History Of Literacy And Illiteracy Research Paper

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The period from the early sixteenth century up to the end of the eighteenth century saw a veritable revolution in European cultural history. In the Middle Ages, it was taken for granted that only a select few knew how to read and write and that many of them made their living out of these skills as scribes and clerks. By the late eighteenth century, however, in the most developed regions of Europe, about 50 percent of men were able to acquire information from reading the newspapers, and the number of people who could write was steadily rising. The skills of reading and writing and, beyond that, the use of literacy, were rapidly gaining ground, to the detriment of oral communication. The body of written documents increased drastically; literacy made its presence felt more and more strongly throughout society. Printed books grew in number while becoming cheaper, and more things were thought worthy of being committed to paper. Literacy extended its power to ever-newer sectors of a developing state administration and bureaucracy in early modern Europe. Surveys and certificates were drawn up, and the use of written documents gradually squeezed out verbal evidence. Inevitably, people’s mentality and ways of thinking underwent a simultaneous change.

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Orally transmitted knowledge and the memory of the elderly lost a good deal of their former prestige, while respect for information set down in writing, which increasing numbers of people were able to decipher, strengthened. With the spread of calendars and printed maps, the concepts of space and time altered; numerically articulated, measurable time came to replace an image of a past drawn with vague, uncertain outlines. Acquiring writing skills alone did not necessarily involve a change in mentality. Owing to the gradual spread of literacy in society, however, more and more people were able to read the dates on printed works, and this affected their way of thinking. People knew what the date was and how old they were, and tied events to specific days, months and years. The traditional concept of time had rested on oral tradition and memory, associating the passage of time with events such as wars and plagues, and the changing seasons. This slowly gave way to the new concept based on literacy, supported by written documents. This research paper tracks the development of literacy, especially in Europe and North America in the early modern period, the most important time in history of literacy, marking the period of transition from restricted to mass literacy in the West.

1. Literacy: Definitions And Mutual Relations

Functional literacy, i.e., the capacity to read a newspaper, sign a check and write a short postcard at least, was an essential and indispensable precondition of the functioning of nineteenth and twentieth century society. These skills were, however, lacking in the majority of the population in early modern Europe.

Literacy is much more than just the capacity to read and write. It is the constant practical use of writing and of the written record. Literacy represents a different way of seeing the world and storing information from that used by illiterate people.

During the 1990s very important research was carried out on literacy in ancient societies, evaluating in a new light data that had been available for centuries, but not regarded as sources of literacy: descriptions of reading and writing, orthography of mural epigraphs, and so on.

Literacy remains a very real problem in large parts of the world outside the West (and in parts of the Western world where there are poor schools, and where the phone and television have completely replaced letter writing and newspaper reading, etc.). However, literacy played a central part in European cultural and social history in the centuries between 1500 and 1800. Literacy is typically a phenomenon of transition—these centuries saw in Europe the transition from a restricted medieval literacy to modern mass literacy. After the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, the quantity of written documents, from books to newspapers and leaflets, grew very quickly, and this encouraged more and more people to learn to read and, to a lesser extent, to write.

Illiteracy is by no means a synonym for lack of culture. The oral tradition and the oral culture of traditional societies is as important and precious as the written culture and literate world of modern societies. The oral tradition did not disappear with the onset of literacy: in early modern Europe there was a coexistence of the two cultures. The oral culture was not, however, an isolated island in the dominating literate world; illiterate people using orality lived very much in the middle of a society where the most important decisions were put into a written form, and where more and more people could read and write. There was a continuous interaction between the two worlds. Illiterates used written documents that they could not decipher, e.g., passes and documents concerning ownership of their houses and land. Often the content of lost written documents was conserved only by orality, e.g. those concerning the migration of population or the origin of settlements. Such information was often kept in memory only by the tales of the old people in the villages who may once have read such lost documents.

General illiteracy influenced the exchange of information, making it difficult for the masses to maintain contact with the world outside their town or village. In the twenty-first century it is natural for a literate man to write a letter and read a notice or a brochure. For the unlettered, though, this causes grave difficulties and requires the assistance of others. Until the widespread use of the telephone, large sections of society practiced writing mainly through corresponding with relatives. Even illiterates tried to exchange letters, which meant sharing their innermost thoughts with those who offered to commit them to paper.

2. Measuring Literacy: Problems Of Methodology

The best sources for measuring literacy are census records. During a census every citizen was asked if he or she could read and write, or only read, or neither read nor write. However, such censuses were carried out only from the second half of the nineteenth century. As literate people generally came from the upper, richer strata of society, they had a higher general life expectancy than illiterates. For this reason we should not draw retrospective conclusions on literacy from the age-groups of censuses, as it is not absolutely certain that literate and illiterate people died in the same proportion.

We can estimate the rates of literacy before the beginning of censuses by consulting descriptive sources and statistics of crosses and signatures. Descriptive sources such as travelogs, reports of state officials, data on elementary education, book production, and book ownership, cannot furnish reliable quantitative data on the literacy rates. However, these are valuable indirect sources because we can analyze the competence of the writing. It is only exceptionally recorded that someone had authenticated a document ‘by alien hand, not knowing the letters’; in most cases, only a cross by way of signature or some characters suspiciously identical with those in other signatures show that somebody was illiterate. In sources such as witness depositions, however, hundreds of nobles, peasants and burghers declared that they could not read, or this fact about them was recorded by travellers, state administrators, etc.

Good statistics on literacy rates in early modern Europe can be drawn up, however, only on the basis of enumeration of people who signed their names or who could only make a cross instead of a signature. For this purpose we need a representative cross-section of the society where the social rank and geographical position (and if possible, age) of the persons in question can be determined. Often, however, only males and only the better-off figure in the documents, or only one professional group is represented.

Statistical data hardly reflect the real state of affairs concerning literacy. The method of counting crosses and signatures rests tacitly on the supposition that all those whose signatures have been found could indeed write, while those who left merely a cross on documents were all lacking the skill of even writing their names. Both suppositions could be erroneous, because examples abound of counterfeit signatutes being entered on behalf of illiterate people and of crosses made by people well trained in penmanship. This reflects the mentality of a given society: if literacy has already acquired prestige, even illiterates try to fake writing capacity; however, if the great majority in society are illiterate, handwriting has no authentication function and thus even village notaries make only a cross, even if they can write properly. This would not come to light unless we have more than one sample of the signatures or crosses left behind by the same person, which in turn presupposes a recurrence of the same name, whose bearer gave a signature at one time and a cross at another. The statistical data concerning crosses and signatures, therefore, reveal the attitudes of a community toward literacy, rather than the concrete spread of literacy: they speak about the community expectations concerning literacy, the pressures on semi-literate persons to sign the documents themselves, and on the genuinely unlettered to forge a signature. Such mentality only emerged, though, if literacy was on the rise in a society. In their totality, therefore, these statistics more or less do mirror the advance of literacy. There is no doubt that if we divide society strictly into literate and illiterate people, the major part remains concealed: the semiilliterate layer of society that did learn something of the alphabet and later, in accordance with the community’s wishes, either made crosses or wrote their name on official documents. The same applied to reading, too: those who were taught the letters at school but hardly ever read, could profit from the printed prayerbooks whose text they knew by heart (extensive reading). However, they did not fare well when they had to read a handwritten circular whose contents were unknown to them (intensive reading). The unlettered and the literate were in fact never separated as sharply as may be suggested by the rows of crosses and signatures. No clear-cut distinction can be made between fully illiterates, who could neither read nor write, and semi-literates, who could read but not write: both groups left crosses on documents. Yet there is no greater gap in levels of education than that separating those able at least to read, to gather information from written texts, from those to whom the world of letters is literally a closed book.

The greatest number of written sources and of sources on literacy are to be found where the levels of literacy were the highest, and obviously this greatly influences research on literacy overall. In England from the seventeenth century onwards witnesses authenticated their testimony by putting their signature or mark on the records, and people signed oaths of fidelity en masse. In several Western European countries, spouses and their witnesses also confirmed a marriage by signing or marking the marriage register. This explains why the marriage register is a major source for the spread of literacy. In France marriage registers had to be signed from 1686, in England from 1754. The city of Amsterdam, one of the most literate places of the world in this time, required marriage registers to be signed from as early as 1578. In 1630, 43 percent of bridegrooms and 68 percent of brides made a cross; 100 years later in 1730, the proportion is 24 percent and 49 percent respectively. In 1780 only 15 percent of men and 36 percent women could not sign their names at their marriage.

The conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte open up new possibilities for the historians of literacy in Germany and Italy. These two countries, so important for the cultural history of early modern Europe, lacked similar mass sources in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries for evaluation of literacy levels. After they became part of Napoleon’s empire, however, the French system was introduced—thus, around 1800, we have a statistically relevant quantity of crosses and signatures from many regions of Germany and Italy, as they were parts of France at this time. In Central and Southern Europe, however, only the minister conducting the marriage ceremony was expected to write in the register, and it was not compulsory for eyewitnesses to sign their accounts in court. Witnesses confirmed their accounts only by taking an oral oath, without signing the document. This fact in itself is indicative of the lesser role literacy and writing played in these regions compared to Western Europe.

Reading, in contrast to writing, leaves no traces behind; that is why researchers into literacy almost invariably examine the ability to write—or more specifically, to produce a signature—and give up trying to gauge reading abilities as a hopeless venture. In several European countries, however, an extraordinary source lends scope for the examination of reading skills en masse: the Lutheran pastors in those areas made an annual survey of reading skills in their flock from the late seventeenth century. In the history of European literacy, a position of eminence is certainly due to Sweden (with Finland and Latvia, which still belonged to it at the time), Zurich and vicinity in Switzerland, and certain regions in northern Germany (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) where the Lutheran faith thrived. In the course of Lutheran church visitations in these territories, records were made of, among other things, the reading skills of all adults, even indicating the grades—so an otherwise non-manifest skill can be examined on the basis of a large sample. The Lutheran church believed it to be of great importance for believers to read the catechism and the Bible. Those reluctant to learn to read were denied communion at Easter. The Swedish model is especially interesting, as the church was pushing for better reading skills without enforcing writing capacities. As a result there was a huge gap between reading and writing abilities—in the eighteenth century almost everybody (around 90 percent) was able to read, but only few (around 10 percent) could write. Female literacy was rising, too, and the role of the mother as a teacher at home became very important, especially in the nineteenth century.

The Lutheran church records are, however, not the only sources for examining reading capacities before the age of censuses. In Hungary, when the county administration investigated claims to noble title, it asked the nobleman making the claim whether he had read, or only seen, the lost letters patent that would prove his nobility. In three different regions of eighteenth-century Hungary, 71 percent, 74 percent and 55 percent respectively of the lower noblemen declared that ‘as they cannot read at all’ they had only seen, but not read, the lost document.

3. Literacy In Europe

England together with the Netherlands, was the most literate country in the world during the period. In the mid-seventeenth century, during the stormy years of the Civil War, Englishmen were required to sign oaths of allegiance several times; consequently there are ample data available concerning the state of literacy in various parts of the county, in the form of thousands of signatures and signs. On examining these, David Cressy (1980) has found that in England in the 1640s, some 70 percent of men and 90 percent of women were illiterate. As regards the sixteenth-century situation, only estimates can be made. Cressy avers that in the middle of the sixteenth century, 80 percent of men and 95 percent of women could neither read nor write. The percentages around 1500 may have been 90 and 99 respectively, though this is a mere surmise as even in England no statistical data about literacy can be culled so early. The situation in eighteenth-century Britain is much better known. According to David Cressy’s estimates based on the available sources, at the beginning of the century 55 percent of men and 75 percent of women could write their own names. In 1754, it was stipulated by law in Britain that the marriage register had to be signed by both the bridegroom and the bride. From that time onwards, therefore, the development of literacy can be traced on the basis of precise data. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the majority of men knew how to write, only 40 percent being unlettered, while the rate amongst women was 60 percent. In the second half of the eighteenth century, however, this dynamic progress came to a sudden halt. Until the early nineteenth century, illiteracy stopped falling in Britain. The social transformation that was taking place as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution was probably to blame for this—inner migrations and early child labor were not really conducive to literacy. In the second half of the nineteenth century, though, illiteracy in Britain all but disappeared. Between 1850 and 1911, the proportion of illiterate men decreased from 30 percent to one percent, and that of women from 45 to less than two percent.

France is the best researched of all countries in terms of literacy in the early modern age. From the age of Louis XIV, it was compulsory for brides, bridegrooms and witnesses to put their signature in the register at weddings, thus leaving a wide scope for researches into literacy. In France in the eighteenth century the number of literate people almost doubled, even though at the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution they were in the minority, the proportion of literate people in France grew from 21 percent in 1686–90 to 37 percent in 1786–90. Frenchwomen also lagged behind men—literacy among them grew from 14 to 27 percent within 100 years, while amongst the men it rose from 29 to 47 percent. However, averages that apply to entire countries hide what is really relevant—the huge regional differences that were so characteristic of this large country. That imaginary dividing line connecting Geneva and Saint Malo, which in the seventeenth century separated the literate northern and eastern parts of France from the more backward western and southern parts, was still clearly visible on the map of literacy at least a century later, and in the case of women’s literacy, as late as 1866. This indicates that regional imbalances in the spread of literacy, as an important index of development, take a long time to change. When the French Revolution broke out, there were huge regional differences in the literacy of men. In Normandy and in the countries north and east of Paris, 90 percent bridegrooms signed the register in Brittany and on the Atlantic coast, their proportion was less than ten percent. In the secluded regions of the Massif Central, the percentage of men who put their signature in the register was 16, of the women a mere four while in Alsace-Lorraine the percentages were 83 and 44 respectively. The differences did not diminish until the second half of the century.

By the end of the nineteenth century, illiteracy had in effect been wiped out in France. While in 1854, 13 percent of bridegrooms were unable to sign the marriage register, the number decreased by 1900 to a mere five percent. Within the same period the proportion of illiterate brides decreased from 46 to six percent. Compulsory schooling put an end to the difference between male and female literacy, which had been a marked feature in earlier centuries.

The newly unified Germany presented a very mixed picture from the point of view of literacy, too. In the Prussian kingdom in 1871 10 percent of men above 10 years could neither read nor write. However, this average was calculated again on the basis of very different regions: the proportion was only 2 percent in Hessen and 3 percent in Bradenburg, while in the Polish-inhabited region around Posen (Wrocław) onethird of the males (32 percent) could not even read.

For lack of relevant researches, there are no statistical data on literacy available from the Austrian provinces of the Habsburg Empire in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. After the modern census had been introduced, the available data testify to huge discrepancies between the provinces, dwarfing the differences between the various French or Prussian regions. In 1900 in the most developed provinces of the Habsburg Empire, in Upper and Lower Austria, and in Bohemia and Moravia, the rate of illiteracy in the population aged 10 years and above was less than 4 percent. In the same time, in Galicia 56 percent, in Bukovina 66 percent and in Dalmatia no less than 73 percent of the population above 10 was illiterate.

There are ample sources in Italy on the spread of education and culture and on schools in the early modern period; however, except for the provinces conquered by Napoleon, no statistics are available about literacy before the introduction of censuses in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the vicinity of Turin in 1710, excluding the town itself, 94 percent of brides and 81 percent of bridegrooms were illiterate; by 1790, the percentages had decreased to 70 and 35 respectively. In the Neapolitan kingdom in Campania province, in the mid-eighteenth century, 76 percent of those submitting tax returns could put only their cross on the document, even though only the well-off, and then only men, were expected to prepare such a return at all. The marked difference between the northern and the southern provinces is evident even from this single piece of information. Censuses reveal, on one hand, that in the whole of Italy in the late nineteenth century, illiteracy, which earlier had reached astonishingly high proportions, was rapidly diminishing; on the other hand, however, the gap between northern and southern Italy was huge. It had not disappeared by the early twentieth century—in 1901 in the northern region of Piedmont 18 percent of the population above six was illiterate, in Lombardy 20 percent, in Veneto 28 percent, while in Sicily the figure was 71 percent, in Sardinia 68 percent and in Calabria 79 percent.

In Poland we can observe huge regional differences, too. In the Voivodeship of Cracow at the end of the sixteenth century, the landed nobility was largely literate: 96.7 percent of the nobles who bore the title generosus and usually owned several villages, could sign their name, and the percentages remained unchanged over the next two centuries. Among women, however, literacy rose rapidly in the same period: while in the late sixteenth century, 51 percent were unlettered, by the seventeenth century only 22 percent remained so. Women continued to catch up with men in the eighteenth century, when a mere 15 percent put a cross on documents instead of signing their names. In the lower ranks of landed gentry or nobilis, who owned one or at most two villages, the proportion of illiterates made up 24 percent in the sixteenth century and 16 percent in the following century. In another study, the literacy of Polish noblemen was examined on the basis of tax returns submitted in and around Cracow. In 1564–64, 43 percent of the noblemen were illiterate. The vast Polish kingdom, however, comprised regions with very different levels of development. In the Voivodeship of Sandomierz in the seventeenth century we find circumstances very similar to those of the Voivodeship of Cracow: 99 percent of the noblemen bearing the title of generosus and 75 percent of the nobilis could write. On the other hand, the Voivodeship of Lublin lagged behind: while those titled generosus were almost entirely literate, only 65 percent of the women could write. Of the nobilis, compared to the 84 percent in and around Cracow, only 70 percent signed the documents, while barely one out of 10 women could write their names. Even this proved to be a highly developed state of affairs when compared to Eastern Galicia, where eight percent of the magnates (magnifici), eleven percent of the generosi and 72 percent of nobili put a cross instead of their names as late as the early eighteenth century. In 1764, two-thirds of the participants of the diet called sejm held here could not authenticate documents by signing them.

In Vas county, Hungary, in the eighteenth century, only 2.5 percent of peasants could sign their names, and among the lower strata of the gentry only 26 percent could sign their names with 74 percent putting only a cross on documents. The first census to give an overall picture about the literacy of the population in the Hungarian kingdom was carried out in 1870. At this time three-fifths (58 percent) of the population aged above six in the historical Hungarian kingdom (part of the Habsburg Empire, consisting of Hungary, Transylvania, and Croatia) could neither read nor write. The figure for Hungary alone was 51 percent; 78 percent in Transylvania; and over four-fifths of the population (84 percent) in Croatia and Slavonia. There were huge differences between the various nationalities, however, in 1890 63 percent of Germans and 53 percent of Hungarians could read and write, but only 9.7 percent of Ukrainians living in Hungary, 14 percent of Romanians and 30 percent of Serbians. If Central Europe was lagging very much behind the developed Western parts of Europe, the difference between Central Europe and Russia, and the countries of the Balkan peninsula, was as huge.

No reliable data are available on the measure of illiteracy in Russia for the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, but Jeffrey Brooks, historian of Russian literacy, gave his 1977 work on the period between 1861 and 1917 a telling title: When Russia Learnt to Read. At the 1897 census, only 21–29 percent of men and 13 percent of women could read. Literacy attained the highest proportions in the Polish provinces of the empire, even though this favorable position was relative indeed: 29 percent of men and 23 percent of women had a passive knowledge of the letters. In the European part of Russia, 28 percent of men and 10 percent of women could read, while the relevant percentages in Siberia were only 16 and three respectively. Development in the 50 years preceding World War I was rapid, however while in 1880, four- fifths of new conscripts did not know the letters, in 1913 only 32 percent of these young men, who were just above school age, were illiterate.

The line of the River Danube and the Carpathian Mountains, which separated Hungary from the Balkan peninsula, was also a demarcation line between two worlds as regards literacy. Missionaries and travelers in seventeenth century Moldavia and Wallachia noticed that hardly anybody knew how to read or write, and even some of the Greek Orthodox bishops could read only with difficulty. ‘Of the nobles and the tradesmen, few know the Ruthenian or the Slav script,’ and even the majority of priests were illiterate according to the Jesuits, although they may not have been impartial. The population of Serbia was largely unlettered as late as the early nineteenth century. Hardly any of the leaders of the Serbian uprising could read or write; the ruling Prince Milos was probably the only illiterate head of state in Europe at the time. According to contemporaries, when Serbia became independent, neither the priests nor the monks could read and write. There was little improvement in this situation in the following decades: even the 1866 census found that 96 percent of the population was illiterate; at the turn of the century, the number was 83 percent. The Balkan Peninsula remained very much a region of illiteracy even at the turn of the twentieth century: around 1900, of the population above six, 72 percent in Bulgaria, 60 percent in Greece, 78 percent in Romania, and 87 percent in Bosnia were illiterate.

For these parts of Europe, literacy remained very much a problem of the twentieth century—the Bolshevik Party launched huge literacy campaigns after coming to power in Russia. In North America there were very high levels of literacy for New England—male literacy rose here from 70 percent in 1710 to 90 percent at the end of the eighteenth century. However, as these data were calculated on the basis of the wills of the wealthy, doubts must be raised about this very high proportion of literates. The 1840 census showed huge differences within the country: around four percent illiterate in the state of New York, compared with 20–28 percent in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. However, the African-American population showed high levels of illiteracy even after slavery had been abolished: in 1870 some 80 percent of adult blacks were illiterate, and the figure was 44 percent in 1900. Massive immigration into the USA from Europe before the World War I, imported mass illiteracy: in 1909/99 percent of Danish or Scottish workers in the United States were literate, but only 45 percent of Portuguese and 43 percent of Polish workers could read and write at this time.

In other parts of the world, literacy is a problem of today and tomorrow. Around 1960, the time of dissolution of the colonial empires, 81 percent of the population of Africa, and 55 percent of Asia’s population were illiterate. According to various estimates, at this time roughly 40 percent of the world’s inhabitants still could not read or write. There remains much to do in 1992 the illiteracy figures for Burkina Faso were 86 percent, in Bhutan 85 percent and in Afghanistan 76 percent. Illiteracy remains a problem for mankind even in the third millennium.


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