‘The Rabble that Cannot Read’? Ordinary People’s Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England

Mark Hailwood

Those of us historians intent on exploring the world of ordinary women and men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conduct a lot of our research by looking at surviving examples of what such people read–for instance, cheap printed broadside ballads–or of what they wrote–take, say, Joseph Bufton’s notebooks. These materials are fascinating and undoubtedly useful, but regular readers of this blog might understandably find themselves wondering about the validity of this approach, and asking themselves a simple but important question: to what extent could the lower classes of England actually read and write in the seventeenth century?

David Teniers the Younger 'Peasants Reading a Letter...' But could they?

David Teniers the Younger ‘Peasants Reading a Letter…’ But could they?

It’s a fair question, and has important implications. Does this material really provide a window into the minds of the most humble people in Tudor and Stuart society, or were reading and writing skills the preserve of the more affluent, or at least the middling, classes of society? After all, in 1691 the puritan writer Richard Baxter had described his lower-class neighbours as ‘the rabble that cannot read’. Was this fair?

Back in the 1970s the social historian David Cressy came up with a cunningly simple way of measuring the literacy skills of our early modern ancestors: counting the percentage of people who could sign their name to witness statements that they gave before the courts. Witnesses in court cases were drawn from across the social scale, and included men and women, so the results could be broken down by class and gender. The methodology was simple: given that it was customary in the period for people to learn to read before learning to write, it was assumed that people who could write out their own signature were fully literate: they would have learned to both read and write. Given, Cressy argued, that there was no particular stigma attached to not being able to sign your own name, it was unlikely anyone would have learned to do this specific task if they were not actually able to write. Those who could not write out their name, who instead usually simply signed documents with a cross, were counted as illiterate.

The results of this approach suggested that in the seventeenth century only roughly 30% of adult men were fully literate, and only 10% of women were. When broken down by social group, the results show considerable divergence across the social scale. Almost 100% of the gentry were literate. The number was around 60% for yeomen (i.e. wealthier farmers) and tradesmen: the groups historians tend to see as the ‘middling sort’ or middle class. But for husbandmen (poorer farmers) and labourers, the percentage that could read and write was only between 15-20%. Put crudely, all gentlemen were fully literate, just over half of middling class men were, but less than 1 in 5 men from the lower classes were. For all classes of women the figure was more like 1 in 10.[1]

Richard Baxter: 'the rabble that cannot read'

Richard Baxter: ‘the rabble that cannot read’

This might seem to suggest then that reading and writing materials that survive from this period are indeed artifacts of upper and middle class male culture, not the culture of more humble men and women. But there are some problems with these statistics. For a start, as several historians, including Cressy, have pointed out, they are underestimates of reading ability in particular. It was quite common even for the children of the poor to have some schooling, and hence to learn to read, only to be taken out of school at the age at which they were deemed old enough to work on the family farm or in its workshop: around 7 or 8 years old. It was at this age that the teaching of writing skills typically began. It is highly likely then that many people who could not write their name, and would thus be counted as illiterate in these calculations, could in fact read: they were partially literate. Indeed, some historians have suggested that these figures are therefore a massive underestimate of reading ability in the period.[2]

Moreover, in a recent class I showed some examples of seventeenth-century signatures (not taken from witness statements, but from some petitions by villagers to have alehouses either set up or closed down in their locality) to highlight how this methodology works. In the course of the discussion we identified a number of issues with this process of counting signatures that suggests not only is there a problem here with underestimating reading ability, but that the system of sorting them into ‘signatures’ and ‘crosses’ may well be underestimating writing ability too.

Take, for example, this petition from 1646: sent by the neighbours of one Robert Dowse of Hackleton in Wiltshire to the local magistrates encouraging them to issue him with a license to run an alehouse:

Hackleton Petition

Hackleton Petition

It contains some clear examples of written signatures that suggest their authors were competent at writing, and thus at reading:

The signatures of Thomas Bushell and John Hodges

The signatures of Thomas Bushell and John Hodges

Others clearly fall into the category of simple crosses, where someone with greater penmanship skills has written out the name of the signatory and left a space for them to leave ‘his’ or ‘her marke’, i.e. to sign with a cross:

Widow Piper, 'her marke'. The blotchy cross may indicate a lack of inexperience with the quill

Widow Piper, ‘her marke’. The blotchy cross may indicate a lack of experience with the quill

These individuals would be counted as illiterate. Others, however, are not so clear cut. When William Hickman was asked to scratch his mark onto the parchment, he went beyond leaving a simple cross: he sketched out one of his initials:

William Hickman, 'his marke'

William Hickman, ‘his marke’

What should we make of this? This is not a full signature, so in Cressy’s methodology William Hickman would have been filed under ‘illiterate’. But does his use of an initial suggest he had a modicum of ability with the quill in hand? Perhaps he had stayed in schooling long enough to begin writing lessons, but had not fully mastered the art before being called back to lend a hand tilling the soil. If so, he would almost certainly have been able to read. Or maybe he had asked a literate associate, a tradesman from the village, to teach him the basics, so he could at least offer an initial rather than a cross. There may not have been a stigma attached to being unable to sign in full, but it may nonetheless have been important to Hickman to show that at least his literacy skills were a step up from poor Widow Piper’s. This was, after all, a society obsessed with status at every level.

Hickman’s act of one-upmanship might have left an impression on his fellow petitioner Richard Guy. He was invited to add his mark to the list just below the marks of Hickman and Widow Piper. Confronted by their contrasting efforts–the bold H; the blotted cross–Guy may have felt the urge to show that he too was not one of the rabble who could not write: he proffered an initial too, a large R, but it betrayed his inexperienced quill-craft. It was back-to-front:

Richard Guy, 'his marke', albeit back-to-front

Richard Guy, ‘his marke’, albeit back-to-front

Another example, this time a petition from 1631 by the inhabitants of Monksilver and Bicknoller in Somerset to have a disorderly alehouse suppressed, again indicates a diverse range of literacy skills that are not sufficiently captured by the categories of ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’:

Signatures on a petition from Somerset

Signatures on a petition from Somerset

Once more, we have some polished full signatures:

John Bellamy

John Bellamy

Yet we also have some marks that do not even come up to the standard of a simple cross. Paul Sayer’s blotted squiggle might well be evidence of an individual with very little experience of ever holding a quill (though it might also be the result of an unsteady hand withered by age):

The marke of Paull Sayer of Monksilver: a splodge

The marke of Paull Sayer of Monksilver: a splodge

Nor does Gilbert Thorne’s mark seem to suggest much familiarity or confidence with writing. This curt flick also invites us to rethink Widow Piper’s dexterity: by comparison her cross is rather more sophisticated, and may suggest that she was more used to putting pen to paper than Sayer or Thorne:

Gilbert Thorne, his marke

Gilbert Thorne, his marke

Most intriguing of all though is the signature of the man I will call George ‘Middleton’ (as you will see his surname is very difficult to decipher – I’m open to advances):

George 'Middleton' of Monksilver

George ‘Middleton’ of Monksilver

First of all, you need to ignore the large cross that looks like a big lower case ‘q’. This is in fact the mark of the previous petitioner, who has signed in the wrong place (easy to do, presumably, if you cannot read). Well, I say ignore, but first note that the cross has been made without removing the quill from the parchment, which could indicate a greater degree of skill than a two stroke cross. It’s joined-up handwriting. Even simple crosses, then, can reveal a diversity of calligraphic ability.

When we look past this cross, we can see that George has not left ‘his marke’ in the form of a cross, or even an initial. It seems as though he has attempted to write out his Christian name, albeit misspelled, in full:

'Geore'

‘Geore’

What is more, if we look back to where a more skilled writer has set George’s name down for him to place his mark next to, we see that they have in fact written, uniquely, that what will follow are ‘the markes‘ of George Middleton, not the more routine singular ‘the marke’:

'The markes of George...'

‘The markes of George…’

Perhaps George had requested for it to be phrased this way, insisting to his fellow petitioners that there was an important distinction between his writing ability and that of those who could only put a cross beside their name. Why, though, is his surname crossed through? Here is my theory. Imagine his embarrassment when, after confidently insisting he could do ‘markes’ plural, he managed to omit the second ‘g’ from his name. It was a blemish that this proud petitioner could not bear to let alone. So, he decided to up the stakes. He struck out the belittling lines where another man had had to write out his name for him, and down at the bottom of the sheet, below all the other signatures, he endeavoured to sign his own name in full. This time, albeit with a shaking hand that left a spidery ‘George’ and a cramped ‘Middleton’, he succeeded in making his way into the ranks of the ‘literate’:

The fully literate 'George Middleton'

The fully literate ‘George Middleton’

Perhaps this is being too fanciful. Is it really the same hand as the first misspelled ‘Geore’? The ‘G’ is certainly not identical, but then would we expect an inexperienced writer to consistently produce identical characters? I admit that we can’t be sure, but even if we put this example aside we can see that the range of signatures on these petitions reveal subtle differences in writing ability: even two simple crosses can be compared and contrasted to tell a story about the varying level of skill with which petitioners could handle a quill. This is important because it demonstrates to us that these gradations in ability mattered to ordinary people at the time: many signatories showed great determination to demonstrate that, with their use of an initial, for example, they were not on the bottom rung of the literacy ladder. It suggests that status, and its handmaiden stigma, clung closely to the literacy abilities of even relatively humble people.

I may be pushing this material too far, but I think these signatures are fascinating. Using them to produce broad statistical estimates of reading and writing ability in the period is, undoubtedly, very useful, but reading them closely has the potential to reveal so much more about the spectrum of literacy that existed in this society. Sorting these signatures into the ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’ results in the lumping together as ‘illiterate’ many people who would in fact have had a wide range of at least some reading and writing skills. An illiterate rabble they were not.


[1] David Cressy, ‘Levels of Illiteracy in England, 1530-1730’, The Historical Journal, 20:1 (1977).

[2] See for example Margaret Spufford, ‘First Steps in Literacy: The Reading and Writing Experiences of the Humblest Seventeenth-century Autobiographers’, Social History, 4 (1979).

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25 thoughts on “‘The Rabble that Cannot Read’? Ordinary People’s Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England

  1. Great post Mark – this is a really important question for so many historians.

    Peter Foden (@PeterFoden) on twitter had an excellent question that I am relaying: personalized marks give way to anonymous & demeaning X in the nineteenth century – does anyone have any idea of why this might be?

    • Lots of people did simply sign with an anonymous cross even in the seventeenth century, so that is not new: the disappearance of more personalised marks could be a nineteenth century development, but I wouldn’t know why. Any eighteenth or nineteenth century historians out there have any ideas?

  2. Very interesting ideas that I hadn’t thought of before. You’ve also shown up another potential problem with printed editions of manuscript sources. Printed protestation returns tend to only indicate signature or mark without describing the marks.
    It seems that signing a document was a special event for poor people. I get the impression that the elite weren’t as bothered about it.
    Was there a difference between learning to read print and manuscript at the time? They’re different skills now but were they then?

    • I would guess that reading print and manuscript were divergent, but not separate, skills. Some seventeenth century witnesses in the High Court of Admiralty stated that they could read, but not ‘written hand’ (usually when being questioned about legal maritime documents – account books, bills of lading, and so on). One claimed that, though he could not read or write, he was as fitting as anyone else to be a boatswain, a role that generally included some recordkeeping. I would say this supports Mark’s argument about the complexity of literacy levels and is implications for status.

      • Thanks both – for the question and the reply respectively. I’m not certain about the different reading skills, but Richard’s example suggests they were different skills to me. That interesting example of Richard’s may also relate to a point raised by Sara Pennell on twitter: that some people may have had an ability to recognise or write numbers without being fully literate. It would, for instance, have been a useful skill for cooking, and many other tasks and jobs involving measuring or indeed transactions. Perhaps your boatswain could do some basic record keeping but not much else, and it seems likely to me many others would have had a similar skill set.

  3. Fascinating and enjoyable post, Mark, showing — among other things — that simple statistical analysis can rarely give us the accuracy in assessing individuals as representative of larger groups as many would like. Can I add a couple of random points?

    The Teniers painting of ‘Peasants Reading a Letter…’ It seems to me that one can interpret this in at least a couple of mutually incompatible ways. The individuals looking over the letter could be really reading it, or they could be ‘reading’ it by having one individual (the one holding the letter) actually read it out aloud to all of them. Thus, they might all be able to read; or just one or two; or even none, if the painting’s title is in fact satirical (Teniers’ work sometimes has bite, as in his Costumed apes having a meal).

    The actual signatures and ‘markes’ are intriguing. For example I wonder if Paull Sayer of Monksilver’s splodge can’t be interpreted as his initials (reversed P and cursive S); age or infirmity could well have caused him grief, and if he was following a long-established family trade as a sawyer RSI could have made quill-holding near impossible. And there’s certainly a story to be teased out of the repeated George ‘Middleton’ attestation — your deduction is certainly very plausible.

    • Thanks for these comments, very interesting. My take on the Teniers is that it is one individual reading aloud to the others – a common practice which also complicates the categories of ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’: if you knew someone who could read for/to you then you had access to the written word even if you were unable to read.

      I like your theory about Sayer – and the more I look at it the more I think it is an attempt at an initial or a distinctive mark gone wrong/that has deteriorated with age, rather than just a squiggle.

  4. I really enjoyed this – it is fascinating to get a glimpse, however speculative, into the lives, emotions, and experiences of normal people so far removed from our time.

    • I’m really glad you enjoyed it. One of the things I really like about these signatures is that they are a very rare example of the lower classes literally leaving a mark on the historical record. Even when we have versions of their words they have usually been written down by a scribe/court clerk. Here we have direct examples of them personally recording their own ‘words’, even if that is only a cross or an initial.

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  6. Interesting post. I’d suggest extending your question though. If we (reasonably) argue for a spectrum of writing ability, we should presumably do the same regarding reading. Your posts constructs a spectrum of writing ability, but then uses it to conclude that if they could write, they could also read. But of course as teachers we know there are vast differences between the readability of different documents (e.g. the quantified ‘grade-level’ of a particular piece of prose), and of students at different levels of reading ability. (And I’m probably not the only professor to automatically assume a student can’t read well if their handwriting looks like a 3rd grader’s.) My undergraduate students, for example, have a hard time with the vocabulary and grammatical constructions of 17C English.

    So I wonder what it even means to say a peasant could sign his name with the ‘incorrect’ spelling yet be able to ‘read.’ What kinds of documents could he read? How many of the period’s written documents could he read? Maybe there were only specific scenarios in which a barely-literate individual would use his/her reading ability? (Perhaps looking at the coping skills of modern adult illiteracy might provide some insight.) I’m amazed, looking at late 17C newspapers and pamphlets discussing high politics, war, foreign policy…, at how sophisticated their language (e.g. sentence construction) and argumentation was. I’m skeptical that many people today can understand and follow their arguments, which makes me equally skeptical that most 17C people whose schooling ended at 7 or 8 years old would be able to read and understand many of the publications available back then – I don’t know if modern education is comparable, but that would be 3rd grade or so. What’s at stake in saying non-writers could still ‘read’?

    Has anyone done something as simplistic as run old English documents through grade-level software to get a sense of how ‘sophisticated’ various genres of literature were? Might make for some interesting comparisons with modern prose. Maybe historians of reading have already beaten this horse to death?

    • Thanks for these really helpful comments. My argument here simply follows the common assumption made by historians of early modern literacy that writing ability signified reading ability, but of course you are right to suggest that there was likely an equally complex spectrum of reading ability and skills (indeed, as the comments above suggest, we might distinguish between the ability to read manuscript and to read print, or the ability to recognise numbers). It also seems quite possible that a tradesman could have learned to recognise a range of words that were particularly useful for reading documents relating to his trade, but have been unable to digest a more sophisticated chapbook.

      The problem, of course, is that this range of reading abilities – especially for the lower classes – are even more difficult to asses from surviving sources than are writing skills. I’m sure there is a literature on the history of reading that has some answers – its something I’ll be chasing up.

    • “I’m amazed, looking at late 17C newspapers and pamphlets discussing high politics, war, foreign policy…, at how sophisticated their language (e.g. sentence construction) and argumentation was. I’m skeptical that many people today can understand and follow their arguments, which makes me equally skeptical that most 17C people whose schooling ended at 7 or 8 years old would be able to read and understand many of the publications available back then – I don’t know if modern education is comparable, but that would be 3rd grade or so.”

      I agree with this to some extent: it is the worst sort of romanticism to simply assume that ordinary people in the past were as intellectually engaged as we might like them to be. That said, I’m constantly impressed when reading, say, court depositions of seditious speech cases about how coherent and indeed ‘sophisticated’ their arguments can be.

      Moreover, I think part of the reason why modern students have trouble with C17th printed language is because much C17th print actually followed oral forms (see Adam Fox’s book: Oral and Literate Culture). You can see this clearly in religious writing (which often was based on preaching), many pamphlets (which often read like stream-of-consciousness rants in a pub argument) and of course broadside ballads (which were meant to be sung). So those types of sources may have actually been _easier_ for a semi-literate person used to oral culture, than they are for a highly literate modern reader.

    • Some more great examples on your deed of different types of marks and qualities of handwriting. The mark just above the fold – which looks like an extended ‘V’ – is very similar to one of the marks on my Monksilver petition. Perhaps that was a common alternative to a cross…

  7. Thanks for a great post! I love to think about the implications of signatures/marks etc.

    In one church court deposition on which I’m currently working (a will dispute from 1627), it’s reported that the testator (who was by this point in a lot of pain), when prompted to sign his will, said ‘before I cann [i.e. could] well endure to writte my name but I will sett my marke therevnto’, which suggests to me that people may have employed both a mark and a signature interchangeably depending perhaps on the situation and/or their physical ability to sign. In this case, the testator’s lack of signature on the document proves a point of contention in terms of the validity of the will, as one of the witnesses is keen to state that ‘he knew the testator to be an Indifferent Clarke and that he did vse to write bandes and bills and other Convayaunces for his neyghbours there about and noe question when occacion serued wrott his name at length’.

    So, in cases where people were known to have been literate enough to construct other documents and to sign their own name, there seems to have been a definite hierarchy in terms of signature/mark and their relative ‘value’. Particularly in the case of such an important document as a last will and testament, leaving a mark could throw into question its legal validity, when it was known that the testator had previously been capable of leaving a signature.

    • Thanks Steph, that’s a fascinating case. The fact that literate individuals might revert to a simple cross in old age is something well acknowledged in the literature on this, as you probably know (Cressy, for example, compares signature literacy derived from wills to that derived from depositions, and finds it to be lower, which is clearly not a result of the likely social status of testators, who were more likely to be affluent than poor). What I think is really striking about your case is that line that there was ‘noe question when occacion serued [he] wrott his name at length’, suggesting that the context also dictated whether someone used a cross or a full signature. My sense is that for a petition you would want to emphasise your status to add weight to the plea, so that you would deploy your ‘best’ signature (which fits my theory about George Middleton striving to sign in full). Would the same apply for a court deposition? Its certainly worth thinking about further.

  8. I’ve always been concerned that the literature on early modern literacy missed the essential point about testamentary signature: it was not initiated and executed by one individual but usually by more than one. In short, the ‘mark’ is really more like a confirmation that ‘Yes, I am here and I’m in agreement’, after the name had been written by someone else.The idea that we carry with us is that ‘signature’ is a private thing, part of us and very much our property, on which basis the signature is the mark that shows that we indeed agree. Early modern Britons simply did not see it that way and not because they were necessarily illiterate, but rather because legal process allowed one – expected one – to confirm identity, not assert it.

    • Thanks Mark. That distinction between confirming and asserting identity is useful I think, but it is nonetheless the case with petitions that some individuals choose to sign in full rather than simply leave a mark of confirmation. Doesn’t that suggest that they did see a difference between confirming and asserting their identity through a signature? Otherwise, why not have a clerk draw up a full list of names and have everyone just apply their mark?

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  10. I was discussing this with Andy Wood and Andy Burn last week and they mentioned that they had seen ‘marks’ that were closely associated with the person’s trade. If I remember correctly, AW mentioned that some Derbyshire miners signed with a little picture of a mining pick and AB had found Newcastle keelmen signing with a basic sketch of a ship.

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