Literacy and Cultural Difference

The movement from an oral society to a literate one has always been represented as an important stage in historical development. It is not too hard to imagine that a man who can read and write will think and act differently to one whose world is based around sounds and images. This by implication means that there should be noticeable differences between the cultures of the literate and the illiterate Elizabethans.

The criteria for whom can be considered literate was laid down by D. Cressy. According to his theory, those who can sign their names can be considered literate. Roughly speaking this meant that during the Tudor period about 30% of men were literate and 10% of women. This leaves us with an obvious illiterate majority. This begs the question: was the culture this majority enjoyed noticeably different to that of the minority? Was there an elite, literate culture distinct from popular culture? For the majority of England, culture was an oral matter. Stories and poems were told or sung, news and proclamations shouted by the Town Crier. This oral culture had certain social ramifications. Firstly the peasants (whom we shall broadly term the illiterate for convenience's sake) had a much wider vocabulary. There were, for example, fifty different names for the Marigold. Secondly the illiterate had a much greater capacity for memory. The father of the poet John Clare, for instance, is said to have known over one hundred ballads be heart. Words were merely sounds free of any written significance. Their world was one of signs, symbols and ceremony. Where in the literate world things could be remembered through commitment to paper, in the illiterate world even the social order needed continual highlighting through ceremony.

What effect did this have on culture? Ostensibly the answer seems clear: the illiterate were cut off from the world of print; the masters of the ancient world such as Virgil, contemporary works from the continent such as that of Michel de Montaigne, and even their own literary heritage of Chaucer, Gower and Langland were out of reach. Their culture was necessarily a folkish, traditional one. Admittedly, the works of playwrights such as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and the like were available in the theatres, but these were for the most part too expensive, and for the majority who lived in the country inaccessible. Instead their cultural pursuits were those of the bull- bait and the charivari (mock-serenades and rough music). The literate, on the other hand, were open to all the culture of the past as expressed in the classics. Hunting, music, art and intellectual pursuit, and the "Great Tradition" was theirs. The highest culture was thought to be that of the ancients, especially the Romans. For Elizabethans the antique was a great age of art and beauty preceding the so-called "Dark Ages" of Medieval England: one where art and learning were paralysed. For the elite the highest cultural pursuit was to emulate the ancient models in art, architecture (although this was an idea in its infancy, especially in England) and literature. The question then arises: are these cultural differences only explicable in terms of literacy, or were there other factors involved?

One major cause of the difference was money and related to it social standing or class. Quite simply the lower stratum of society could not afford the same culture as the rich. Although most theatres cost 1d for entry this was still much more than most could afford, whilst "private" theatres, such as Drury Lane, cost a highly expensive 6d. Theatre was limited to those who could afford it: the gentry. Nor could a peasant afford the price of a book, or even the time to learn to read it. His lot was to spend his days working; he was not in the privileged position needed to be literate.

Even on those occasions where the rich and poor shared a cultural event, such as Christmas, the qualitative difference was so large as to render them effectively different events. The wealthy could buy the best food and drink, the best musicians and the best entertainments. The poorer members of society were limited to mostly communal events of lesser quality.

However, it would be wrong to think the lower classes always missed out. The rich didn't need a trade so they never had the added cultural twist of a saint's day for their trade (St. Crispin's for shoemakers and St.Paul's for tinners for example). Alternatively, on festivals such as May Day, Whitsun and Midsummer's Day peasants would be made "kings" and "queens" from the common folk. They turned the social order on its head to fulfil a function the rich did not need; they had real power and real titles.

Charivaries served a similar function. They were outlets of frustration caused by social inferiority, a time when the downtrodden of England could walk through the streets in procession banging drums, blowing

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