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.

Literacy and class go closely together. From an early date virtually all the gentry and clergy were literate. So were some two-thirds of yeomen, tradesmen and craftsmen. It was among husbandmen, servants and labourers that illiteracy obstinately survived. There were wide variations among tradesmen: scriveners, apothecaries, vintners, ironmongers, mercers, drapers, grocers and haberdashers were almost all literate; thatchers, miners and slaters were normally illiterate. Again London was different: there, only among shoemakers, gardeners and watermen was there less than 50 per cent literacy.

Dr Cressy’s book includes a mass of interesting detail. What about his methods? He starts with a fairly harsh critique of his predecessors. He is sceptical about large claims for the Protestant emphasis on Bible-reading as a stimulus to literacy. It may have worked in individual cases, but overall he attaches more importance to economic demands. He is sceptical, too, of contemporary accounts of rapidly expanding literacy, and his figures seem to justify this. Nor does he attribute significance to the numbers of books available: the tenfold expansion in the revolutionary 1640s may mean only that the same minority was reading far more books. Ownership of books, recorded in wills, may be no more satisfactory as an indicator. Widespread ownership of Bibles does not prove that they were read, and anyway the casual way in which books are listed in inventories makes them an unreliable source. Nor can we quantify ‘the educational revolution’ by counting schools. ‘There is little to suggest that elementary education was ... expanded.’ ‘It is arguable that the increase went mostly to benefit the middle and upper groups.’ At best, such indirect evidence supports a general increase in literacy: Dr Cressy’s object is to test, sharpen and substantiate this impression. His test of literacy is the ability to sign one’s name – to a will, to testimony in an ecclesiastical court, to public documents like the Protestation of 1641, supposed to be signed by all adult males. The illiterate placed a mark against their names in lieu of signature. The argument is that reading was taught before writing in 16th and 17th-century schools: those who could write could certainly read. The obvious objection, ‘that a signature is easily learned, as a trick or for its own sake,’ Dr Cressy brushes aside. Such instances, he claims, are rare: at most, counting signatures may very slightly exaggerate the number of literates. The experts will have to decide whether this is wishful thinking or not. Counting signatures certainly facilitates Dr Cressy’s task by giving him a much larger body of evidence than would otherwise be available.

His figures make better sense when taken in bulk than when broken down. His attempt to make sense of the distribution of literacy in Essex was ‘marked by frustration, uncertainty and negative results’. Neighbouring villages varied enormously, and explanations in terms of economic or religious influences do not seem to supply an explanation. ‘We must posit a mixture of influences, a complex matrix of cultural, ideological, economic and perhaps even accidental elements which fashioned the literacy of each community at a particular time.’ We are, in fact, in this respect little the wiser.

But on the relationship of literacy to social class and employment Dr Cressy is more confident. ‘The distribution of literacy in pre-industrial England was powerfully influenced by its economic and social utility.’ ‘Literacy was a powerful marker of social and economic position.’ There are problems here, with which Dr Cressy tries to deal. In Sweden, not economically advanced, 50 per cent of the population could read by the end of the 17th century, almost 100 per cent 50 years later. Dr Cressy attributes this to a campaign by the national church with strong state support. In Scotland and New England literacy early reached high levels: here Dr Cressy postulates a combination of economic and religious pressures. He concludes that the ‘pull’ of economics was stronger than the ‘push’ of religion. Literacy ‘had a practical, mundane utility’. Strong religious pressure for literacy ‘might make little headway against the indifference of a population not convinced of its immediate utility’. ‘Where ordinary people were content to remain illiterate and where their leaders felt no compulsion to disturb them’, illiteracy survived. Propaganda for education was useless without an economic ‘pull’.

I think this is too simplistic, a Ritz Hotel view. Men and women did not decide to be literate: their parents decided for them. And the decision was not ‘free’. A great many parents simply could not afford to lose their children’s labour when at the age of seven or eight they were able to contribute to the household’s earnings or (in the 18th century) when they could work in factories. The great economic divide of the late 16th and early 17th centuries saw the establishment of a class of permanent poor, for whom poor relief had to be organised on a national scale. This state of affairs was self-perpetuating. Without education it was virtually impossible to move upwards socially, but the poor could not afford to educate their children. It is therefore misleading to speak of ‘the indifference to formal schooling found in many sectors of the community’. There is an economic explanation for this indifference. Laissez-faire could never eradicate illiteracy: state action was essential.