The Rise of Literacy in Europe

Religious Texts

The usual texts used to teach children reading and writing were of a religious nature. At the same time as they became literate, the children would become familiar with the religious texts themselves. At the outset of the printing revolution, reading was understood primarily as a religious pastime, and for many generations of lower class readers, it remained such until the 18th century. Hymnals, prayer books, and collections of sermons along with the Old and New Testaments were used not only during the service, but also at home, where they were read both communally and solitarily.

Catechisms provided religious teachings for children and were particularly popular because of their dialogical nature. The mother’s catechism (1759) was intended to serve as preparation for an easier understanding of the Church of Scotland’s catechism. Mothers were to teach it to their children. The catechism included questions and answers that were short and simple. The book also contained prayers for children as well as the Ten Commandments in a child-friendly version: they each consist of one line and are in rhyming couplets. Catechisms might have been used not only by children, but also by adults with low levels of literacy.

Hymnals were basic books of a devoted Christian’s life. The German Lutheran hymnal Geistreiches Gesang-Buch (1721) shows how small they were so that it would be easy to hold them in one hand. They contained several hundred hymns, arranged thematically, and were sometimes accompanied by sheet music. Hymns were sung both during the service and in solitude: newly written hymns as well as edited old ones were included in such hymnals. On some occasions, hymnals were addressed to specific segments of the reading public or devoted to certain topics.

Although vernacular Bible translations, which contributed much to the rise of literacy in Europe, were first promoted by Protestants, the newly available text in one’s own language was used by all Christian denominations. The first translation of the Old Testament to Spanish was Biblia en lengua Española, published in 1533. It became the biblical canon for Sephardic Jews throughout Europe, being reprinted five times in Amsterdam in the 17th and 18th centuries. This work has pan-European significance: a Jewish bible, translated from Hebrew into Spanish, sponsored by a Portuguese and a Spaniard, first published in Italy and reprinted in Holland.

While the reading of vernacular Bible translations initially was not intended for everyone, translations of the Old and New Testaments heavily influenced the development of minority languages. The first Welsh translation of the New Testament, titled Testament Newydd William Salesbury was produced by William Salesbury and published in 1657. Salesbury used scholarly vocabulary rather than everyday language in his translation, and altered the spelling of Welsh words in order to make them appear more similar to Latin. His translation is an important milestone in the history of Welsh publishing.

Readers who made their first acquaintance with written texts through religious reading matter soon went on to seek further new literary genres, and secular books emerged supplementing, but by no means ousting religious books. The experience of reading became increasingly multifaceted.