17. Education and Literacy

Uploaded by YaleCourses on 09.03.2011

Prof: Right.
Well, today I want to talk about changes in education and
the growth of popular literacy in the sixteenth and early
seventeenth centuries, one of the most important sets
of changes which were going on in the reign of Elizabeth and
the-- under the early Stuarts.
To begin with a little context, looking back at the late
medieval period, it's been said of late medieval
England that at that time all education was technical and
vocational, directed to some particular
occupation or function.
And the formal schooling that we tend to think of when we use
the term "education" was really only part of that.
If one thinks of education more broadly in terms of the
transmission of a culture and its skills and values and so on,
then of course that was a much larger thing than simply formal
schooling and it involved not only schools but the church,
the household; many ways in which people were
instructed for their roles in life.
So, one can't say that medieval England was in any way an
uneducated society.
It was educated insofar as it needed certain kinds of
training, but it was a relatively unschooled society.
Very few children attended any kind of formal school,
probably less than 10% in the late fifteenth century.
Formal schooling was reserved, then,
for specific occupations at that time: clergymen,
those who were going to be lawyers,
some merchants who might need skills of reading and writing or
even foreign languages, some craftsmen and so on.
It was certainly not simply a clerical monopoly as sometimes
people think.
Nonetheless, it was restricted in its scope
and tailored to quite specific occupational needs.
Now at the turn of the sixteenth century,
that situation began to change, and by the late sixteenth
century it was changing very rapidly.
A new enthusiasm emerged in this period for formal schooling
at all levels.
Why should that be so?
Well, there seemed to have been two main cultural influences on
that development affecting different parts of society.
First of all, there was the influence of
renaissance humanism, affecting mainly the social
When we speak of humanism in the sixteenth century we mean
not the rationalist, secular system of morality that
one thinks of today when using that term.
Rather the term is used to describe what people at the time
referred to as the "new learning,"
the new learning, which had emerged in the
fifteenth century and was sweeping all before it in the
early sixteenth century, championed by scholars like
Erasmus of Rotterdam or in England John Colet,
the Dean of St.
Paul's Cathedral, or Sir Thomas More.
In educational terms, humanism essentially involved
the study of ancient languages: Latin certainly,
increasingly Greek, occasionally also Hebrew,
and the philosophy, the literature,
and the history produced by the writers of classical antiquity.
So it's a process of recovering more fully the works of
classical antiquity and making them more available to a larger
audience, and all of this was for a
It was believed by humanist scholars that classical
education, combined with Christian
morality, would be a way of reviving virtue in public life
and creating order and harmony in the commonwealth;
it would be a way of training virtuous princes and dutiful
That was essentially the humanist ideal.
In a way they were trying to get back to the notion of an
educated aristocracy, which had certainly been the
case in the Roman Empire.
The aristocracy of late medieval England,
of course, was largely a military one.
But they wanted them to be scholars too,
just as the great figures of classical antiquity had been.
And this was to prove a profoundly influential ideal.
It was transmitted to the English elite probably via the
court and also by a number of influential books which were
widely read amongst them.
One of them was a translation of an Italian work,
Castiglione's book, The Courtier,
originally written in the 1520s and published in England
in 1561.
Another--these titles are on your handout--another was a book
by Sir Thomas Elyot, who was a member of Henry
VIII's secretariat.
In 1537 he published a book called The Governor,
The Book Named The Governor,
which proved to be a great popularizer of humanist
educational ideals.
Elyot for example laid down a model of the ideal education
which suggested that children should be taught Latin by the
age of seven, between seven and fourteen they
would read Latin classics and begin to learn Greek,
between fourteen and seventeen they would be trained in logic,
in rhetoric, in history, and in poetry,
between seventeen and twenty-one they would move on to
philosophy and ethics, particularly the works of
Plato, which were particularly valued by the humanists,
and at the age of twenty-one they would begin studying law.
And meanwhile they would also have physical training:
horsemanship, sports, the military arts and
Dancing was considered very important.
It taught grace and poise and they considered that to be an
important accomplishment.
Well, this is a demanding model of education which seems quite
ridiculously demanding; at least I used to think so
until I first read the Yale distributional requirements.
So in a sense we are in the tradition.
A third work which was very influential was written by Roger
Ascham, another man close to the court, in 1570.
It was in fact inspired by a dinner table conversation about
education which he had with William Cecil,
Elizabeth's principal secretary, and Ascham put it
down in writing in The Schoolmaster,
published in 1570.
He described it as being "specially purposed for the
private bringing up of youth in gentlemen's and noblemen's
houses," focusing on classical learning
and sound religion.
So renaissance humanism was one model aimed in particular at the
social elite.
A second cultural influence of great importance was of course
the Protestant Reformation.
The notion that learning and sound religion should go
together was present from the beginning,
of course, but the triumph of Protestantism in the reformation
gave an even greater edge to the advocacy of education for two
First of all, they wanted to educate the
clergy better, to provide a better educated
clergy who would be not only administrators of the sacraments
but a teaching pastorate; theologically aware preachers
and catechizers, educators of the people in the
new church.
Secondly, they also believed that education was a vital aid
to the salvation of the common people.
Protestantism after all was very much a religion of the
book, and in their view full
appreciation of God's will required the ability to read it
in the scriptures; or ideally.
Hence, there was an emphasis on schooling and on basic literacy
for essentially religious purposes,
and that in a sense extends the educational drive of the period
beyond the social elite to the population at large.
This is an educational ideal of much broader social relevance.
So, the educational imperative then involved two ideological,or
cultural elements, humanist ideals of virtuous
rulers, Protestant ideals of a godly
pastorate and a godly people of more universal relevance.
Both promoted formal education as a means of social and
cultural change, and that's an altogether new
significance for the institutions of schooling;
they envisage social and cultural change as a result.
And meanwhile of course, as background to all of this,
there was the process of economic expansion,
which I've already described, enhancing in various ways the
desirability of basic schooling for various commercial purposes.
So what was the response?
One response was the gradual transformation of the education
of the social elite, the upper gentry in particular
and the aristocracy.
The sixteenth century essentially saw the transition
from a pattern of people being educated in great noble
households by tutors or household chaplains to an ideal
in which people first of all attended schools,
grammar schools in particular, and then moved on to the
universities of Oxford and Cambridge,
the ancient universities.
And then sometimes also to the Inns of Court in London,
which were very much like Oxford or Cambridge colleges,
but devoted to the study of the law,
sometimes referred to as England's third university
though they were essentially a separate set of institutions.
Well, the universities and the Inns of Court got this role in
elite education pretty much by default.
In the 1530s, various humanist advisers on
education still thought of the universities as primarily a
place for training clergymen.
They wanted the foundation of a new academy for the social elite
which should ideally be located near the capital,
but such schemes came to nothing, and by the
mid-sixteenth century members of the social elite were beginning
to follow earlier precedents of some of their number by
attending the universities and sometimes going on to the Inns
of Court.
By the late sixteenth century, that trickle of gentlemen and
noblemen into the universities and the Inns had become a stream
and soon it was something of a flood.
Many of the buildings in Oxford and Cambridge colleges which
survive to this day were actually erected at this time to
expand the provision for these larger numbers of students,
and indeed a number of new colleges were founded in this
period for the same reason.
There was a massive expansion in the numbers of students at
both the universities and the Inns.
In fact, by the early seventeenth century the numbers
of students in these institutions was at the highest
that it was to be again before the nineteenth century.
It faded a little in the late seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries and then rose again later on.
All of this meant a very significant change in the social
composition of Oxford and Cambridge colleges and,
if you look at your handout, the set of tables that are
there, you'll see in table one the
social composition of a number of Cambridge colleges.
These are the undergraduates, and you'll see that by the late
sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries,
to which these figures refer, the college of Emmanuel College
had 63% of its students of gentry birth.
King's College had 58% of gentry birth,
and Jesus and St.
John's just less than 50%.
This was the general trend and it was pretty much the same
story at Oxford.
Well, the universities had to adapt to educating these new
types of students and a new pattern soon emerged.
Many of these gentry students lived in their colleges as what
were known as "fellow commoners."
They ate with the master and fellows of the college on the
high table rather than down in the body of the hall with more
'plebian' students.
They were also very rarely involved in actually taking a
Most of them pursued their studies privately with tutors
who were appointed by their parents within particular
colleges to oversee their education and to look after
their moral welfare and they were paid directly by the
parents to do this.
It's the origins of the Oxford and Cambridge tutorial system.
At this time in fact many of these students even slept in
their tutors' rooms.
There would be a number of little--"truckle beds"
they were called-- that could be pushed in to the
wall and pulled out at night, where these students would
sleep with their master, their tutor,
in his room next door.
Instead of the usual formal course of the university,
which included rhetoric and logic and philosophy leading to
the bachelor's degree, tutors usually devised for
their students more modern courses.
They included subjects like history and literature,
geography, modern divinity, and modern philosophy.
Some of them prepared special reading lists for their
Some of them even prepared for their students 'digests' of key
quotations, sort of sixteenth-century handouts you
could say; key quotes from the classics
that you could drop in to your conversation,
and they would help their students memorize them in that
We have an account of education at Cambridge in the early
seventeenth century from a student called Simonds d'Ewes
who kept a diary.
His name is there on your handout.
Between 1617 and 1619, Simonds d'Ewes was a student at
John's College in Cambridge and there,
we learn, he studied logic and ethics and moral philosophy and
history with his tutor, Richard Holdsworth,
who was a well-known Puritan divine.
He also went to a few of the university lectures though not
terribly many.
He practiced his letter style in English and in Latin.
It was very important to learn to write a letter well.
He went to sermons in the churches of the city,
and he discussed modern theology with his tutor,
and he kept a theological commonplace book.
He was being trained in Calvinist theology,
and he rounded the whole thing off with what he described as
"my often conversing with learned men of other colleges
and the prime young students of mine own."
Now all of this was in accordance with the desires of
gentry parents to have an education which was suitable for
a learned and polished gentleman of the renaissance ideal.
Richard Holdsworth, d'Ewes tutor,
put it well in a letter describing one of his students.
He was recruiting someone else to tutor the boy and he
described the boy's father's desires as follows:
"His father means not to have him a scholar by profession
but only to be seasoned with the varnish of learning and
And that pretty much sums up what they were aiming at.
"His father means him not to have him a scholar by
profession"-- God forbid -- "but only to
be seasoned with the varnish of learning and piety."
The Inns of Court, down in London,
adapted far less to the needs of new students.
Students got no special help.
There was no tutorial system.
They simply had to read law books,
to attend the courts to see how it was done,
to attend formal exercises in the Inns where they would plead
cases, sort of mock hearings.
English common law at this time was considered quite appallingly
It hadn't really been systematized at all.
It's been described by one legal historian as "a
formless, confused jumble of undigested
particulars successfully resisting all efforts at
simplification or systematic statement."
You just had to learn it all.
Students who tried to do so seriously found it quite awful.
In fact, Simonds d'Ewes, who went down for a further two
years at the Inns of Court after he finished at Cambridge,
described his two years at the Inns of Court as "amongst
the unhappiest days of my life."
Those of you planning legal careers, bear this in mind.
The historian of the Inns of Court,
Wilfrid Prest, reckons that the average
gentleman attending the Inns probably didn't learn all that
much of the law.
Nevertheless, the Inns were considered very
important as sort of finishing schools in a sense,
centers for all kinds of informal learning.
After all, they were located in London,
just in between the city of London and the royal capital of
Westminster, where the courts met,
and they exposed students to all the things which were
available in the metropolis.
They attended plays.
They went to sermons at the churches of the city.
They hung out in the taverns and so forth.
One student who came from Dorset, down in the southwest,
a man with the wonderful name William Freke,
who attended the Inns of Court in the early 1620s,
has left behind a list of the books he bought during his years
in London at the Inns and it's very interesting.
He bought many religious works, many devotional books,
but he also bought books on physiognomy, on arithmetic,
on travel.
He bought history books, he bought popular romances,
and he was interested in drama.
He owned a copy--an early copy--of Shakespeare's
But amongst all the books he bought while he was in London he
only bought one law book, >
and significantly it was a classic,
Littleton on tenures, the classic outline of land
tenure law, which was very much the kind of
thing a gentleman like William Freke would need to know when he
returned to his family's estates.
Now of course not all of the gentry did all of this,
but nonetheless many of them did some of it,
and it led to a significant transformation of the
educational experience of the social elite.
To give some figures on that: in 1563,
of the members of Parliament in that year only 26% had attended
university, by 1642 50% had attended
Or, even better, if one looks at the justices of
the peace serving in six counties, in 1562 only 5% of
them had attended a university.
By 1636, in the same six counties it was 62%.
So a real transformation in the educational experience of these
vital members of the political nation.
Well a second consequence of these changes was a
transformation in the educational level of the English
Don't forget that the universities still remained the
major centers for training clergymen.
Around 50% of university students were still non-members
of the gentry, and most of them actually came
from clerical families or so-called 'plebian' families,
i.e., non gentlemen, and frequently they were
intending clerical careers.
They tended to do the full-scale traditional
university course leading to a bachelor's degree and perhaps to
a master's degree.
And their numbers were rising also,
and the rising numbers of these clerical recruits produced a
general transformation in the educational levels of the parish
By the 1630s, after two generations of this,
a largely graduate clergy was established in much of England.
There are some figures on your handout from the diocese of
Worcester, a large diocese in the west Midlands.
In the diocese of Worcester in 1580,
only 23% of the clergy were graduates,
by 1640 it was 84%, and that was pretty much the
same story as could be found in other dioceses at this time.
So, a second effect is the transformation of the
educational level of the clergy.
A third response was the general proliferation of
schooling opportunities for the common people.
The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were a
great age of school foundation.
There were many, many new foundations.
Notable amongst them were the founding of endowed grammar
Many of the principal schools in English cities carry the name
King Edward VI School, or some other name linking them
to this period of major educational expansion and
founding of grammar schools in the mid-to- late sixteenth
They were often founded with money donated by merchants,
by leading members of the clergy, by members of the gentry
from particular areas, and the motivation was often a
mixture of religious zeal and regional patriotism.
For example, in the county of Lancashire,
up in the northwest here, in 1480 there were only three
endowed schools; by 1540 there were twelve;
by 1600 there were twenty-eight; by 1640 there were fifty
endowed grammar schools.
Indeed, by that date every major town and some relatively
insignificant ones in that county had a grammar school.
Two thirds of the money that was donated for school
foundation in Lancashire came from London,
came from merchants and lawyers and others of Lancashire origin
who, usually at their death,
left part of the money they'd made to found a school back in
their home county to help boys like themselves to get a start.
That's the regional patriotism element in what was going on.
Usually, the endowed grammar schools offered a variety of
types of schooling.
The education which they offered was in part classical
education as the 'grammar' school name implies,
preparing people for the universities,
but usually they also catered for the needs of others also.
They had what was described as the 'vernacular side' where the
teaching was mostly in English, and they often had a 'petty
section' as it was called, a petty section which would
focus on the 'three R's': reading,
writing, and 'rithmetic or--well, four R's really--
reading, writing, 'rithmetic and religion.
In addition to the endowed grammar schools there were the
schools which were known as 'petty schools'.
These were not usually endowed foundations.
They sprang up and died away according to whether or not
there was a particular schoolmaster who opened them and
ran them for a while, but they became increasingly
common all over the kingdom.
Petty schools taught basic literacy often accompanied by a
little bit of arithmetic.
By the early seventeenth century, most country towns in
England had a grammar school and several petty schools,
and in addition petty schools were increasingly common in many
It's not unusual for them to be kept by local clergymen,
very often the teaching taking place in the church porch,
weather permitting.
All in all then we have a transformation of elite
education, we have a transformation of
clerical education, and a vast increase in the
schooling available to the common people of town and
All of this was a very considerable achievement.
But at the same time it's important to grasp that there
were some limits to it.
Historians have spoken of an "educational
revolution" taking place in this period and
I think that is in many ways justified,
but it also inevitably had its limits.
And those limits were most clear when one looks at the
differences of social rank and gender, as one might expect.
If the period saw a real expansion of educational
opportunity, access to it was almost inevitably socially
The Inns of Court were very much elite institutions.
90% of the students were of gentry origin.
The universities, as we've seen,
were also dominated by the gentry and the 50% or so of
students who were of plebeian birth were not drawn from the
Plebeian just meant non-gentry.
They were usually the sons of clergymen, of merchants,
the urban elite, professional people,
and so forth.
And the reasons for this are obvious enough.
That kind of education was very costly.
Children from relatively humble families could sometimes make it
to the university if they had a patron who would help them,
pay some of the fees for them.
Sometimes talented children were spotted by a local
clergyman or a gentleman who would help them on their way,
find them a scholarship.
It was also possible to work your way through by acting as a
servant for the gentry students.
Students who did that were known as servitors or sizars.
Interestingly, a study done of them shows that
servitors and sizars working their way through almost
invariably graduated, whereas the gentlemen they
served of course very rarely did.
Nevertheless, it's obviously the case that
university education and education at the Inns of Court
was heavily monopolized by the upper reaches of society.
The same was true to a lesser extent in the grammar schools.
The sons of the gentry might attend,
most of the other students were the children of the clergy and
the professional and craftspeople of the towns,
with a few sons of yeoman farmers from the countryside
The problems inhibiting the attendance of children at these
schools was first of all the costs,
fees, boarding in the town where the school was,
but also, perhaps even more importantly,
perceived need.
This kind of grammar school education was regarded as
appropriate only for people who would be going on to enter the
professions or trade at a fairly high level.
It wasn't deemed appropriate for farmers' sons to get that
level of education.
When one gets to the petty schools, they were much more
open and the evidence suggests a much wider intake in local
Nevertheless, there were still inhibitions.
Fees still needed to be paid, even if they were small.
You had to supply your own books and paper and pens and
some families couldn't afford this kind of thing.
There was also the problem of conflict with the labor needs of
farm families.
Children were often put to school at the age of five or six
but taken away at the age of seven when they were able to
play a more productive role in the family economy.
So sometimes their working lives had begun before they'd
had the opportunity to gain much learning.
One seventeenth-century autobiographer described how his
brothers attended school in some of the winter months,
but were busy on the farm for most of the rest of the year
and, as he said, what they learned
when they attended school they soon forgot.
He was kept at school by his father constantly because his
father intended to put him into trade and so he gained a pretty
sound education.
Well, the relative failure of the mass of the population to
participate beyond the level of the petty school,
if that, is fairly strikingly brought out when we look at the
available figures that historians have put together on
the subject of levels of literacy.
You might well ask, how on earth can we measure
literacy in such a distant period of the past?
Well, the usual way of doing that is to get large samples of
people putting their names to documents and to distinguish
between those who could write their names,
who could sign their names, and those who simply made a
If you look at the illustration on your handout,
that's a petition signed by a lot of people whose names are
there at the bottom, and you'll see for example on
the left-hand side a scribe has written in the names followed by
"his mark," and on the left of that you
have the marks of the various people concerned.
On the other side of the sheet, there a number of examples of
people who had successfully signed their names.
So it's possible to get large samples of evidence of whether
people could or could not sign their names.
One might be skeptical about how meaningful that is.
After all, one could learn to sign one's name even if one was
in other ways scarcely literate.
But that was very unlikely in this period.
To be unable to sign your name was not a great social
embarrassment for most members of the population.
It wasn't something they would need to try to avoid,
and again the schooling practice of the time was that
children only began to learn to write once they'd become
proficient readers.
So if you got--if you had proceeded with writing far along
enough to be able to handle a quill pen well enough to sign
your name the likelihood is that you were a proficient reader.
Now this may leave out of the count some people who perhaps
could read reasonably, but had not learned to write,
and indeed if you look at the bottom of that petition you'll
notice one man's mark which is clearly an initial letter;
it's clearly an "R."
He was called Richard.
One wonders whether Richard could in fact read and could
handle a pen well enough to make the initial letter of his name.
But historians who do this kind of work are very strict.
Either you sign your name or you don't.
They know that these figures are not perfect but it's a clear
differentiation and we can compare different areas and
different social groups.
So that's how they do it.
What are the results?
Well, in the year 1642 massive numbers of people were required
to put their name to the so-called Protestation Oath at
the beginning of the English civil wars.
Studying the returns of the Protestation Oath which survive,
David Cressy found that something like 70% of the adult
men who signed that document were unable to sign their names.
30% signed, 70% made their mark.
But he also found that it varied enormously from place to
Some places were 90% literate, some places were less than 50%
literate, and he also found that towns were very much more
literate than villages.
That gives us the broad picture of what had emerged by the
mid-seventeenth century.
Other studies have looked at the literacy of different social
groups in particular areas of the country,
and some of the figures they've produced are there in tables two
and three on your handout.
They tend to bring out vividly how there's a hierarchy of
literacy and illiteracy.
These figures are giving the percentages of people who made
their mark, who couldn't sign their name.
Table two is a rural area of Essex and Hertfordshire,
to the east of London.
Table three is the city of London and the county of
Middlesex, which was urbanized, so that's an urban sample.
There's a hierarchy in both countryside and town as you move
down the social scale; yeomen in the countryside,
only 33% can't sign, if one moves down to laborers
in the countryside 100% can't sign.
But look at the differences between town and country.
Tradesmen and craftsmen in the rural sample,
42% can't sign, so more than half can;
but if one moves to the city only 28% can't sign,
much higher levels of ability to sign.
Even laborers in the city were only 78% illiterate,
so some laboring men in the city could sign their names.
What this indicates in general, studies of this kind,
is that, in the course of the later sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, illiteracy amongst the social
elite was completely wiped out; it was just eradicated.
Amongst the middling kind of people, yeoman farmers,
tradesmen and craftsmen, illiteracy was drastically
Many of these people can read and write by the early
seventeenth century.
If you move further down the social scale,
amongst husbandmen and laborers there's much less change.
Nonetheless, some of these people also were
beginning to be able to read and write.
It's not surprising that there's a hierarchy of
illiteracy in a society structured as this one was.
One could say that the hierarchy of illiteracy
faithfully mirrors the social order.
Nonetheless, significant inroads have been
made even low in the social scale.
Let's turn now to another form of differentiation,
not between social rank but between gender.
The education of girls was of course also influenced by their
social rank, but at all social levels there
was a major problem of the perceived need to educate women.
Amongst the gentry, by the late sixteenth century
it was already widely accepted that gentlewomen should be
taught to read and write, to sing, to play instruments,
to dance, to sew, perhaps even acquire a
little knowledge of French.
And this education would be conducted privately.
They weren't usually sent to school, which was considered too
risky to their virtue.
They would be educated at home by their mothers,
by governesses, by the lady of the household if
they were in honorable service in a great household,
perhaps by the domestic chaplain of such a household.
In the early seventeenth century, there was a little
change with the founding of some girls' boarding schools,
usually in the London area, but they were few and extremely
So the kind of education that gentlewomen were getting was
restricted in its scope though there are a number of rare
examples of individual girls who got a much fuller education
including classical learning.
One example is Lucy Hutchinson, a young woman who tells us in
the memoir she wrote-- of her husband's career--tells
us that her father believed that there was no reason why a young
woman should not receive the same education as young men.
So there were people who had views of that kind even at this
time, though it was comparatively rare.
Girls of lower social rank got most of their education for life
either from their mothers or as servants in the tasks of
A few of them attended school, though very few.
They might attend a petty school if their parents wished,
but there was absolutely no question of them going to a
grammar school or acquiring classical education.
The universities, of course, were closed to
The general lack of perceived need for girls' schooling is
shown in the invariably high illiteracy figures for women.
If you look at the figures on the handout again,
you'll see that in the rural area women were 95% unable to
sign and in the city 76%.
These figures may possibly exaggerate female illiteracy,
because it was women above all who were most likely to be
taught to read but not to write; taught to read for religious
reasons but it wasn't considered necessary to teach them to
write, so the figures for women may be exaggerated.
Nonetheless, overall, girls of the 'middling
sort' might stand a chance of learning to read and possibly to
write, but below that level there was
almost total exclusion.
Well, to draw towards a conclusion, what was the overall
significance of all of this educational change?
Well, with all reservations, I think these developments are
very significant indeed.
The transformation of the education of the social elite
was arguably a very significant step towards the growth of a
homogeneous national culture amongst the ruling class,
created by a highly standardized pattern of
education in which many of them, if not most of them,
These were people who were still very much at home in their
country, their province.
They frequently spoke still with strong regional accents--
Sir Walter Raleigh was said to have a particularly strong west
country accent, which was noted at the
court--but also these people were experiencing the
assimilation and the capacity to manipulate a generalized system
of cultural standards and values conveyed to them through the
classical learning they were acquiring.
And when one reads their letters, on paper they're
remarkably homogeneous.
There's a common range of reference that they allude to--
pointed out in one recent study of a pamphlet written by a
country magistrate on the subject of witchcraft;
the classical allusions which he casually throws out and the
biblical references which he casually throws out in the
course of the pamphlet.
He simply assumes that his readers amongst fellow
magistrates will know what he's talking about.
They belong to a common cultural world based on the
classics, the Bible, certain forms of Protestant
theology and law.
Again the transformation of the education at the level of the
clergy is surely very significant.
Most parishes by 1640 had what you could reasonably call a kind
of resident intellectual.
It's a development full of potential implications for the
penetration of the countryside by the cultural values of the
university, through the contacts between
these clergymen and those whom they served in their parishes.
Lower on the social scale the achievement may seem much more
limited, but I think one should think about it positively.
A certain threshold had been crossed.
In every parish there were at least some of the common people,
certainly those of middle rank and some of those even below
that, who could read, who could write.
Literacy was now something that people would encounter much more
frequently in many contexts of life, something they would use
for many purposes.
To give perhaps a silly example, I once worked on a
village in the north of England, up near Newcastle on Tyne,
where, in the late sixteenth century,
every will surviving for that village was written by the local
clergyman; he was the only one who could
do it.
The records of the village even reveal that on one occasion a
man who was dying, who hadn't made his will,
sent urgently for the clergyman and they couldn't find him
because he'd gone fishing.
A little girl was sent running down the river to find him and
bring him back.
He came back too late.
The man had died--with his dying breath he had told what he
wanted his goods--how he wanted his goods--to be distributed;
and we know this story because those who heard his dying wishes
had to go to the court and declare on oath what his wishes
were because there was no one to write them down.
In the same village, by the early seventeenth
century there are so many people capable of writing a will that
one loses track of the numbers of people who are acting as
scribes for their neighbors; fifteen, twenty,
in different decades, who are capable of writing a
That's the change which is taking place even in obscure
country parishes.
Even in such places the crossing of the literacy
threshold had opened up new possibilities which simply had
not existed in the past.
If one thinks of late fifteenth-century society as one
of heavily restricted literacy-- restricted to certain social
and occupational groups-- by the early seventeenth
century we have fairly widespread literacy;
a partially literate society which was well on the road to
mass literacy.
And if you look at the final chart on your handout,
there is the long-term decline of illiteracy right through to
1900, and you can see that the period
we're dealing with is a significant step forward in that
Now of course it was a very long road.
Right through to the nineteenth century,
illiteracy remained closely related to the social hierarchy,
but there was continuous advance from the sixteenth
century onwards.
By the early eighteenth century, England was already
probably the most literate nation in Europe and still
slowly improving.
Outside Europe the most literate society of the time was
New England, a colonial society which had a
disproportionate number of literate people amongst those
who emigrated here.
And as a result the opportunities for a more
widespread participation in the growing literate culture of the
period was expanding.
Ideas and opinions which were first voiced in elite circles
could sometimes find their way down to permeate many areas of
the social structure, like sherry seeping down
through a trifle.
That's not to say that many people of humble place were
rushing to read the more high-flown products of the
English renaissance.
Some of them did.
Some people who began reading simple things became
conspicuously literate and hungry for books and went on to
read whatever they could get.
But there was also for more--for those who didn't have
such ambitions--a growing popular print culture which
catered directly for them.
This period sees the birth of the chapbook literature;
cheap, penny, twopenny, sixpenny printed
works aimed at a mass market.
By the 1660s, the most popular form of such
cheap books, almanacs, were being produced on a vast
In London 400,000 almanacs a year were printed in the 1660s,
aimed at the mass market, and they contained all kinds of
information as well as calendars for people to use.
Most readers of this stuff would not have been members of
elite society, but they did have access to
some of the issues and ideas of their day.
Such chapbooks enjoyed massive sales and they formed also a
kind of bridge between elite society and the mass of the
One of the great collections of them which survives was put
together by Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Navy,
a member of the highest-level bureaucracy of his day,
but he enjoyed the cheap literature as well as the
learned works that he had in his library.
And it could be read also of course by members of the
middling and lower orders.
It must have had its impact on the common stock of images and
symbols and understandings and simple information of rich and
poor alike, and it fostered a popular
literacy which could be turned to other uses.
If you take the chapbook romances with their tales of
knights and giants and so forth, which were being published in
the seventeenth century, and you marry them together
with the Bible, what you end up with is John
Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.
He was someone who was steeped in this popular
He wrote Pilgrim's Progress in order to provide a
religious adventure story which turned out to be the second most
important book ever published in English.
To conclude then, whether or not we want to talk
about an educational revolution in this period,
the educational changes did constitute a very significant
break with the past.
However limited, however circumscribed by class
or gender, they did open up new areas of potential in society
and culture.
Something momentous was gradually happening across the
late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries;
something which I think one can reasonably say without
exaggeration was one of the great transforming processes of
the early modern period.
Well next time I'll take up the political narrative again,
turning to the religious problems and political problems
of the early seventeenth century.