Thursday, March 02, 2006

Literacy in the Seventeeth Century

This post owes a great deal to (among other works ) David Cressy, ‘Literacy in context: meaning and measurement in early modern England’ in John Brewer and Roy Porter (eds), Consumption and the World of Goods (Routledge, 1993), 306.

Literacy was an ambivalent indicator of cultural attainment
(a) It was by no means a necessity. A mark had the same legal standing as a signature. And many activities, particularly rural ones, did not need literacy. Every community contained at least one literate person, who could meet the needs of his illiterate neighbours (Cressy, 310).
(b) The oral and print cultures interacted. Jests and proverbs that originated in folklore appeared in printed editions. Printed ballads were head by illiterate bystanders. Sermons were delivered orally but many of them were also printed. Proclamations were proclaimed as well as posted. The town crier was ‘a walking, shouting bulletin board (Cressy, 311)’ who had to be literate as he had to deliver his information from a text delivered in writing.
(c) There was a spectrum between illiteracy and full literacy, an ascending order of accomplishments from the simple ability to read the letters of the alphabet to full fluency in handling sophisticated texts.
(d) A hierarchy of skill may have developed as readers learned to decipher writing in different forms. The commonest was Black Letter (Gothic) print, used in the ABC horn book, the catechism and much popular literature. Black Letter printing continued throughout the 17th century, especially for ballads, almanacs and publications aimed at the less educated reader. More sophisticated publications used Roman type.

Reading, by its nature, leaves no direct record, so there is no reliable guide to the extent of reading ability within the population. But it seems certain that more people could read than could write. Reading and writing were taught as separate skills and often by separate masters.

Reading was seen as a skill that could be taught by anyone, writing required masters; it also required a high level of manual dexterity and initiation into the arts of cutting quills and preparing ink. Only the more privileged reached this level. Because of this, it is often difficult to assess literacy. A mark had the same legal standing as a signature and a clumsy signature may indicate less writing skill than a highly accomplished trade mark.

Literacy was closely associated with social and economic position and with gender. In the charity schools boys were often taught writing, while the girls learned to sew.

The statistical evidence for literacy comes from personal signatures. For all their problems as evidence, a clear and convincing pattern emerges. The groups that signed their names are the groups we would expect to possess literacy.

In the middle decades of the 16th century only 20% of adult males in England were able to sign their own names and only 5% of women. By the end of the 17th century 50% of men could sign and 25% of women. There was a long-term trend of growing literacy. The most reliable figures show a gradual though not unbroken improvement in male literacy from 10% in 1500 to 25% in 1714 and 40% in 1750.

Within this trend, there was considerable variation. There was an elite of aristocrats, gentry and rich merchants who were almost totally literate by 1600. Shopkeepers were 95% literate by the 1770s. Most labourers could not read at all. The highest literacy levels were in London: female literacy rose from 22% in the 1670s to 66% in the 1720s. Cressy, 314, describes this female literacy as precocious and states that ‘the women of Mrs Aphra Behn’s London were as literate as men in the countryside’. Literacy was higher for City-born women than for immigrants, higher for those born after 1660 and higher for those engaged in needle trades and shop keeping than as servants, hawkers and washerwomen.

A few more figures:
The gentry, clergy, merchants, tradesmen were literate.
Among village artisans: ½ to ¾ could not sign. There was 90% illiteracy among thatchers and miners.
30% of yeomen and 80% of husbandmen could not sign their names.