Thursday, 13 October 2011

Literacy and education

A hornbook was a primer  for children consisting of a sheet containing the letters of the alphabet, mounted on wood, bone, leather or stone and protected by a thin sheet of transparent horn or mica.ption
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).

  • Literacy 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 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.
  • 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.

How to write
Writing needed paper, ink, a pen, a penknife, and a 'dust-box'. Quills wore down quickly and were in constant need of repair. A right-handed person would choose a quill from the left wing of a goose. Quills could be bought ready-cut from a stationer's shop, but they were expensive and the less well-off would become skilled at sharpening. Copybooks showed the right way to hold a pen.

There is one point, however, that is pretty conclusive: literacy was closely associated with social and economic position and with gender. This can be seen in the lower as well as the higher levels of society; in the charity schools boys were often taught writing, while the girls learned to sew.he 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.
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.

Literate groups: gentry, clergy, merchants, tradesmen.
Village artisans: ½ to ¾ could not sign. There was 90% illiteracy among thatchers and miners.
Yeomen: 30% could not sign names.
Husbandmen: 80 % could not sign names.
Women: only gentle and commercial classes were literate. 75 % could not sign names. But late Stuart London saw precocious literacy.

Cheap literature
In England publishers were producing 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. These were called chapbooks because they were sold by travelling peddlers (chapmen). Alehouses were also centres of distribution, places were 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.
    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.

The Life of St Margaret: a typical production of the Oudet publishing house.

Education was patchy, especially for the poor, as the case-study of Thomas Tryon, a young shepherd of Oxfordshire in the 1640s, shows:
…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.

Some children poor attended free schools or charity schools, funded by endowments.

In England the better off boys could attend grammar schools. The aristocracy hired private tutors for their sons.

In Catholic Europe education was largely in the hands of the religious orders.