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A story today on NPR’s Morning Edition about the need for literacy in the Afghan army got me thinking about the period I’m writing about, the Middle Ages (specially late 8th century Europe).

Most of the people in that period could not read. King Charles (Charlemagne), his family, and his court were the exception. Charles could read but not write. That job was left to clerks.

It’s unsettling, but not surprising, that there are parts of the world where illiteracy is norm.

In his interview with NPR, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell sums up why it’s important to change that norm: “If all you want to do is tear something down, like the Taliban, then you don’t have to have any kind of literacy level. If you’re trying to build something up and sustain it, then you’re going to have to instill literacy into the force.”

For one thing, you need literacy for record-keeping such as who has what gun. The Afghans also need it to record their side of history.

We’ve heard the expression “history is written by the winners.” I would like to add “and the literate.” For example, the Saxons, the Franks’ bitterest enemy, did not have a written language as we know it. Much of what we know about them comes from the Franks, who were anything but objective observers.

Historical fiction can help fill that gap by speculating beyond the records.

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