whistles and generally causing disruption. For the gentry such past-times were vulgar and distasteful. In the words of one contemporary those who were illiterate were considered "scarce to be reckoned among rational creatures" (Richard Steele). The differing cultural pursuits of the upper and lower classes widened the social gap.
The class gap was not the only social division to bring about cultural differences however. The gender gap was in many ways just as important. Women had a totally different cultural life to that of their men- folk, and it was often a much diminished one (court figures such as Mary Sidney being an obvious exception). Culture was, for the most part, a very negative experience for women. Aside from the terrors of such things as "wife sales" and "scolds", they were excluded from virtually every major contact point with Elizabethan culture. You would never see a woman at a tavern or alehouse, and the activities of Morris-dancing, cock fighting, pugilism and wrestling were male preserves. We must not fall into the trap, however, of thinking that women were culturally inferior because of their illiteracy. Female illiteracy occurred because women were thought socially inferior and were never given the opportunity to gain literacy skills. Clearly, they were illiterate because they were classed as socially inferior, not vice-versa.
Cultural differences also grew from geographical factors. The Elizabethan English had short-range geographical mobility, usually within a ten-mile radius. This led to cultural distinctions on a regional level. We can see this most clearly in the nature of local fairs. There was in Yarmouth a Michaelmas fishing-fair while Farnham had a corn-market. Dorking, meanwhile, had a poultry market and lamb fair. These all must have had quite different ambiences and are explicable only in terms of local custom and industry. The vast range of local accents highlighted this: at this time the speech of one locality was almost unintelligible to the inhabitants of another. Printing and literacy would eventually see an end to this.
Cultural differences thus sprang from a number of different sources. It is possible the literacy factor was not that important in determining cultural taste. For those who could not read manuscripts were often read for them. Soldiers, for example, would read pamphlets and news books to their troops, while Town Criers would impart anything of importance to their fellow citizens.
Literacy, therefore, did play a part in determining cultural difference but was more a part of that difference than anything else. We must also bear in mind that during this period literacy was taken to mean Latin literacy showing once again that the realm of books was limited to the elite of England.
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