Cultural literacies

Since even rudimentary education for children under ten did not become compulsory until the Elementary Education Act 1880, the opportunities for studying ancient languages were inevitably limited to households above a certain level of income. Even personal study of antiquity in modern translations would have been beyond the reach of the sizeable proportion of the British population who, at least until the late 19th century, had difficulty reading a text of more than a few pages in extent.1

Statistics are hard to infer from the available evidence, but it is generally accepted that basic literacy grew significantly over the 18th and 19th centuries.2 About 45% of men and just under a third of women in England and Wales could sign their name by 1714. By 1885, 89% of men and 87% of women could do so? But literacy did not always increase steadily. The unnamed author of an 1838 article in The Penny Magazine, from Crowle in Lincolnshire? acquired the help of the local vicar in examining signatures in the marriage registers from 1754 onwards.’ The percentage of signers who could write climbed until 1818, when it suddenly collapsed back to the same level as the 1760s. The author cites the paucity of schools (the parish’s only endowed school for the poor had been closed in 1818), the impact of the most recent enclosures, and the number of men leaving agriculture for manufacturing jobs. This increased the demand for child labour in the fields.6

The Crowle resident was probably correct about the local drop in literacy. He was the first of many to use the ability to sign one’s name on an official document as an indicator. Yet the method is problematic: it neither implies nor precludes fluency in reading. Other problems associated with assessing historical literacy levels include the disparities between rural areas and towns, where literacy was higher, and between different regions of the country. The Lowland Scots were more likely to be literate than Highlanders; some southern counties, despite their proximity to London, had high levels of illiteracy because agricultural labourers and employees in cottage industries worked long hours for low pay.7

Attempting to assess the extent of the readership of published books and periodicals is also methodologically problematic. Reading rooms and workers’ libraries allowed many people to read the same publication: in 1829 it was estimated that one journal might be read by as many as 25 people.8 The unstamped radical press, directed during the later 18th century towards artisans, soldiers, sailors and servants, was by its nature illegal and has often not survived.9 There is a danger of under-estimating the extent to which readerships extended lower than the middle classes: as early as 1730 Montesquieu was struck to see that, in England, even a slater would have newspapers brought to him to read on the roofs of houses.10 And that slater may well have read passages aloud to his less literate co-workers; Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was consumed by literate and non-literate people alike, in written and oral form; it was read by public men, but its contents were repeated everywhere—clubs, schools and even from pulpits.11

A man named Tam Fleck kept the townsfolk of early 19th-century Peebles entranced with tales of the fall of Jerusalem. He owned a copy of Roger 1’Estrange’s 18th-century compressed translation of Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews,'2 and would tour the households of Peebles reading that narrative ‘as the current news’. Wherever possible, he ended on a cliff-hanger, taking care to break off in the same place at every house, so that all his listeners would be left in the same suspense. This had the effect of turning Josephus into a sort of soap opera.15 He would take about a year to get through the whole Jewish War, at which point he would simply start again. Despite this, according to a listener, ‘the novelty somehow never seemed to wear off’:

“Weel, Tam, what’s the news the nicht?” would old Geordie Murray say, as Tam entered with his “Josephus” under his arm, and seated himself at the family fireside.

“Bad news, bad news”, replied Tam. “Titus has begun to besiege Jerusalem & it’s gaun to be a terrible business” and then he opened his budget of intelligence, to which all paid the most reverential attention.14

This account suggests emotional investment in the narrative on the part of Tam’s audience, literate or not. The famine that fell upon the besieged citizens of Jerusalem (described in several horrific passages in Josephus, principally Jewish War VI.199-.216) ‘kept several families in a state of agony for a week’, while the final fall of the city (VI.230-.442) elicited ‘a perfect paroxysm of horror’.15

The way we think about literacy was changed by Richard Hoggart’s The Use of Literacy (1957), which includes, under the heading of working-class literacy, activities quite other than the reading of continuous printed texts—the consumption of entertainments and culture via theatre, cinema, radio, television or pictures in magazines and advertisements. Peter Burke has explored a range of ways in which we can use visual culture as a historical source.16 These scholars would have approved of Sian Lewis’ reminder that the slaves of ancient Greece poured their masters’ wine from vases decorated with mythical, ritual and domestic scenes; since vase-paintings were ‘an open form of communication, available to every gaze’, their meanings were construed in the minds of slaves as well as those of free people.17 Similarly, the meanings of many hundreds of such vases on display in British collections have always been construed in the minds of viewers, whether literate or not.

In London in the second half of the 18th century, the windows and doors of second-hand booksellers were often festooned from pavement to roof with prints, ranging from tasteful reproductions of fine art and portraits of celebrities to political cartoons, caricatures and pornography. By the 1780s, prints sold individually outnumbered those published in journals, and shops specialising in a particular category, such as political caricature, began to open.18 The labyrinthine streets to the south of the Strand in London were packed with such shops,19 and since the area was poor and otherwise deprived, the print displays provided a free form of entertainment to the passer-by with a few minutes to spare. Since colleting prints began as an aristocratic pastime, there is some dispute as to how many working-class people these images reached, but contemporary memoirs and pictures imply crowds of every rank, including illiterates, vagrants and children thronging at the shop windows.2" Plebeian self-improvement and radicalism were constant sources of subject-matter for humorous prints.21 This was not just a metropolitan affair, either, since prints were produced and sold in Bath, Bristol, Dublin and Edinburgh.22 Some contained phrases in Latin,23 or jocular imitations of ancient Greek; a large category used ancient mythology, often in complex series; Charles James Fox’ initiatives were routinely presented as different labours of Hercules.24

One print which makes fun of attempts to bring classical education to the lower classes is William Heath’s ‘A Classical Teacher: the Schoolmaster is abroad’, published by Thomas McClean in London (1830). (Figure 6.1) It shows Henry Brougham, the Whig politician committed to extending education, who had masterminded the foundation of the Society of the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.25 The traditional Classics master is unimpressed by this socially aspirational candidate for a post, whose clothes do not fit and who confuses the names of Homer and Virgil with names of places outside London.

But Brougham was not easily discouraged, and the publications initiated by the Society offered visual alongside textual education. Charles Knight’s cheap weekly The Penny Magazine (1832-1845), which was for several years a great success,26 contained attractive wood-engravings reproduced by steam printing press. This made it extremely popular, especially amongst working-class families with children. It sold more than 200,000 copies in 1832.27 On numerous occasions, the cover image depicted a famous work of ancient art such as the Portland Vase,28 often with a suitable classical text printed after it in translation (Figure 6.2);29 it was

‘A classical teacher—the schoolmaster is abroad—vide Henry Brougham’ (1830), reproduced by courtesy of the British Museum ©The Trustees of the British Museum

FIGURE 6.1 ‘A classical teacher—the schoolmaster is abroad—vide Henry Brougham’ (1830), reproduced by courtesy of the British Museum ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

inevitable that when the autodidactic efforts it encouraged were caricatured, the engraving features a Greek statue and an artisan looking at an advertisement for a reading room in which he can peruse ‘All the Classics’, as well as radical English authors (Figure 6.3).3(1 Brougham may have been derided by the middle and upper classes, but he was held in high esteem by workers and radicals, including the Chartist autodidact Samuel Bamford.31 In this he contrasted with other educationalists who produced digests of ancient authors for the workers, such as Seymour Tremenheere’s potted extracts from Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero included in The Political Experience of the Ancients: in its Bearing upon Modem Times (1852); this omitted Plato on the ground that ideas in the Republic might foment socialist agitation.32

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