2) The World of Letters

Outlines of Change

There's evidence of an increase in educational provision, for example in Saxony in 1618, 70% of parishes had boys schools. By 1675, 94% had schools. In England between the years of 1540 and 1640, there was a marked increase in the provision for both elementary and university schooling. In the Archdeaconry of Gloucester in the 17th century, the number of bridegrooms able to sign their names rose from c. 55% in 1630 to over 70% after 1700. The number of labourers and servants able to write their name slightly rose in the late 17th century, and in 1780, more than 80% of artisans and tradesmen could sign their names. Most didn't marry by license though so it only shows a trend. (Lawrence Stone)

Between the years of 1530 to the 1720s, over 1000 catechisms and related didactic texts were printed in England. By the early 18th century, many towns had their own newspaper and subscription libraries.

So, literacy clearly spread and this all shows a broad, complex process of change.

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Different Types of Script and Prints

There were many different types of script and print during this period. One of the most common was the Black Letter script which looked very gothic. This was probably the easiest type of script to read for those at the time as it was used in the Bible, in catechisms and popular ballads etc. It was the first font a child learned to recognise and was specifically used in the 16th century.

The Roman type of script became increasingly popular in the 17th century and is what we use today. Although, for example looking at the letter 's', it could appear as an 'f' or elongated s depending on its position in a word.

Script continued to be used even after the development of print as it was still used in labels, love letters and all manner of legal letters, like Charles I's death warrant. But, not everyone could read the different kinds of scripts.

There were complex patterns of change in literacy profiles. There was an overall improvement, but it wasn't straight-forward, as can be seen in Elizabeth I's reign. The active literacy among middling people rose, but in the 17th century, there was stagnation, decline, differentiation and no straight-forward change. In the 1630s, there was a decline in literacy skills among husbandmen and tradesmen. Then, from 1660, there was noticeable improvement again.

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The Meanings and Measurements of Literacy

Literacy is a relative concept as there are different types of literacy. The usual definition is that you can read and write, but this was different during this period. Being literate, 'literati', during this period meant a person could speak Latin along with maybe Hebrew and Greek, as well as their vernacular language. They believed English would disappear and Latin would remain. So, being able to read and speak Latin was very important. Some probably wrote Latin better than they wrote English.

Reading was a much broader skill and was acquired at a young age. It was often taught in the home by different family members, usually the women. They were taught using largely rote learning and memory skills. It was a family skill. If one person in the family learnt how to read, they taught the rest. Reading aloud was the most common form of reading as silent reading is more complex. Reading and recitation were closely linked with religious teaching.

Writing was acquired later as it required proficiency and dexterity. It was taught by skilled writing masters and was a more expensive skill as it required a pen, ink and paper etc. It was a vocational skill as it was only taught to those who might need it in future careers. So, boys were more likely to learn than girls, and they were more likely to be more proficient in writing.

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Sign Literacy

Sign literacy was the most common means of measurement. For example, all men in England were required to sign The Protestation Oath in 1642. There were also signatures on marriage licences after 1754. But, sign literacy doesn't measure reading and they may only be able to sign their names and nothing else. Gender and the value of pictorial representation (some could sign by drawing the sign of their trade) also isn't considered. For example, John and Mary Shakespeare signed their names with pictures, as did their daughter Judith. Susannah, their other daughter, signed her name very well. But, they could all write. Some records also show that some people could sign their name but then later on forgot and used the cross instead. So, sign literacy may not show us all that much.

But, sign literacy does reveal that towns had higher literacy rates than the countryside, London had a higher literacy rate than the provinces, the city of London had higher literacy rates than the suburbs, and Scotland and North England showed similar patterns. (Rab Houston)

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