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Literacy in England in the 17th century

There is clearly considerable interest in the levels of literacy in England during the ECW period. This text draws heavily on the work of David Cressy to provide an indication of overall literacy rates at the time. Cressy faced a considerable challenge in doing this because there do not appear to be any national statistics but, as will be seen, he has been able to draw on other recorded information and develop figures that can be used as a reasonably reliable guide.


David Cressy has conducted extensive research into literacy in England relying on the surviving Protestation returns in the House of Lords Record Office (H.L.R.O.) and Protestations, Vows and Covenants surviving in local records. He argues that the population as a whole was required to sign these documents and therefore they represent, in effect, a survey of the adult, population at specific times in the 17th century. In order to demonstrate that the returns represent a database that can be relied upon as being as near to complete as possible he has made comparisons between the numbers signing the documents and the number of households in each corresponding parish, based on the Hearth Tax returns and the number of communicants in each parish. He has concluded that there is a remarkably good match between the various sources. That, then, is his database.


When it comes to analysing the data his hypothesis is that nobody who could sign their name would have made a mark instead and therefore the making of a mark is confirmation that the individual could not write. There are some who would disagree, arguing that people who were capable of writing and, therefore, of signing their names, may have preferred to make a mark, typically for religious reasons. The classic example of this argument is applied to William Shakespeare’s father, John, even though he died long before the period in question. The rationale is best laid out in a quote (Cressy 1980 p58) from the Minutes and accounts of the corporation of Stratford upon Avon:

John Shakespeare’s sign-manual, it will be remembered, was his Glover’s Compasses (used for ornamental cuttings on the back of the glove), with a single or double adjusting screw, signifying, we may believe, the devout thought ‘God encompasseth us’.

Cressy goes on to point out that the same source also confirms that John Shakespeare had another mark that looked like a glover’s stitching clamp. The source claims that this ‘…had some other, undeciphered allegorical significance…’. The implication is that the person who wrote this text wanted to believe that John Shakespeare was not illiterate and, in order to prove the case, had developed a reason for him to use one mark but could not provide a similar reason for the other. Cressy dismisses such arguments and prefers the belief, which seems entirely reasonable, that if an individual could write, they would have signed their name. He therefore argues that an analysis of the Protestations, Vows and Covenants returns will provide a good guide to levels of literacy in England in the ECW period and has provided a list of all the parishes covered and a count of the numbers in each who signed and the numbers who made a mark. The average across the country as a whole is 30 per cent signing and 70 per cent making a mark.


However, that deals only with full literacy or the ability to read and to write. In this context it is worth pointing out that a typical child’s schooling would begin with learning to read and the child would only be taught to write after the rudiments of reading had been mastered. Hence it is most unlikely that anybody who could write would be unable to read. It follows therefore that those who signed their names on the Protestations could read. The question that remains unanswered is what proportion of those who could not write could, nevertheless, read? There appear to be no equivalent national records that provide any basis on which to draw conclusions on the proportion of the total population who could read but not write.

There is, however, one source which provides a glimpse of the situation with reference to reading. Cressy includes in his book a table entitled Literacy of boys entering Great Yarmouth Children's Hospital 1698 – 1715 (Cressy 1980 p32) and a separate table dealing with girls. Children were admitted to the hospital when they were orphaned or when their parents could no longer care for them. Cressy points out (p30) that ‘…The register makes it clear that most of the children came from respectable working families, with fathers in such occupations as sailmaker or blacksmith, shoemaker or mariner. The hospital was neither for foundlings nor the sick…’. The importance of this passage is to confirm that the figures are not skewed to the destitute who could be expected to have lower literacy levels. There is one other factor that needs to be taken into account and that is that the hospital almost certainly had no inmates from the higher social groups who would be more likely to be able to read and write. While this is true, they formed such a small proportion of society as a whole that their absence probably makes very little difference to the overall conclusions.

The hospital becomes particularly interesting for historians because the master was paid a bonus when each child could be shown to be able to read the Bible and to write. As a result, records were kept showing the levels of reading ability of the inmates on arrival and these enable us to form a picture of the ability of the population to read, at least within the Great Yarmouth area. The figures (Cressy 1980 p32) show that of 132 boys aged between 6 and 14, 69% were unable to read while 27% could read. (The ability of the remaining 4% is unknown.) It can be seen that these proportions are not very different from the proportions who could both read and write. Sadly it is not possible to use those statistics and apply them to the national figures that Cressy has compiled to get an idea of the proportion of the population who could read but not write and therefore, the best that we can say at present is that, on average, around 30% of the population was fully literate.


As Cressy points out, however, this figure varies wildly from parish to parish. In Radley, Berkshire, for example, no less than 93% of the population made a mark while in the four parishes listed in London, an average of only 22% made a mark.

Inevitably, literacy rates also varied depending on the individual’s social status and occupation. Cressy shows (Cressy 1980 p132) that members of the higher social groups would have been fully literate as were scriveners, clergymen, apothecaries and so on. At the other end of the scale it is highly unlikely that slaters, miners and thatchers would be literate.

Some argue that an increase in Bible ownership during the 17th century demonstrates that the ability to read, at least, was spreading. Cressy discusses this at some length and points out that thousands of Bibles were given away, sometimes in order to encourage the recipients to learn to read. Even so, those who gave Bibles also suggested that literate visitors could be asked to read passages to the family. Beyond that, as Cressy explains (Cressy 1980 p51) ‘...a Bible could be an important household possession, even if none of the household residents could read it... Oaths could be sworn on it, while family births could be recorded on its fly leaves... Its mere presence... could be enough to ward off evil spirits and keep the devil at bay...’.


So where does this leave us when a member of the public asks about the ability to read and write? Unfortunately people like simple answers to such questions and the more we know about the subject, the more difficult it is to provide a simple answer. Perhaps the best solution is to point at an officer and say that it is more than likely that he would be able to read and write. As for the common soldiers, it depends on their station in life, their occupation and their home. If they were labourers living in rural areas, it is unlikely that they would be able to read and write.


Cressy, David (1980) Literacy & the Social Order, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

(c) 2011 Ken Clayton