Many classical greek texts where first reintroduced in western europe via muslim scholars (or scholars living in muslim states). Toledo school could be a useful search term.
    – mart
    Sep 11, 2015 at 10:32
  • @mart. I don't think anyone in Muslim Spain knew Greek. The Greek > Syriac > Arabic translations were made by Christian and pagan scholars in Iraq.
    – fdb
    Sep 22, 2017 at 20:48

The knowledge of Classical or Ancient Greek barely existed in Medieval Europe-(namely, Christian Western and Northern Europe), though it did exist within Islamic Spain. However, it was within Byzantine Constantinople whereby the maintenance of Classical Greek would have been widespread, primarily among the Clergy, as well as with Theology students studying at The University of Constantinople-(I know the question wants to address Medieval Europe regarding Classical Greek literacy, however, it is difficult to avoid mentioning Byzantium).

In the case of Medieval Northern Europe, Latin was the "Lingua Franca" among the Clerical and Scholarly elites. During the Late Middle Ages, If one was studying at a Theology school in Paris, Southern England, Northern Italy or Germany, Latin was the Central language. If one was professionally employed by the Roman Catholic Church-(regardless of rank), Latin, was the widely preferred and Central Language of textual, conversational and above all, liturgical literacy.

With regard to Medieval Islamic Spain, languages, such as Spanish, Ladino-(or Judeo-Spanish), as well as Arabic-(which was the dominant language at that time), were the common languages from Barcelona, to Granada, though Classical Greek was known and translated by Moorish and particularly, Jewish Scribes. However, for the Roman Catholic Christians of Medieval Spain-(both civilians and Clergy), Latin, was the Central Language of the Church.

Overall, it was Latin (and not Classical Greek), which was the preferred and universal language of the religious and scholarly elites within Medieval Europe,

  • The Greek > Syriac > Arabic translations were made by Christian and pagan scholars in Iraq, not by "Moorish" and Jewish "scribes" in Spain. They were, however, read in Spain.
    – fdb
    Sep 22, 2017 at 20:50
  • it is acknowledged that the translations of Greek "classics" were initially translated into Syriac and Arabic by Syrian Christian Scribes who were multilingual-(and included a knowledge of Late Classical/Hellenistic era Greek). They were in close contact with the exiled Greek "Academic" community living in cities, such as, Damascus, as well as the Greco-Syrian City of Antioch. (I am unsure as to the "pagan scholars in Iraq" line. Christianity, specifically, Eastern rite Christianity, was alive and well in much of Iraq during the Early Middle Ages, a few centuries before the Muslim conquest).
    – user26763
    Sep 22, 2017 at 21:35
  • However, Moorish and particularly, Spanish Jewish Scribes did translate Ancient Greek "classics" into Arabic, namely, the works of Hippocrates, Archimedes and especially, Aristotle. They did not merely read these Classical works, they were active Translators. The Jews had been living in Spain 600-800 years before the arrival of the Moors. It is very plausible and possible to say that the Jewish Diaspora Community living in Spain may have originally came from Alexandria, Egypt or the city of Antioch whereby they would have had a near fluent command of Greek-(referring to the Educated Classes).
    – user26763
    Sep 22, 2017 at 21:43
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    Damascius (thus the correct spelling) lived in the 5th century; the Arabic translation movement was in the 9th century. Dates are important. The Arabic translators were either Christians, or members of the remnant pagan community on the upper Euphrates.
    – fdb
    Sep 22, 2017 at 21:45
  • Since Hellenistic times, The Old Testament, was primarily written in Greek and the city of Alexandria had generations of Greek literate Jewish Scribes. When the destruction of the Second Temple of Solomon happened in 70 CE, the Jewish Diaspora was established and in all likelihood, the Jews who traveled to Spain, originally came from Israel, as well as Syria and Egypt with a knowledge of Advanced Greek. As the centuries passed, the use of Greek as a scholarly language among the early Spanish Jewish clerical scholars would have been very likely and may have continued into the Middle Ages.
    – user26763
    Sep 22, 2017 at 21:51

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