Counting signatures

Christopher Hill

  • Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England by David Cressy
    Cambridge, 246 pp, £12.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 521 22514 0

This is the first full-scale study of literacy in 16th and 17th-century England. Dr Cressy has long been known to scholars for his work on the subject: here he gives us his conclusions. For the whole of his period, he thinks, about two out of three adult males, and about 90 per cent of women, were illiterate. Proportions varied from region to region. In London by the end of the 17th century illiteracy may have been down to two-thirds or a quarter; for women about a half. There were fluctuations over time: a rapid growth in literacy immediately after the Henrician Reformation and again in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign; a recession from 1580 to 1610, and again in the Civil War decade, followed by a new advance in the 1650s, and a slowing down after 1660. The initial rapid rise may perhaps be attributed to a new emphasis on Bible-reading; the other fluctuations probably derive from economic factors – though the stagnation after 1660 must relate to the upper-class feeling that the revolutionary decades had shown that too much education was bad for the lower orders.

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