Exploring the Literacy of Common People in Medieval Europe

Literacy rates in Western European countries during the Middle Ages were below twenty percent of the population. For most countries, literacy rates did not experience significant increases until the Enlightenment and industrialization.

How literate were common people in Medieval Europe?

The Middle Ages in Europe are often associated with knights, castles, and tales of chivalry. However, a lesser known aspect of this era is the level of literacy among the common people. In this article, we will embark on a journey to unravel the mysteries surrounding the literacy rates of ordinary individuals during the Middle Ages. Join us as we delve into the historical record, examine the factors that influenced literacy, and shed light on the educational opportunities available to the common people of medieval Europe.

The Role of the Church

In medieval Europe, the church played a central role in education. Monastic and cathedral schools provided educational opportunities, especially for those who aspired to the clergy. We will explore the impact of the Church on literacy rates and the educational opportunities provided within religious institutions. Discover how the pursuit of religious knowledge influenced the literacy of the common people.

The emergence of guilds

Guilds, associations of skilled craftsmen and merchants, played an important role in medieval society. Apprenticeships served as a means of passing knowledge and skills from master to apprentice. We will examine how guilds provided avenues for practical learning and the acquisition of specialized knowledge. Explore the relationship between guilds and literacy, and how these institutions contributed to the education of the common people.

Urban centers and trade

Medieval Europe saw the rise of bustling urban centers and thriving trade routes. These developments created opportunities for the exchange of ideas and information. We will explore the impact of urbanization and trade on the literacy rates of the common people. Discover how the growth of cities and the expansion of trade networks influenced educational opportunities and the spread of literacy.

Vernacular Literature

During the medieval period in Europe, one of the most significant developments in the field of literacy was the emergence of vernacular literature. Vernacular refers to the native language spoken by the common people, as opposed to Latin, which was predominantly used by the educated elite and the Church. This shift to the vernacular opened new avenues for the dissemination of knowledge and the promotion of literacy among the common people. In this section, we will explore the importance of vernacular literature, its origins, and its impact on the literacy landscape of medieval Europe.

The Rise of Vernacular Languages

Latin had long been the language of scholarship, religion, and literature in medieval Europe. But as societies became more diverse and urbanized, regional languages began to flourish. Romance languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese evolved from Latin, while Germanic languages such as English, German, and Dutch gained prominence. The rise of these vernacular languages created opportunities for common people to engage with literature and knowledge in their own languages.

Fostering the Oral Tradition

In societies where literacy rates were relatively low, oral tradition played a crucial role in preserving and transmitting cultural knowledge. Stories, legends, and historical accounts were passed down through generations through the spoken word. Bards, troubadours, and minstrels played an important role in spreading these stories and entertaining audiences with their performances. The oral tradition allowed for the preservation of cultural heritage and the sharing of knowledge among the common people.

The role of vernacular literature

With the rise of vernacular languages, a new form of literature emerged that catered to the common people. Poems, songs, ballads, and epic tales began to be composed and written in the vernacular languages of different regions. These works often reflected the values, beliefs, and experiences of the common people and provided a sense of cultural identity and belonging. Vernacular literature became a means of both entertainment and education, fostering a love of reading and storytelling among the masses.

Promoting literacy

Vernacular literature played a crucial role in promoting literacy among the common people. As written works became available in languages more accessible to the majority, individuals had the opportunity to engage with literature in their own language. This accessibility encouraged the development of reading skills and facilitated the spread of literacy. In addition, the availability of written texts in vernacular languages prompted individuals to seek formal education to further their understanding and appreciation of these works.

Examples of Vernacular Literature

Some notable examples of vernacular literature from the medieval period include Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” written in Italian, Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” written in Middle English, and the “Chanson de Roland” written in Old French. These works not only showcased the literary talents of their authors, but also served as cultural touchstones that resonated with the common people.

Factors Affecting Literacy Rates

While opportunities for education existed, literacy rates varied across regions and social classes in medieval Europe. We will examine the factors that influenced literacy, such as economic conditions, social status, and gender. Discuss the limitations and challenges common people faced in their pursuit of education, and how these factors shaped the overall literacy landscape.


While it is difficult to determine the exact literacy rates of common people in medieval Europe, historical evidence suggests that educational opportunities existed beyond the confines of the nobility and clergy. The church, guilds, urban centers, and the emergence of vernacular literature all contributed to the promotion of literacy among ordinary individuals. By unraveling the mysteries of medieval literacy, we gain a deeper understanding of the intellectual vitality and cultural richness of this fascinating period of history.


Could people read in medieval Europe?

Literacy rates in the Middle Ages were low, but those who were unable to read could experience literature through ways other than private, silent reading.

How educated were medieval peasants?

While monastic schools certainly provided opportunities for a few, most peasant children received no formal education there. Those who stayed at their parents’ home were expected to work on the farm, gradually learning the skills they would need as adults in just such a setting.

When was literacy common in Europe?

Particularly fast improvements in literacy took place across Northwest Europe in the period 1600-1800. As we discuss below, widespread literacy is considered a legacy of the Age of Enlightenment.

What was the literacy rate in 1600?

Literacy then grew slowly but steadily. In the late 1400s 10% of men were literate, climbing to 20% in the 1500s, 30% by 1650, 45% by 1714, and 60% by 1754. For women the picture was similar but on a smaller scale: 10% by 1600, 25% by 1714, and 40% in 1754.

When did commoners become literate?

Certainly by 1500, and probably as early as 1200, writing had become familiar to the whole medieval population: as noted above, ‘everyone knew someone who could read.”. . . Book-learning had been integrated into the life of the male clerical elite of monks and priests by the beginning of our period in 1100.

Could most common people read or write in the Middle Ages?

The bulk of those who could read or write during the Middle Ages were royalty, nobility and members of the Catholic clergy. Anyone who did not have the financial backing of either the Catholic Church or a wealthy family had neither the money nor the time to learn to read.

How many people could read in the 1500s?

Nonetheless, rough estimates can be established by analysing how many contemporaries could sign their names. These studies revealed that literacy rates rose from 11% in 1500 to 60% in 1750. If only a minority of the population could read, how did they know of current events?

Who could read in the 1300s?

In 1330 only about 5% of the population could read or write. It was extremely rare for peasants to be literate. Some lords of the manor had laws banning serfs from being educated. It was usually only the sons from rich families that went to school.

How educated were medieval people?

Only the wealthy had access to education, and then usually only for boys. There were no public schools, and those who had the privilege of getting an education usually either learned at home with a tutor or from a school run by the church. Because of this, religion informed every subject that students learned.

Were girls educated in the Middle Ages?

Women could be educated. Noblewomen and nuns, in particular, had access to books and were often literate. Women were also trained in domestic skills like sewing. However, education for both women and men tended to be limited to the upper classes and the clergy.

How educated were Knights Middle Ages?

What could people study in medieval Europe?

Students could pursue studies in one of four subjects — law, medicine, theology, or art. A degree in theology qualified an individual for an administrative position in the clergy, or in the university itself.

Who could read and write in medieval Europe?

In the Middle Ages only the educated elite could read and write. Nevertheless, the English government and legal system relied on written evidence.

What did people read in medieval?

The majority of medieval literature was made up of theological writings and devotional literature intended to extend the religious horizon of the reading public and deepen their knowledge of doctrine. There were also specialist texts as well as poetry and romances.

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