Precise knowledge about levels of literacy in different times and different places is notoriously difficult to ascertain, for two major reasons. First, it is not always clear what should count as "literacy": what level of ability at reading or writing should we designate as literate? The concept of functional literacy has been developed to deal with this semantic problem: the term functional literacy was originally coined by the U.S. Army during World War II, and denoted an ability to understand military operations and to be able to read at a fifth-grade level. Subsequently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has defined functional literacy in terms of an individual possessing the requisite reading and writing skills to be able to take part in the activities that are a normal part of that individual's social milieu.

However these definitional problems may be resolved, it is clearly problematic to specify the degree of literacy of a particular period, place, or population. The second problem is that our evidence for the historical distribution of levels of literacy is limited, based in the main on marriage registers and other legal documents. In using this evidence to generate best guesses about literacy levels, we pay special attention to the ability of bride, groom, and witnesses to sign marriage registers, and other individuals to sign other legal documents. Such evidence may lead to an overestimation of literacy levels; individuals may be able to sign but have little else in the way of literacy skills. Conversely, the same evidence may lead to an underestimation of literacy skills; writing requires a productive proficiency that reading does not, and therefore those who cannot sign may be able to read, and yet would be in danger of being classified as illiterate. With these warnings in place, what can we say about the historical character of literacy in the West?

Before the PROTESTANT REFORMATION, education was very closely controlled by the Catholic Church, and was limited to elite groups–men in holy orders. Further, literacy in Latin rather than in vernacular languages was the goal of these elites. However, by the middle of the sixteenth century, while many schools and teachers still maintained links to organized religion, a number of new schools arose due to the efforts of private individuals, parishes, guilds, and the like. This secularization of education meant that literacy was less and less the preserve of elite social groups; the deliberate spread of (first Latin, and then vernacular) literacy throughout the social body played an important role in the maintenance of religious orthodoxy, both Catholic and Protestant, but it also came to be seen as a political tool for state building, for the maintenance of morality, and for equipping the population with valuable skills. DESIDERIUS ERASMUS (c. 1469–1536) and Martin Luther (1483–1546) were especially important in drawing attention to such political and governmental possibilities. James Bowen, in A History of Western Education, estimates early sixteenth-century literacy rates in England to have been less than 1 percent; yet by the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) he suggests it was getting close to 50 percent. The Reformation, then, was a major spur to education and to literacy, but we must be aware that while the starting point for this education was religious knowledge

Seven Ages of Childhood (1909), illustration by . By the early twentieth century, literacy rates in many Western countries were near 100 percent. Reading, especially parents reading to their children, became seen as an integral part of family life. ©
Blue Lantern Studio/CORBIS

and morality, it also aimed at other sorts of useful knowledge.

However, the situation was not the same across all of Europe, and Protestant countries generally had better literacy rates than Catholic ones. In France, for example, a government-inspired study of historical rates of literacy published in 1880 showed that for the 1686–1690 period, 75 percent of the population could not sign their names. As Carlo M. Cipolla shows in Literacy and Development in the West, literacy rates for Catholic Europe as a whole were roughly in line with these statistics from France. Protestant Europe fared much better, with literacy rates of maybe 35 to 45 percent. In addition, Cipolla makes it clear that within these statistics we can see great variation by class and geography: the urban bourgeoisie had literacy rates of at least 90 percent, as compared pared to a rate of 10 percent for rural peasants. Furthermore, literacy rates differed between the sexes: a 1880 government study in France shows that between 1686 and 1690 the female literacy rate (based on ability to sign) was just 14 percent, while the male rate was 36 percent.

In England, the growth in the number of schools and in the literacy rate–during and after the Reformation–went hand in hand with the growth of the book trade. Richard Altick has shown that in the Elizabethan period, despite deliberate attempts to limit quantities, school texts (grammars, primers, and so forth) were allowed a print run of up to twelve thousand copies per year. Popular enthusiasm for reading and writing coexisted with official suspicion that such skills, if they became too widespread, would lead to social discontent and disorder. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the charity school movement in England and Scotland (especially associated with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) concentrated on trying to increase literacy levels among the poor. The aim of these schools was to ensure that literacy skills were sufficient for Bible study, but they also aimed to inculcate in the poor acceptance of their low status in life. These schools were also important actors in the process of nation building, explicitly teaching only in English and striving to eliminate the Gaelic language from Scotland.

From the Reformation until the nineteenth century, popular education and literacy education were virtually synonymous. While the elite had the opportunity to gain other skills and knowledge, schooling for the masses mostly concerned itself with learning to read. Moreover, reading meant reading the Bible. What was at stake was the desire for the general population to become what Ian Hunter has termed socially trained and spiritually guided. Learning to read was a step on the way to the production of a new type of person who was morally developed but also economically productive, and it was primarily through the reading of religious and moral texts that this was achieved.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the state slowly assumed more and more control of the schools, in a period which culminated in the introduction of compulsory education in most of the Western nations (for example, in the United States between 1852 [Massachusetts] and 1918 [Mississippi], in Prussia in 1868, in England in 1870, and in France in 1882). In England, the 1861 Newcastle Report had stopped short of recommending compulsory education, but noted that about 2.5 million children were receiving some schooling, and that literacy rates were 67 percent for men and 51 percent for women. The Newcastle Report was typical of the era: even as the arguments over the rights and wrongs of compulsory education in the context of a liberal state were taking place, state intervention into these matters was increasing, at the very least in terms of collecting statistics and adjudicating on issues and problems.

In the United States in the nineteenth century, the COMMON SCHOOLS pioneered the notion of a free, compulsory, and secular education. Fundamental to this endeavor was the attempt to guarantee an educated populace who could partake in political, social, and economic life. Schooling and civics, then, grew together. Education in literacy was still the core concern in the common schools and in the public schools which succeeded them, but by now schooling was concerning itself with other subjects, including history, geography, arithmetic, and bookkeeping. HORACE MANN (1796–1859) was a crucial figure in the shift toward this compulsory public schooling system in the United States. Mann traveled widely, especially through Europe, and tried to implement the best features of overseas systems in the nascent Massachusetts system. Mann served as secretary of the first ever state board of education, established in Massachusetts in 1837, and lived to see that state implement the first compulsory education system in the United States. While it took some time for compulsory education to be fully implemented for both boys and girls and for all sectors of society, the early years of the twentieth century saw literacy rates in many Western countries approach 100 percent.

See also: Compulsory School Attendance; Education, Europe; Education, United States.


Altick, Richard. 1957. The English Common Reader. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Bowen, James. 1981. A History of Western Education. 3 vols. London: Methuen.

Cipolla, Carlo M. 1969. Literacy and Development in the West. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.

Hunter, Ian. 1994. Rethinking the School: Subjectivity, Bureaucracy, Criticism. London: Allen and Unwin.

Vincent, David. 1989. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750–1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.