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Literacy in the Middle Ages

Late Medieval Literacy

England was not a completely illiterate nation before the Norman Conquest; the Anglo-Saxon chronicle making a good case in point, however, literacy was mostly restricted to high churchmen and monks. 1066 would appear to be nothing more than a further barrier to English literacy – at least Old English (ie. Language used for the written word) had something nominally in common with the spoken tongue. The Normans spoke French and wrote in Latin; learning to read suddenly got a lot more complicated!

Despite these setbacks literacy did increase significantly. Some historians argue that as much as 60% of the English population were literate by 1530. That’s all well and good, I hear you cry, that some stuffy academic with elbow patches tells us that but how do we know it really increased at all?

  • The number of schools increased substantially, suggesting that a higher number of people were receiving education. And not for the sole purpose of becoming a priest! Eg. Moran found that in York diocese there were 13 grammar schools in 1300; by 1548 this figure had more than quadrupled to 68. The 1406 Statute of Apprentices enabled even the sons of serfs to be educated: many local priests maintained song or reading schools for the purpose of educating the less well off. (That’s pretty much everyone cos around 80% of the population were peasants – SS) 

  • Aston draws attention to the increasing number of bibles and service books in the hands of the laity from the 13th century. (eg. from looking at bequests in wills). John Claydon, a London skinner, was burnt to death in 1415 along with his heretical copy of “Lanterne of Lizt.” (Although he was illiterate – his servant had been able to read it to him!) By 1530 men were making livings as booksellers in the cities. 

The main problem when considering late medieval literacy is the fact that historians have come to no consensus on a definition of literacy. In 1066 to be considered literacy Joe Bloggs would have had to be able to read and write in Latin. By 1500 he was literate so long as he could read OR write (with minimal proficiency) in Latin OR the vernacular in contemporary eyes. In addition, for much of the medieval period the idea of Clericus:Literatus reigned supreme: in the medieval mind o be literate meant you were a churchman. To be a layman implied you were illiterate. Just like black can not be white, a layman could not be literate – although they clearly were. This serves to confuse records, for example in court proceedings people are referred to as “illiterate” meaning they were laymen rather than that they couldn’t read.

Historians too have come to wildly different figures using their own definitions. Du Boulay claimed 40% were literate by 1530; Sir Thomas More was even more optimistic putting the figure at 60% - both based their estimates on reading ability. Cressy, defining literacy as the ability to write, claimed only around 10% were literate by 1530. Without clear records any figure can only be an estimate with a high error margin – but even so that’s a pretty big difference! For essay purposes literacy can be defined as “minimal competence in reading Latin or the Vernacular.” Writing was considered a separate art for the majority of the period (c.1050 – 1550)

So, who became literate? When? And, why? 

Kings: They could generally read even before the Conquest. Evidence of letters, etc written in kings’ own hand.

Nobility: If the King is known to be able to read it increases the status of literacy, the nobility is quick to jump on the bandwagon. Noble women learn to read so they can emulate the idea of female piety portrayed in depictions of the Virgin Mary: to be able to read and contemplate scripture. They then passed on literacy to their children. Men learnt, on the whole, or more pragmatic business reasons: record keeping was becoming increasingly common, for example the 1086 Domesday book and the introduction of chancery and plea rolls in the late 12th/early 13th century. Also the movement towards direct exploitation of estates from the late 12th century onwards meant literacy became the norm for the nobility by the end of the 12th century. The work of Chaucer and Gower in the reign of Richard II was mostly confined to the court circle, but suggests the nobility could read in English by this time.

Gentry: The written word was used more and more increasingly throughout this period, as evidenced by the development of the cursive script in around 1200 to allow scribes to write faster. Statutes of 1275 and 1293 established the coronation of Richard I (1199) as the limit of memory, eroding the importance of oral testimony. The gentry became literate to emulate their betters, to directly manage their estates, and to gain positions in the increasingly paper based legal system or as estate officials. The Seneschaucy, a mid 13th century estate management guide, presumes that the estate steward and bailiff would both be able to read French. By 1300 literacy had become the norm for the gentry. Eg. In 1293 Sir Hugh was put on trial for rape: he was unable to read from a roll to challenge the accusation which sent the court into chaos (someone had to whisper the words in his ear so he could say them aloud). Clearly by this point the ability to read amongst the upper classes was taken for granted.

Upper Peasantry (Yeomen, Husbandsmen, Craftsmen, Merchants…): Initiallt this class was only becoming passively literate, that is to say they became familiar with seeing the written word – the importance of it was well understood. During the 1381 peasant’s revolt, for example, hundred rolls and other records were burned. The main impetus for this class becoming literate was pragmatic: they needed it for business purposes. By 1422 the guild of brewers recognised that whilst their members might be ignorant of French and Latin, they could still keep records in English. Literacy was seen as a way to get on in life; ie. Getting into positions of local officialdom such as serving on juries or working as JP or Reeve. Religion also played its part; the Black Death of 1348 wiped out around 40% of the clergy (-Hatcher) and their replacements were for the most part ill-educated. By 1548 46% of chantry chaplains in York diocese had had very little to no education. This led people to want to be able to read the bible for themselves. From the 1370s Lollard vernacular translations made this possible (eg. 1410 translated copies of Speculum Vite Christi were in wide circulation). The introduction of the printing press to England in the 1470s made books more affordable and demand for service books massively outstripped supply. (60% of those sold had to be imported.) John Gratchet, the major York bookseller between 1516 and 1533, made his living just from selling service books.

Lower Peasantry and the Unfree: Now nobody’s suggesting the great unwashed were sat around debating the finer points of illiteration in the Floretum. They were however becoming increasingly literate in the passive sense. In the 12th century church paintings had depicted hellish demons collecting up mispronounced hymns and gossip, in the form of sounds, into his sack. From the 1280s the demon had become a scribe who noted down the congregations misdemeanours on parchment. The written word had been demystified, by the 1240s even vagrants were expected to carry around testimonials of trustworthiness. By 1300 even the unfree had to have a seal suggesting that almost everyone read (or at least recognise) their own name.


Literacy was actually pretty common by 1550, even serfs could probably recognise their own name. The reason for this had been devotional and, to a greater extent, pragmatic. Society had come increasingly to depend on the written word, which in turn had led to a growing number of people being able to make sense of it so as to help them get on in life.


  1. Hi, i'm a big fan of your blog!

    Is there any chance you could post your revision notes for papers 10 or 16? Would be very, very much appreciated.

    Thank you in advance.

    1. I'm glad it's proving useful! :) I had a look through what I had, and it was just notes on class and law & order. I put those up though:

    2. Ah you're an absolute saviour - very kind of you! Thank you so much xx


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