Early Modern England: A Literate Culture?
In the late 15th century, the printing press came to England. Whilst initially its trade remained small and concentrated in the hands of a few, its rapid expansion throughout the Early Modern period transformed English society, rendering ‘literature culture’ important to everyday life. However, the true extent to which literature culture penetrated Early Modern society is a matter of debate, one further complicated by the obstacles faced in measuring ‘literacy’ in the Early Modern period.
Oral and Literate Cultures: Definitions and Differences
Firstly, historians are faced with the problem of artificially separating oral from literate culture. Although Schofield argued in 1968 that some people in Early Modern England were able to live completely cut-off from literate culture, historians have since discredited this approach. The historical consensus now posits that, as Keith Thomas has argued, Early Modern society was a neither a completely literate nor an entirely oral culture. The boundary between ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ culture was permeable. Though Protestantism is often heralded as the religion of print, the Reformation was also dependent on oral transmission for its success; in the mid 16th century the strength of catechism was recognised by Luther. Popular, Protestant ‘literate culture’ was not apart from oral traditions either. Broadside ballads, such as ‘An hundred godly lessons’, or ‘The Virgin’s ABC’, were printed cheaply in huge quantities. Yet, these ballads were intended to be sung to the tune of songs embedded deeply in oral traditions, and were thus made accessible to members of the community unable to read.
Once we have problematized the artificial separation of literate and oral culture, we must grapple with the definition of a ‘literate culture’. The binary distinction between ‘literate’ and ‘oral’ culture ignores the myriad of definitions of literacy. A person in Early Modern England might be able to read, but this didn’t necessarily indicate an ability to write. Earlier historiography of literacy in Early Modern England tended to focus on the ability of a person to sign their name as indicative of their ability to write. However, more recent work, such as that of Heidi Brayman Hackel , has moved away from an analysis of signatures to look at alternative materials, such as diaries, letters and commonplace books, which are thought to give a more accurate indication of the ability to write. Eleanor Hubbard has developed new methods of discovering how many people in Early Modern England were able to read, but not write, making an important distinction between these two different kinds of literacy. Hubbard takes the ability of young women in consistory courts of London to initial their names as an indication of at least the beginning of reading literacy. What we mean by ‘literacy’, and how we measure it as historians, has therefore evolved historiographically over time.
Whilst there have been significant developments in the ability of historians to uncover how many people had skills of literacy of different kinds, the reasons behind the acquisition of of literacy can be more elusive. A key historiographical debate centers around the extent to which literacy was ‘functional’ in Early Modern England, serving specific socio-economic ends, or whether it was part of a broader culture of literacy. Literacy rates of merchants were high as they needed to read and at least write to a limited degree in order to carry out their trade, writing contracts and keeping record books.
Numerate Cultures and Education
Numerate culture is often ignored in the study of education in the Early Modern period – yet this was still of vital importance. Developments in numeracy levels perhaps offer the best example of ‘functionality’. Skills of numeracy were only relevant insofar as their social function, with many people in rural England continuing to perceive the passing of time according to the seasons and thus their immediate relationship with the land. Furthermore, local measurements persisted, with what constituted an acre, for example, varying from locality to locality. Historians must therefore be careful in assuming how contemporaries perceived the skills of literacy and numeracy, when for many they appeared to only be relevant in terms of the immediate functions they could serve.
The relationship to the provision of education has also been a key point of historiographical debate. The ability to access education was, on the whole, limited to those of superior social status. Although there were no fees from grammar schools, maintenance could cost around £4 a year per child, when the average wage of a laborer rarely exceeded £15. Fees for Oxford were £30 to £40 in 1600, and between £80 and £100 by 1750. Although poorer students could attend Oxford, they did so as ‘sizars’ or ‘servitors’, which required them to work as servants in order to pay for their tuition, thereby detracting from their studies and reinforcing their inferior social position.
Whilst scholars have identified a relationship between the social hierarchy and literacy rates, with those further up being more likely to have skills of literacy, the link between educational provision and literacy in Early Modern society is tenuous. Schooling was not compulsory until 1876, by which point over 75% of the population was literate. No correlation was found between the intensities of the schooling provision in the diocese of Chester and subsequent levels of signing ability on the Protestant returns of 21 parishes in 1642. Early skills of literacy were often acquired through informal methods of teaching, which, relative to grammar schools, have been under-studied. An inability to clearly demonstrate the relationship between education and literacy levels is thus likely to reflect the paucity of historiography of elementary education in Early Modern England.
Scholars have undoubtedly shown that literacy rates in early modern England increased throughout the Early Modern period. However, the multiple different definitions of ‘literacy’, the varying reasons for its acquisition and the obstacles to its evaluation should encourage historians to question the notion of a ‘literate culture’ and what this meant to ‘ordinary’ people.
Feature image: ‘Die Buchdruckerei’ (c. 1770) by Daniel Chodowiecki , reprinted in ’62 bisher unveröffentlichte Handzeichnungen zu dem Elementarwerk von Johann Bernhard Basedow’, Voigtländer-Tetzner, Frankfurt am Main, 1922.