AAM columns

Medieval Literacy

September 19, 2015

Could you tell me what the literacy rate was in Medieval England - and, is possible, a breakdown of literacy in Latin, English and French?


Giving a rate of literacy in the Middle Ages is pretty difficult; after all, there was no census data that would give us good numbers, and even when people are referred to in documents as illiterate, it can simply mean that they cannot read and write in Latin. For instance, when in 1410 Nicholas Love wrote the English Mirrour of the Blessed Lyf of Jesu Christ for “lewd [unlearned] men and women of simple understanding,” he was writing for both clerical and lay audiences that we would consider literate (and far from “unlearned”), but not fluent in Latin.

Also, literacy rates probably changed significantly over the Middle Ages; English literacy in Anglo-Saxon England around the year 1000, for instance, probably would have been much different than in the Norman England of 1100, when Anglo-French had replaced Anglo-Saxon in the legal system, and from which few literary texts in English survive. In the first half of the 11th century, you probably had a greater number of Englishmen and women who were literate in Old Norse than in French, as Danish kings occupied the throne and Danes had settled in a large swath of eastern England. I am going to guess, because you are speaking about English, French, and Latin, that you want information for the later Middle Ages, perhaps 1200-1500.  

The estimated ranges are rather huge; for instance, Sylvia Thrupp’s study of The Merchant Class in Medieval London suggests that 40% of that class could read Latin, and 50% could read English. David Cressy, in Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England, suggests that in the 16th century, 90% of men and 99% of women were illiterate in English. The first surviving assessment of English literacy in history, made by Thomas More in 1533, put the English language literacy rate at about 40%. One could find almost any figure, and doubt any other. The real question becomes, what exactly did it mean to be literate?

Part of this issue is an issue of estate, the systems of rights and privileges that ordered society in the Middle Ages. The vast majority of the English people throughout the later Middle Ages were peasants, whose access to formal education was often limited by law, and whose lives were primarily occupied with agricultural labor. While medieval texts often divided society into those who fight, those who pray, and those who work (as if they were equal thirds), the best estimates suggest that nobles, gentry, civic elites, and the clergy made up, together, about 5% of the total population. So the picture below needs about a hundred more peasants to make it statistically accurate. 

Meydenbach art

Another part of this issue is education. No one was taught “English grammar” in the Middle Ages, because no one really thought such a thing exists (a situation that many of my fellow professors in the English department will tell you still persists). Latin had a grammar, a system for understanding its form and structure, but English didn’t. In De vulgari eloquentia (On Vernacular Eloquence) Dante defines the grammatical as “the inalterable identity of locution in diverse times and places”, while Chaucer, when he discusses the vernacular in Troilus and Criseyde, remarks that “in forme of speche is chaunge.” Latin had structures that remained the same, and (the theory went) could be taught, while vernacular “speche” was essentially too variable to be taught. Therefore, children in school learned the letter and sounds of Latin, and how to sound them out (often so that their voices could sing the high parts in the liturgy); they then moved on to “grammar” in the grammar schools. One wrote English by taking the letters one knew from Latin and phonetically spelling out speech. In terms of the vernacular, medieval England was hooked on phonics.

 Phonics "phone number"

Thus we can assume, and I think pretty safely, that what we would consider Latin literacy (that is, easy and fluent reading and writing of a language) was probably limited to a small group, probably less than 2% of the population. After all, one could gain for himself a trial in an ecclesiastical court (which did not impose the death penalty) if you could demonstrate even limited reading knowledge of Latin. Some wealthy laypeople would have become fluent in Latin (like my beloved John Gower, who wrote a long poem in Latin), but it would probably be pretty rare, at least statistically.

French is another story (histoire?): French was a (if not the) first language of English kings until Henry IV, and was the language of the law courts and of Parliament for quite some time; if you had a property dispute for much of the later Middle Ages in England, you better be ready to work it out in French, at least until the Statute of Pleading in English, in 1362. This was the way that the Normans radically changed English: while the Danes had their own law in Anglo-Saxon England (in the Dane-law – a bit on-the-nose, don’t you think, Danes?), they didn’t impose their language upon English law in general; now, we have relatively few words deriving from Old Norse, despite hundreds of years of settlement and decades of actually ruling it, and a significant number of them came to England through the Normans (who had been Old Norse speakers when they had conquered Normandy less then two centuries previous). The Normans solidified their hold on power by making contests over power in their language. It worked.

Because those most likely to engage in property disputes were those who owned a fair bit of property, French was also a sign of nobility. Thus, Chaucer’s Prioresse, who affects nobility in dress, manners, and choice of dogs, also has learned French; however, she doesn’t speak the French of Paris, but the French of Stratford-on-Bowe – so, Essex English.


But if you look at Anglo-French (or the French dialects in France) it is also written phonetically. Therefore, if you knew your Latin letters, you could probably read and write to some extent in whatever language you could speak. However, statistically, the number of English men and women who could read and write French with some degree of fluency was probably still low; even all those who might be involved in the King’s courts might be about 5% of the total population, and there would be significant overlap with Latin literacy.  

However, there is a big difference between fluency and literacy. Does being able to work through a charter in French, or through the liturgy in Latin, mean one is literate? What about being able to sound out Latin, but not read it, which would be true for many who read along with the Latin liturgy of the Church? If we think of literacy as just some facility with written language, I think we can assume that the nobles, the gentry, the civic elite, and the clergy (who, for the great part, came from their ranks) all could read and write some French, and a decent percentage might be able to manage some Latin, and certainly read and write English. So the next question is: what about the peasants (i.e., 95% of the population)?

Here things get hard to sort. We might imagine that the medieval peasants were just a bunch of mud-covered illiterates toiling in a rustic dystopia for their French-speaking, curly-toed-shoes-wearing, claret-swigging, gout-complaining-about overlords.

Peasants gif

This would not be completely wrong: the systems of government in the Middle Ages gave peasants very little protection from their lords; this was true especially for serfs, who were unfree, and could not appeal to the king; all their disputes had to be settled in the manorial court of their lord.

However, records indicate that peasants were neither monolithic nor ignorant. The 1381 Peasant Rising shows that the peasants considered themselves fully capable of self-government, probably because, to a large extent, they already were self-governing. While chroniclers and poets complained of peasants being like brute beasts, there is significant evidence that peasants not only were communicating with each other in written English letters, but were capable of identifying and destroying charters and titles (in Latin and French) that they saw as impinging upon their customary rights. Finally, among all levels of peasants, even serfs, customs of land ownership (or in the case of serfs, who technically could not own land, but effectively did) were more often written down in the later Middle Ages. It may be that primarily peasant men were literate, or only the leading members of each household, and I would certainly assume that literacy varied considerably from peasant to peasant. However, by the late Middle Ages, negotiating the written word was a necessity for many people on all levels of society.