Manchester 1824 The University of Manchester - The John Rylands University Library
First Impressions

Printing and the growth of literacy

Over the centuries literacy has been measured in different ways: at one time you would be regarded as literate if you could sign your name; later it was thought that a person's ability to read and write Latin made them literate and whether they could read or write in their own language was of little importance. Many early printed books were religious works produced in Latin for the clergy but, as the technology of printing spread, demand for different texts increased. Books in local languages rolled of the presses in response to this demand. People who had been excluded from access to books in Latin were now able to read information in their own language. As the technology of printing developed, smaller and cheaper books became available, illustrated with woodblock images which made them visually appealing and accessible to a new audience. In Venice Aldus Manutius exploited the market with Greek and Latin classics printed in a new pocket-sized format. The spread of literacy beyond the clergy, scholars and professionals affected the status of women, the emerging middle class, and the education of children. Printed books allowed the identical reproduction of texts on a wide variety of subjects, which went into relatively unrestricted circulation.

As the technology of printing moved through Europe it spread ideas and knowledge across borders and initiated an 'information revolution' that played a big part in the growth of literacy. At the same time, the power of print became a weapon of authority. Religious and secular powers exploited print for propaganda purposes, and they tried to control what was printed and read by the masses.