The Rise of Literacy in Europe

Adult Literacy

The rise of adult literacy was directly linked to the exponential increase of the production of books from the 18th century. Following the development of printing technologies, books became cheaper, and the role of lending libraries and reading clubs increased. Books ceased to be considered luxury goods. Readers tried to read as many new books as possible, contrary to the earlier tradition of keeping only a few books and reading them over and over during one’s lifetime. Along with the communal reading that was characteristic of religious books, silent reading became increasingly widespread.

Printed books took over the function previously prescribed to handwritten materials or oral communication of providing instructions in everyday life. Among household books, cookbooks such as the Slovenian Kuharske bukve (1799) written by Valentin Vodnik, were probably the most prominent and indispensable. They strengthened the traditions of regional cuisines as well as providing renowned recipes from abroad.

The link between the rise of literacy and economic change is evident in books of agricultural improvement. For instance, Bischu grahmatiņa published by Christian Launitz in 1803, provided the first written manual of beekeeping for Latvian peasants. While many agricultural books were published across Europe in previous centuries, the changes promoted in them began to have an effect only when the peasants were fully literate and could directly use them.

Encyclopaedic knowledge soon became accessible to the common reading public, as exemplified in such books as Histoire d'un pont (1884) by the French architect Félix Narjoux. It belonged to the Bibliothèque des merveilles (Library of Wonders) and is one of the most renowned collections in France for popularising various subjects. Until the end of the 19th century, the books published in the Bibliothèque des merveilles were considered a very good way to gain basic knowledge about science and technology. They were widely circulated in popular libraries and were given out as prizes or as Christmas and New Year gifts.

Besides practical and intellectual functions, reading for pleasure became widespread in the 18th century when novels gained prominence. Many of them were written either in the form of letters or biographies. One such example is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). The story of a shipwreck and life on a desert island, based on the real-life experience of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, became tremendously popular and inspired various imitations. For the common reading public, this 400-page novel was transformed into an easily accessible and shortened version in the form of a 16-page chapbook, The Life of Robinson Crusoe, of York, mariner. This shows that the difference between elite and popular literature often lay in form and presentation rather than content.

Religious books, as well as books in Latin, continued to be published in the 18th century, but they had to compete with new secular genres in the vernacular. By the 19th century, new functions of reading had emerged and become established. Reading for religious salvation and for scholarly purposes was now supplemented by reading for instruction, self-education and for pleasure.