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Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 192-194

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Book Review

Literacy and Written Culture in Early Modern Central Europe

Literacy and Written Culture in Early Modern Central Europe. By István György Tóth. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2000. xi, 266 pp. $41.95. ISBN 963-9116-85-8.

The author is an historian at the Central European University and the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. This book is a competent, only occasionally awkward translation of the Hungarian original that appeared in 1996. It is based on research in more than twenty archives of Hungary and surrounding countries, with the bulk of the original material coming from court and family records in the Hungarian National Archives, Budapest, and the Vas County Archives in Szombathely. Vas County, located on Hungary's western border with Austria, provides the setting for most of the book. Though a border region, this county proves useful for generalization because its population was multiethnic (Hungarian, German, and Croatian), religiously diverse (Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist), and showed regional variations in its level of development. [End Page 192]

The book is organized around the analysis of four main topics: elementary schooling, the advance of literacy among the peasantry, literacy among the nobility, and oral tradition among the petty nobility. Tóth uses church visitation reports from the eighteenth century to establish the social identity of schoolteachers and the very modest impact of schools on the region's children before the nineteenth century. A concluding part of the section on the schools unfavorably compares the situation in Vas and western Hungary to that in Austria, Prussia, and France.

Marriage registers are a major source for judging popular literacy in Great Britain and France beginning in the seventeenth century because both spouses had to sign or mark the registers, but this was not the practice in Hungary. Instead, Tóth has compiled statistics from "documents authenticated by peasants in the capacities of sellers or guarantors" (48). Overwhelmingly, he found crosses used much more commonly than signatures, but the incidence of the latter rose perceptibly from the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries. Examining relatively well-documented cases, however, Tóth finds that peasants known to be literate sometimes signed with a cross, apparently influenced by social attitudes toward literacy. Accounts of the use of prayer books, keeping time, and correspondence are used as further indicators of these attitudes.

The author's documentation and narrative detail are more ample when he turns next to the nobility. After an analysis of crosses and signatures that provides some contrast with the discussion of the peasantry, the author moves to testimony about spectacles (which sometimes symbolized learnedness for individuals who didn't understand their function) and literacy among women. The prestige of literacy was greatest among Calvinists; noblemen were less willing than peasants to admit their illiteracy, and pride in being literate, or shame at illiteracy, increased with time. This chapter includes a discussion of wills as evidence of literacy and the contradictory evidence concerning the knowledge of Latin (Hungary's official language until the nineteenth century) among the nobility.

The fourth chapter is concerned with oral tradition among the nobility. Noble status entitled Hungarian subjects to tax exemption or political participation, so the patent of nobility had great importance for erstwhile noblemen whose schooling or economic means were quite modest. Tóth examines court cases brought by persons claiming noble status that often hinged on oral testimony about patents the plaintiffs no longer possessed. These cases reveal that witnesses more often remembered the gilt lettering of the names and large wax seal than the Latin words in the patents. Genealogy was orally transmitted and established in court by witnesses who enhanced their credibility by exaggerating their age. By the late eighteenth century, courts were giving less credence to such testimony.

The book concludes with an analysis of Hungary's 1870 census, the first to record literacy. Comparing the figures for Vas County with those he adduced for the previous century, Tóth confirms the finding in studies on...


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