Picking up on two of the themes scattered throughout this blog, i.e. literacy and education, for example as discussed in The Re-uses of Literacy, Lesley B. Cormack writes that prior to the early modern period in Europe education had been an ecclesiastical concern:
"Most schools were sponsored by the church, and many schoolmasters were clerics." (Cormack, 2007: 623)Secular interest in education began to develop from the mid-15th century onwards. This occurred first in Italy and then the rest of Europe. A career in the church was no longer the sole aim of education. There were new incentives for achieving a certain level of education, provided by government offices and secretarial positions as well as by gentry culture and the possibilities of patronage.
Contemporaneously, although it is disputed by historians, it can be argued that the Protestant Reformation provided a new impetus for education and literacy. This was, in part, because Protestants emphasised the value of personal and vernacular Bible reading; and, in part, because the Catholic Church responded through educational strategies.
Education, Cormack concludes, became an aspiration for a wider sector of the population.
In England, for example, during the 16th century, entry to government and public careers was increasingly provided by formal education rather than household apprenticeship. Literacy and knowledge of a number of disciplines were perceived as important attributes of the ambitious man. Gentle and mercantile families sent their sons to school and then to Oxford or Cambridge, so that they would meet the right people, on the one hand, and gain access to the understanding of the world that would enable them to govern, on the other hand.
Universities in the Middle Ages had developed as a training ground for clerics. In the 15th century, professional training for lawyers and medical doctors was added. In the 16th century, students began to attend universities even though they had no intention of taking up a profession in the church, law or medicine.
At this time, in early modern Europe, it is estimated that no more than 10% to 15% of the population was literate, although several European towns had male literacy rates of over 90% (Cormack, 2007: 625; citing Houston, 1988: 130-154).
Cormack, L.B. (2007). Maps as educational tools in the Renaissance. In: Woodward, D., (ed.) History of cartography. Volume three (part 1): Cartography in the European Renaissance. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 622–636.
Houston, R. A. (1988). Literacy in early modern Europe: culture and education, 1500-1800. London: Longman.