From the tenth and eleventh centuries onwards, a network of cities flowered in the Low Countries that derived their existence largely from trade and industry. The practical exigencies that came with the large-scale production and commercialization of goods made sure that in this part of Western Europe the traditional monopoly of the clergy on literacy was broken early on by the precocious rise of a class of merchants and craftsmen who committed to the written word, if only for bookkeeping and business correspondence.1 In the wake of the urbanization process, written records had become an important constituent of the social fabric.

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Familiar as they were with charters, tax registers, books of account, recipes, order lists, payment receipts, storage inventories, prayer books, poems, pamphlets and so on, the inhabitants of the Low Countries understood that records were replete with social meaning. As literacy and...

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