A.L. Rowse wrote, “There was a higher level of literacy among women [in the Elizabethan period] than at any other time until the later nineteenth century” (Rowse, 1951.) Literacy rates of the past are hard to measure. Scholars study records like wills and court depositions to count signatures and other bits of writing by individuals. They compare that number with an estimate of the total population and arrive at a percentage of persons who could write.
Reading and writing go hand in hand for us. They didn’t in the sixteenth century — you might learn to read, but never learn to write — so we must bear in mind that estimates based on writing are certain to underestimate reading levels. Even so, the middling sort of women were not likely to be literate in this century and poor women were certain not to be. Cressy estimates that 5% of women and 15% of men were literate in 1550, increasing to 30% and 40% respectively by 1700 (Cressy, 1980.) This estimate is based on signatures, so we could double it for reading, maybe.
Still, a lot of books were printed; somebody was reading them (Bennet, 1965.) Many books were aimed at women, such as books about household management. Robert Greene was lampooned for catering to female tastes, with works like his 1587 Penelopes Web: Wherein a Christall Myrror of faeminine perfection represents to the viewe of every one those vertues and graces, which more curiously beautifies the mynd of women, then eyther sumptuous Apparell, or Jewels of inestimable value. Catchy title! No wonder it was a success.
Where could a girl learn to read?
Some petty schools admitted girls. These were the local grammar schools where boys of the middling sort studied every day between the ages of 7 and 14. Sons of squires might sit with sons of yeomen and tradesmen, like Shakespeare, to learn their ABCs, how to do sums, and a little Latin. But most girls would be educated at home, whatever their status. (The photo shows Shakespeare’s petty school in Stratford-upon-Avon.)
If your father was a man like Sir Anthony Cooke, one of the leading proponents of humanist values, you’d get a first-rate education. His five daughters were renowned for their learning, fluent in Latin and Greek, and competent in Italian, German, and even Hebrew. Their tutors were Cambridge professors. Middle daughter Anne became the wife of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the queen’s Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and the mother of Francis Bacon. Could he have become the Father of Science without so well-educated a mother?
Ordinary girls — daughters of yeomen, tradesmen, merchants, and the lesser gentry — would have been taught in the parlor or hall by a tutor or perhaps by the fire in the evening by their father or an older sibling. The ABC with the Catechism was a major bestseller in the late sixteenth century.
Women were barred from institutions of higher learning: the universities and the Inns of Court. Noble and gentlewomen of intellectual inclinations would keep on reading and writing, corresponding with others of their ilk, hiring tutors, supporting poets and dramatists in their homes.
At the beginning of the Tudor period, women like Lady Margaret Beaufort, founder of both Christ’s College and St. John’s College at Cambridge University, helped transform the intellectual landscape. Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, born in 1561, was a poet of high repute and patron of literary luminaries such as Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson. At the end of the century, we find Lady Anne Clifford, another patron of the arts. We’re only beginning to recognize how many women played a vital role in the intellectual and artistic life of the period.
A gentlewoman or the wife a well-to-do merchant or tradesman would have a large household to manage, which included supervising the education of servants and apprentices. It’s hard to imagine these women not being literate, but most of them must not have been. They might have a literate assistant in the household, like a priest or a tutor, and they could hire a clerk or a lawyer whenever they needed documents.
Working women did not enter into formal apprenticeship contracts in this period, although they might be sent to learn a craft like embroidering or making caps. Many girls of the lower classes went into domestic service in their middle to late teens, for a period of perhaps 10 years. Female domestic servants normally received room & board, some clothing, cash wages, and training in the sorts of skills they would need when they set up their own households. A few might learn to read at the whim of a strict religious mistress, but most would not have any need for literacy in their lives.
The age of information
We must never imagine that non-literacy implies ignorance. Even non-literate people heard a great deal of literature and news being read aloud. Taverns kept the latest broadsides and pamphlets, sometimes posted on the wall, where literate people could read to the rest. People loved to listen to verbal performances in those days. Books were booming in this period; all manner of books, from romances to religious tracts, almanacs, and what we call how-to’s and self-help books. Women had access to this information, whether they read it themselves or not. A curious woman could keep learning all her life.
Bennett, Henry S. 1965. English Books & Readers, 1558 to 1603. Cambridge University Press.
Cressy, David. 1980. Literacy and the social order : reading and writing in Tudor and Stuart England. Cambridge University Press.
Rowse, A.L. 1951. The England of Elizabeth: The Structure of Society. London: MacMillan & Co., Ltd.