In the winter of 1688-9, David Webber, a thatcher from Stogursey in Somerset noticed that hay was being stolen from his rick. According to a historian, what happened next is the perfect illustration of his finding that our “peasant” ancestors were far more literate and resourceful than we tend to assume.
Webber didn’t sit idle but “did make twelve small tickitts of paper and upon each ticket he did writ the letters DW”. His wife, Sarah, concealed the tickets — the breadth of his thumbnail — in the rick. And, after more hay went missing that night, Webber found his neighbours’ horses eating what he could show to be his own hay as “he found on the ground where the hay lay three tickets”.
It is significant that Webber used initials here. At the time of the thefts, many country dwellers used initials or a “mark” to sign documents and this has been interpreted as reflecting a largely illiterate rural society. After studying how hundreds of individuals used basic writing and reading skills in daily life, Dr Mark Hailwood, a social historian at the University of Bristol, argues that there was in fact an extremely high level of what he calls “pragmatic literacy”.
“The records clearly show that our pre-industrial ancestors had more skills and resourcefulness than we usually give them credit for,” he said.
His analysis is based on a sample of 600 people from rural parts of five southwestern counties of England who signed statements for the church or civil courts from 1564-1700. Most were in farming as yeomen, husbandmen, labourers and so on, or in rural trades. Around three quarters were men and one quarter women. They signed with signatures, initials or marks of varying complexity.
In all, just under a quarter (24 per cent) signed with a signature and 22 per cent with single or double initials. Oddly, initials did not always correspond to the person’s first or second name. A further five per cent signed with an “icon”, meaning a small drawing of an object or abstract symbol. Tailors favoured icons of pairs of scissors, for example. Some 20 per cent signed with a cross (13 per cent) or circle (7 per cent).
The remaining 29 per cent signed with what Hailwood defines as a single-stroke mark (19 per cent), a multi-stroke mark (9 per cent), or an indistinct mark (2 per cent). Single- or multi-stroke marks varied in form and included zigzags and parallel curved lines. Hailwood said they demonstrated some level of ability to control a pen. The indistinct marks, in contrast, appeared to be random and uncontrolled.
He said that if — as he suggests — even these single-stroke marks showed some level of ability, then 98 per cent of the sample possessed “pen competency”. If only those able to produce recognisable shapes or letters were counted, seven in ten still qualified. In his study in the journal Past & Present, he wrote: “Interrogating marks in this way, rather than collectively dismissing them as evidence of illiteracy, suggests that some competency at wielding a pen was remarkably widespread even in rural England in this period.”
It might seem a stretch to suggest that someone who could draw a cross or write their initials was literate in any meaningful sense. But Hailwood said there was abundant evidence that even such basic pen skills made a difference to people’s lives.
In 1680, Frances Coward, a widow from West Pennard, Somerset, was asked to verify a will in a testamentary case. She told the church court that she had been present at the making of the will and had joined other witnesses in setting their names to it. Although, as she “cannot writ nor read … she herself did put her marke therto as a witness being FC which she doth usually make for Frances Coward”. She was able to identify the will “because the letters F C subscribed thereto as a witness … is this deponents owne handwriting as she verily believeth but she cannot writ or read but sayth that she doth usually make that mark and she verily believeth it to be the same”.
“The extra labour and cost to develop full reading and writing skills was huge”Dr Mark Hailwood
Hailwood said that people like Coward who could not read the papers involved in this sort of case could still be valuable witnesses when they could confidently recognise their own sign-off. He added that the evidence suggested that many initiallers could do this and it was likely that some could recognise other letters or make out words. Such skills made people not only more useful to the courts and community, but also less liable to being duped in monetary disputes.
Besides their use in signing documents, initials and marks were commonly employed as symbols of ownership and an an anti-theft measure to assist in the recovery of stolen goods. Objects marked in this way ranged from pewter dishes and bedsheets to farm animals. Some of the records highlighted by Hailwood show artisans and servants recognising their own or their master’s stolen property thanks to initials. That includes the case of Webber, the Somerset thatcher, whose skills gave him the necessary evidence to prosecute the theft through the courts.
As for how these skills were learned, Hailwood said many rural children had some elementary education at a “petty school” or from relatives using a hornbook. The latter consisted of the full alphabet printed on a single page that was attached to a piece of wood and covered by a translucent layer of horn for protection. Even people who signed with crosses or other marks would often have had some hornbook learning and some ability to recognise letters, at the least.
Hailwood said: “An assumption we make is that our ‘peasant’ ancestors would have been illiterate — they wouldn’t have needed reading or writing skills to work or run a small farm. This material shows that there were really important uses for penmanship. Being able to write and read in very basic ways had important practical applications.”
He added: “There was a hierarchy of skills. Being able to draw a cross or a circle that you could use to sign a document was the first level of penmanship you developed. The people who went on to use a letter or an icon were another step up that ladder. But then the leap up from that, to being able to write your name in full, was huge. And that’s where a lot of people would have stopped, because the extra labour and cost to develop full reading and writing skills was huge and those skills weren’t necessarily that useful.”
Hailwood found that there was a gradual shift towards the higher levels of this skills hierarchy across the period studied. And he believes that widespread pragmatic literacy helped pave the way for the growth of related skills later on. “It was an easier leap from having those basic skills to slightly more developed ones because there was this widespread understanding that having some reading and writing ability was practically useful,” he said. “I suspect it laid the groundwork for a desire to acquire other practical literacies — more so than necessarily an appetite for full reading and writing skills that would allow people to consume literature and write at length.
“Letter-writing is a good example. It’s not about learning to read and write for leisure purposes. It’s so that you can communicate with family when you’re away from home. You see some lovely phonetically spelled letters from the 18th century from people quite low on the social scale.”