I been reading this question and it makes me think a lot. So I came with a question of my own.

In a resume, the post presents a world where everyone is illiterate. Some said that the society could be very advanced indeed, others that the society is going to be in a Bronze Age state. But I want to give a twist to this.

Let's assume that some kind of system based on scribes persist through time. That every knowledge is copied, written and kept by some kind of religious cult or administrative group. That means a reduced portion of the population. Let's call it "The scribes' house". I can imagine every workshop, laboratory, business, etc. requiring the services of a scribe. People dictating their knowledge to the scribes and requiring them to recall it. Similar to ancient times.

But, isn't this impractical to the point of limiting the advance of the sophistication of that society?

That's where my question comes:

How sophisticated could a society be if knowledge, even written word, depends only on some kind of religious cult or administrative group with scribe-like functions?

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    $\begingroup$ Consider medieval times and ancient Egypt. $\endgroup$ Jul 13 '21 at 20:22
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "Similar to ancient times" -- when and where? Surely not in the classical / Hellenistic / Greco-Roman world -- that was a highly literate society. They had scribes, but those were employed to mass-produce books; people were perfectly able to write their own letters, and read them. In fact, the dependence of a class of literate clergy is more typical of the early and high European Middle Ages. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 13 '21 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ How big is this cult/administration and how expensive are their services? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 13 '21 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ How is this different from the Early (and even High) Middle Ages in (most of) Europe? (Which would make the obvious answer "quite sophisticated indeed".) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 13 '21 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ @TheSquare-CubeLaw The problem with looking at Medieval Times etc. is that they only establish a minimum baseline. However, they do not prove how advanced a society could be which is what OP is asking about. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 14 '21 at 15:15

Well, if you have read Eco's "The name of the rose", the Abbey had precisely that role: copying the knowledge and trying to prevent unworthy eyes from reading it, where the worthy eyes were only those fully indoctrinated.

On a more realistic side, for centuries even the simple knowledge passed along the religious books of the Catholic religion was actually controlled by the religious people, since they were only written in Latin and not allowed to be translated in vulgar languages.

Whether that was a con-cause in the relative stagnation of middle ages is matter for historical debate, nevertheless the less people have free access to knowledge, the more difficult it is for it to advance: geniuses like Leonardo, Archimedes, Einstein, Mozart are randomly born, and unless they can come in touch with something triggering the "spark", they will never shine. And with little circulation of knowledge, like it happened in the middle age, regardless of the causes, there is little progress.

Moreover there is a limit to the amount of knowledge that it can be transmitted orally without alteration, and it's rather challenging to pass orally all the theorems involved in calculus, for example.


To a certain degree, our society is like this.

Have you ever tried reading academic papers in an area you are not familiar with? They may be written in your native language (or the language you are fluent in) but despite that, you will have a very hard time understanding them. The reason is field-specific terminology and patterns of presentation.

In our world, non-academics and academics belonging to different branches of science and scholarship speak very differently, it is almost like they use dialects. These 'dialects' are taught in universities and their usage is enforced by academic societies. It is extremely hard (or sometimes impossible) to publish an academic paper that does not follow language conventions specific to its area of study/research. A paper like this may get negative reviews for not being 'scientific enough' (it is also possible to publish a rubbish paper that uses 'scientific' language). Each journal has writing guidelines (including styles) that are relatively strictly enforced. Nature will not accept papers that are not written in accordance with editorial requirements.

In addition to linguistic difficulties, there is also an issue of access to knowledge. For example, a significant part of scientific knowledge is not accessible by the general public. Paywalls, patents, trade secrets, and alike make it impossible to stay in touch with the most recent developments. Popular science magazines/websites and press releases are highly unreliable since they tend to distort or misrepresent the original findings (this is a tragic result of the grant system and commercialisation of science).

Academia also controls what kind of knowledge can and should be collected, what topics can be researched, how they can be researched, and so on. Take for example genetics, there are numerous ethical committees that decide what and how can be researched (no human experiments, no human germline editing, etc.). If morally questionable human experiments are conducted, their results will be impossible to publish and researchers will risk their careers and sometimes even freedom.

Despite scientific knowledge being controlled by academia and a decrease in the number of people that can understand most of the accumulated knowledge, our society keeps getting more sophisticated.

I think that the existence of some organisations controlling knowledge is less important than the matter of control itself. If the said organisation only collects knowledge and does not put it to good use, your society will stagnate or may even devolve. However, if this organisation uses the collected knowledge to benefit society, society may advance very fast.

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    $\begingroup$ It's funny, I was just thinking yesterday about how awful mathematicians and physicists are about thier variable naming conventions. Like, if Einstein was a programmer, E=mc^2 would be written something like \$energy = \$mass * _speedOfLight^2, but if this equation were handed to a different kind of scientist without any context, it could just as easily mean \$electronCharge = \$molarConcentration * \$circumfrance^2 ... so instead of E=mc^2 being learnable equation, it's actually more a unique word that you either know, you don't know, or you can try to guess based on context. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 14 '21 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ That said, the question asks "How sophisticated could a society be..." So you may want to add some speculation about how far we can continue on this Academia Lexicon driven track before it stunts our ability to advance. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 14 '21 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I addressed it in the last paragraph. The sophistication of society, IMO, depends on how this control is exercised. However, I do not go into details because each situation is unique. One could write multiple books on this subject. And, in fact, there are books talking about the Church, various Chinese dynasties, the Japanese Imperial court, and so on controlling information and its dissemination. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Jul 14 '21 at 19:40

A Cult or Administrative Group Can Not Completely Suppress Literacy

While the early-to-high medieval period saw a lot less technological advancement than you saw in the classical period, they also did not really see a whole lot of technological regression either. Some knowledge was suppressed or lost while other knowledge was gained. The thing is that even though the Church controlled all the old knowledge by monopolizing thier understanding of Latin and Greek texts, the church could not prevent the rise of new written languages from emerging. Neither could your scribes prevent people from coming up with thier own systems of writing or from inventing new things.

So, while we often say that literacy in the medieval period was very low, this is not entirely true. Most households (even peasants) had at least one person who could read and write in the vernacular language well enough to be able to manage contracts, file taxes, share recipes with neighbors, etc. Our statistics of this time period are very skewed because these people were documented as illiterate by the Church because they could not read and write in Latin.

... But this does not keep the Cult or Administrative Group from Controlling IMPORTANT knowledge

The reason that this kind of "illiteracy" did such a good job of suppressing knowledge was because knowledge invented by commoners could not spread very far with the languages they knew how to write in. There were just too many different dialects for knowledge to spread very far unless it was first translated into Latin.

So, considering how the medieval period went down, we can assume that your scribes can not prevent literacy for very long, but they can very easily control the "common language" which only the very privileged have the opportunity to learn because no one actually speaks it natively.

So to answer your question: There is no limit

The same forces that made the scribes what they were could be recreated in any time period on any scale. For an example, picture a setting similar to Warhammer 40k:

Imagine a future ~30,000 years from now where mankind expands to form a unified Galactic Empire. The Empire spreads its language across many worlds allowing ridiculous amounts of cooperative science to progress mankind's technology far beyond anything you can conceive. Now imagine what 10,000 years of stagnation and civil wars will do to the Empire. Eventually, every world will have its own language or languages, and no one world will contain more than a fragment of what was once known in its native language(s) plunging humanity into an Interstellar Dark Age.

However, you have one group known as the scribes (like the Adeptus Mechanicus and Adeptus Administratum all mixed into one) who still study the old empire's language. They not only have all of the old empire's technological documentation, but they know how to READ it! So while most "Peasants" could never figure out how to fashion anything better than a primitive laser cannons or plasma shields from the limited knowledge of what it recorded in thier own language, the scribes have in thier vast array of literature about how to make anti-star weapons and shields that can phase any incoming threat completely out of reality. They also know how to send messages back and forth between any two worlds in the galaxy without complication because every world has scribes who still know the old Imperial language, and these scribes CAN still work together with with collaborative knowledge of the whole galaxy to continue advancing technology... but not nearly as well as the old Empire could because the scribes are way fewer than the imperial citizens who once all spoke the same language.

  • $\begingroup$ Unless they are some sort of ninja as well they are going to rapidly find themselves in a corner listening to a very pointed lecture on the virtues of sharing. $\endgroup$
    – Peter Wone
    Jul 15 '21 at 1:31
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterWone A problem easily solved the same way the church did it: "Oh, you want to know things that I did not approve? That sounds like heresy to me!" Because the scribes have such a large area of influence, if a planet or group of planets opposes thier practices, it is easy for them to call in allies from other parts of the galaxy to deal with the heretics just like the Catholic Church got entire nations to go to war over Protestantism. The political power that comes with monopolizing the flow of information makes the scribes a superpower unto themselves. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 15 '21 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ I might be wrong, but I don't think the Church has monopolized the Latin language. Nobles certainly knew Latin, so did many burghers. As far as I know, learning Latin was not limited by the Church, but by one's estate and wealth. $\endgroup$
    – user31389
    Jul 15 '21 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ @user31389 The Clergy and Nobility had tons of overlap. Most clerics in medieval Europe were the not-first born sons of noble families. So, the big reason Latin was so known amongst the nobility was so that they could join the clergy where they would enjoy positions of power and prestige, even without being able to inherit their father's fiefdom. But, until the Renaissance, the actual large collections of Latin texts were all owned by the church. So yes, many nobles knew Latin, but without joining the church, the only Latin they would ever see is thier own correspondences and the bible. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 15 '21 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @user31389 We are getting into a topic way too complex for comment format, and I think we are having issues with oversimplifying too many times and places in just a few sentences. But generally speaking, you are describing the Late-Medieval to Renaissance period, and I am describing the Early-to-High Medieval period. But even this is an over-simplification since what was true of the 10th century Anglo-Saxons was different than what is true of the 8th century Franks or the 11th century Holy Roman Empire... $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 15 '21 at 21:48

Very unsophisticated

Without the ability of the common people to track financial transactions, a society cannot progress beyond simple barter. Without numeracy it is impossible to even tax the peasants effectively - if they cannot record how much they have produced, how can they provide 1/10 or 1/5 of their output to their local lord?

Even if the scribe class is actually a "merchants-combined-with-rulers" class, they cannot effectively interact with (read "exploit") the rest of society without a common ability to record credits and debts. This means that the society will never reach the critical mass to allow a wealth surplus to support a ruling class.

Note that the above relates to limits on a society progressing to a certain level of sophistication. It might be possible for a high-technology society to regress to an illiterate stage if everyone is issued a voice-only smartphone or equivalent device that tracks all that person's financial and other records while the scribe/sysadmin cult runs the show. However, this approach:

  1. is actually allowing the common people to record information through the proxy of their smartphone; and
  2. requires me to believe in an IT system more reliable than anything that has ever existed (in the last 24 hours I've spent an hour on the phone to helpdesks, lost internet connectivity twice and had three drop outs in vidcons).

In the past Actually this describes many ancient civilizations. Obviously the early middle ages but there are many other examples like the magi in ancient Babylon.

Size matters

Could a state advance and still keep this system possible depends on how large there priest/education class is a modern society requires a lot of highly educated specialists. So it need a gigantic priest class and very powerful church.

Slow development.

Its possible that with one institute with a Monopoly on learning Could lead to a lack of the necessary competition to advance at the same rate we did in our world because of this it's possible that even if Such a society did advance to are a level it would take considerably longer.

Slow to change and correct itself.

Something else to consider is how the churches scientific conclusions are treated If they are treated as the same level or even near the same level as scripture then this might slow development also as despite The level of trust we put in it science is usually wrongs it comes to the right conclusion only by trial-and-error. If Scientific conclusions made by Religious figures even well informed well educated religious figures Are treated as the same level as scripture then they might be hard for the institution to correct the mistakes as new evidence comes out.

Something leeks out

It's hard to hold a complete monopoly on knowledge and education in a modern society especially since a certain level of knowledge and education is needed in order to Function in a modern society. And considering the size of your priestly caste Some knowledge is going to make out Someone's gonna teach something To their kid their spouse or their family. In addition knowledge is power and Secular political institutions may want some of the churches secret knowledge for the selves.

Give them a high school education

I would recommend that you don't make the average Citizen completely iliterate It taken certain level of education to function in a modern society. As theyd make your a priestly caste the equivalent to someone with a higher education. You have to be a member of the church or to get a higher education but even if you're not you still at least know the basics to function in a modern society.


Little chance it will be viable

Sophistication in terms of technical achievements: probably not, unless there is a stack of hidden knowledge in the religious books, that can be explored. Slowly. In general, religions don't provide methods to approach exploration. Development and new knowledge are really needed for engineering.

In a cultural sense, little would change from the directions it started out with. When prescribed religious patterns extend to culture and science, society will be carved in stone. No change. Emigration of young people will be the result, you'll end up with a reservate for the elderly. When the traditional patterns won't yield prosperity, violent uprise against a perceived dictatorship will follow.. If cultural directions would be incomplete, or allow for any basic freedom of expression, eventually people will break out.. writers - dissidents - they'll present different scenarios in novels.. and the solid base you trusted will not be viable. Change will come.


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