Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Literacy and education

A horn book from the Derby Museum,
by Mainlymazza -
Own work.
Licensed under Creative Commons
via Wikimedia Commons
This post owes a great deal to 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) and to Margaret Spufford's famous and ground-breaking, Small Books and Pleasant Histories (Methuen 1981). Susan Whyman's The Pen and the People: English Letter writers 1660-1800 is another ground-breaking study for a slightly later period.

A problem for historians

Literacy is difficult to define for the period.  Does it just mean reading very simple sentences or does it require more sophisticated reading skills?  It is a problem for historians because it is  an ambivalent indicator of cultural attainment  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.  

The oral and print cultures interacted. Jests and proverbs that originated in folklore appeared in printed editions. Printed ballads were heard by illiterate bystanders. Sermons were delivered orally but many of them were also printed. Proclamations were proclaimed as well as posted. The town crier, a walking bulletin board, had to be literate as he had to deliver his information from a text delivered in writing.

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.

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.


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. Literacy was closely associated with social and economic position and with gender. 

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. 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.

Overall, literacy does not seem to have greatly increased in the 18th century, and may even have declined. On balance, the early factory system probably disrupted education. 19th century figures show the new industrial centres lagging behind the rest of the country. At the beginning of the Victorian age more than 1 in 3 Englishmen were illiterate and 50% of women.

How to write

Writing needed paper, made from rags and bought at a stationer’s, ink, a pen, a penknife, and a 'dust-box'. Ink was a mixture of galls from oak leaves and iron salt or copperas (iron sulphate) laced with gum arabic (a natural gum made from the sap of the acacia tree). A right-handed person would choose a quill from the left wing of a goose. Quills wore down quickly and were in constant need of repair.  They could be bought ready-cut from a stationer's shop, but they were expensive and the less well-off would become skilled at sharpening with a steel knife.  Copybooks showed the right way to hold a pen. By the end of the seventeenth century some writers were using steel pens. Copybooks showed the right way to hold a pen. 

The Post Office

Once the Post Office was reorganised in the 1660s the demand for its services never flagged. In the late eighteenth century the post boy was replaced by the mail coach. Research into letters in local record offices has shown that the Post Office was used by a wider range of people than was previously thought. Farmers and servants, as well as the upper classes and the middling sort, wrote letters. The characteristic eighteenth-century literary genre, the epistolary novel, provides indirect evidence of the popularity of letter-writing and the importance of the Post Office.

Title page of Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel,
Pamela (1741)

Popular literature
From their opening in 1557 the presses of the Stationers’ Company show the production of a large number of printed ballads, almanacs and chapbooks to feed a popular market. By the 1660s as many as 400,000 almanacs were coming out annually. One family in three could be buying a new almanac annually. Old Moore’s Almanac was first published in 1697.

An eighteenth-cenury 'tragical ballad'
Public domain

Ballads were sung at street corners and then sold for 1d. By the 1660s, however, chapbooks were selling better than ballads.

These were small books selling at 2d, aimed to appeal to a very wide cross-section of the urban and rural lower sections of society from merchants to apprentices in towns, and from farmers to day-labourers in the country. They were called chapbooks because they were sold by travelling peddlers (chapmen). Alehouses were also centres of distribution, places where ballads and chapbooks were handed round or read aloud. Because they contained woodcut illustrations, even the illiterate could enjoy chapbook stories. 

Examples of chapbooks included The Compleat Cookmaid and Mother Bunch’s Closet, which taught simple spells to discover one’s future husband, to be practised on St Agnes’ Eve and Midsummer Eve. Apprentices enjoyed stories such as Aurelius, the Valiant London Prentice. Chivalric romances such as Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton were universally popular. In 1621 Tom Thumb was published, the story of a diminutive neo-Arthurian knight, the son of a ploughman and a milkmaid. A substantial proportion of the chapbook stories were religious.

"Tom Thumb Adventures" by Unknown -
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

There was a similar popular literature in France. For more than 250 years the bibliothèque bleue was published in Troyes. In some respects the stories were similar to those in the English chapbooks, but they also included the lives of saints that would appeal to a Catholic readership.

John Bunyan later repented of his childhood reading matter: 
‘... give me a Ballad, a News-Book, George on Horseback or Bevis of Southampton, give me some book that teaches curious Arts, that tells of old Fables.


Elite boys and girls learned the alphabet from a parent, tutor or governess.   The better off boys could attend an endowed grammar school. (Andrew Marvell and William Wilberforce were educated at Hull Grammar School.) They could also go to a public school before attending university.

Jane Johnson (1706-59), the wife of the Revd. Woolsey Johnson of Olney in Buckinghamshire, prepared a range of teaching materials for her son, George William, and presumably as well for her two other sons and daughter. There are 438 items in her collection, ranging in size from tiny fingernail-size books to letter and word cards that measure three inches by one inch.

Jane decorated the cards with illustrations of people, birds, animals, and objects that she cut from magazines and newspapers and painted by hand with watercolours. It is thought that she hung the cards on an easel and then had her children arrange the sentences.

The material was discovered in Indiana in 1982 and handed over to the university, where it can be viewed here.

Lower down the social scale, the bulk of the population would have learned to read in a dame school, though some children attended free schools or charity schools, funded by endowments. Generally a child would be able to read by the age of seven, and if the school taught writing he had acquired this skill by the age of eight.  

Children began by memorizing the alphabet a letter at a time, using a hornbook, a paper sheet pasted on a board covered with horn and fixed in a frame.  After memorizing vowels and consonants, they combined them into syllables then joined syllables into words. The basis of all teaching was repetition.

Thomas Tryon provides a case study of his informal education in Oxfordshire in the 1640s. 

…In a little time having learned to read competently well, I was desirous to learn to write, but was at a great loss for a master, none of my fellow shepherds being able to teach me. At last I bethought myself of a lame young man who taught some poor people’s children to read and write; and having by this time got some two sheep of my own, I applied myself to him and agreed to give him one of my sheep to teach me to make the letters and join them together.
He later learned to write.


  1. Schooling was patchy with only the elite being provided with a prolonged period of schooling. Boys received a far more systematic education than girls.
  2. Evidence of literacy is hard to come by, the most reliable being signatures on legal documents or in parish registers.
  3. However the existence of cheap popular literature and the growing importance of the Post Office both suggest a reasonably wide reading public. Many people who could not write nevertheless possessed a basic literacy.

No comments:

Post a Comment