Old Grammar School, Church Square, Market Harborough, Leicestershire, Founded in 1607 by Robert Smyth (a bus stop today) / Wikimedia Commons
While there were distinct hierarchies of learning in the period (with women and the lower orders having far fewer educational opportunities open to them than other members of the social order), this was genuinely a revolutionary period in terms of education. Attendance at the universities and the Inns of Court expanded exponentially, educational ideals for the elite were transformed, standards of clerical education reached unprecedented heights, grammar schools and petty schools were founded across the country and, by the end of the period, literacy levels in the population were much higher. England was now a partially literate society and was well on its way to achieving mass literacy. A threshold had been crossed, and this shift had far-reaching cultural and political effects.
Education: Cultural Influences Underlying an Increase in Schooling
Left: Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam with Renaissance Pilaster, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1523 / National Gallery, London
Right: Portrait of John Colet, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1535 / Royal Collection, London
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 elite. 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 purpose.
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 subjects. 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. 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.
Sketch of Roger Ascham, author of The Schoolmaster (1570), c.1515 / Wikimedia Commons
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.
Okay. 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 reasons. 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.
Left: Christ Church, oldest building at Oxford, built 1069-1200 / Wikimedia Commons
Right: St Bene’t’s Church, oldest building at Cambridge, built 11th century / Wikimedia Commons
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 degree. 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.
Simonds d’Ewes, 1st Baronet of Stowlangtoft, 1602-1650 / Wikimedia Commons
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 students. 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 way.
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 St. 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 piety.” 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 difficult. 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 Othello. But amongst all the books he bought while he was in London he only bought one law book, [laughter] 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 university. 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.
Worcester Cathedral, Worcesterhire, England, built 1084-1504 / Wikimedia Commons
A second consequence of these changes was a transformation in the educational level of the English clergy. 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 clergy. 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.
Education for Commoners
Old Grammar School, Church Square, Market Harborough, Leicestershire, Founded in 1607 by Robert Smyth (a bus stop today) / Wikimedia Commons
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 schools. 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 century. 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 villages. It’s not unusual for them to be kept by local clergymen, very often the teaching taking place in the church porch, weather permitting.
Limits in the Educational Revolution
Combined arms of the four Inns of Court. Clockwise from top left: Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple. / Photo by Marc Baronet, Wikimedia Commons
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 country. 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 circumscribed. 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 poor. 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 attending. 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.
Page from the Protestation Returns, 1641-1642 / Parliament of the United Kingdom
When one gets to the petty schools, they were much more open and the evidence suggests a much wider intake in local society. 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 mark. 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. 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 at the bottom of a petition one may notice a man’s mark which is clearly an initial letter – 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 place. 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 reduced. 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.
Portrait of Lucy Hutchinson, 17th century / Wikimedia Commons
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 expensive. 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 housewifery. 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 women. 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.
Portrait of John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress), by Thomas Sadler, 1684 / National Portrait Gallery, London
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, participated. 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 will. 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 process.
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 scale. 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 population. 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 literature. 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.