How often do we think about levels of literacy in the past? And what indeed is ‘literate’? Before compulsory schooling, which incidentally arrived on the Isles of Scilly some 50 year before the rest of England (don’t say you don’t learn anything useful reading my ramblings), there was far greater emphasis on the ability to read. Writing was dangerous. Give the hoi polloi the ability to write and they may write something subversive. You are giving them the power to spread sedition. Reading on the other hand enables them to read the Bible and thus improve themselves. There have been many academic studies on literacy levels at different points in time. Often these are based on the ability to sign one’s name in a marriage register. There is of course a very large gap between making an approximation of one’s name and fully functioning literacy but it is difficult to find a better measure. There are instances of those who are perfectly capable of writing signing with an X instead – who knows why? We could use other lists of signatures, such as tax lists as an indicator of literacy levels. Some records specifically mention whether or not an individual can read or write. For example, I have seen this on some lists of prisoners and emigrants.
Just because the measures of literacy are crude, it does not mean that it is not worthy of examination. For local historians it can be fascinating to study how literacy levels appear to change over the decades. If you are interested in a rural area, how does this compare to a town, or to another village in a different part of the country? Family historians too may like to consider how recently different branches of the family were able to read and write. What about book ownership in your family? Do you come from a long line of bibliophiles? Do you still have any books owned by your ancestors? These are often useful if they are inscribed as prizes or gifts. Books gained in this way may not however be representative of their literary taste! Have you made a list of books you enjoy? Have your favourites changed over the years? This is part of the life story that you starting writing yesterday having read my ‘W is for Writing it up’ blog (you did start didn’t you?).
A final thought on ‘X’ as a signature substitute – have you considered why people’s marks may be other than an ‘X’? I have an ancestor called William whose ‘mark’ was an ‘M’. This makes perfect sense when you think of situations in which this individual may have seen his name written down. He would be the opposite side of a desk from an ‘official’ writing ‘William’, The first character William therefore saw, from his side of the desk, looked like an ‘M’.