Social status and literacy in north-east England, 1560-1630

Social status and literacy in north-east England, 1560-1630

Cressy, David (Pitzer College, Claremont, California)

Local Population Studies, Vol. 21 (1978)


The most convincing evidence for the extent of illiteracy in Tudor and Stuart England comes from the deposition books of  the ecclesiastical courts. The Church courts had wide jurisdiction, embracing moral and probate matters as well as affairs more directly connected with religion. One who defamed a neighbour or otherwise offended the community might answer before the bishop or his commissary, while contested wills, disputed tithes, arguments about churchyard maintenance or church attendance were commonly resolved in the episcopal or archidiaconal courts.

In addition to the principals in the case there came a steady stream of witnesses, drawn from all ranks in society, to testify what they saw, what they heard, or what they knew. It is the appearance of witnesses which provides our greatest clue about pre-industrial literacy. The court usually recorded the name, occupation or status, place of residence and age of each witness or deponent, and required him to sign his testimony or make a mark if he could not sign his name. However unsatisfactory an indicator of literacy or illiteracy this may be the distinction between making and signing does at least provide a measure which is, in Roger Schofield’s words, ‘universal, standard, and direct’.

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