The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe

By James Van Horn Melton | Go to book overview

3
Reading publics: transformations of the
literary public sphere

Reading publics had long existed as aggregates of readers. As a social and cultural act, however, reading underwent a fundamental transformation in the eighteenth century. Not only did the production of print rise significantly; what readers read also changed. Not only did more people read; people also read more. And as the quantitative and qualitative effects of these changes became increasingly evident to contemporaries, “the reading public” became an object of discussion, dissection, and debate. Even as Enlightenment writers and critics assigned this public unprecedented importance as an arbiter of taste, they also grappled with the intractable problem of howto shape, control, and even define it.


Literacy in the eighteenth century1

Literacy is notoriously difficult to measure or even define. Is it the ability to sign one's name? Read a newspaper? Understand a governmental regulation or comprehend a scholarly text? Part of the problem is that literacy is not one skill but a hierarchy of discrete ones. In early modern Europe these could include the capacity to read but not write, or conversely, the ability to sign one's name without knowing how to read a relatively simple text. In some cases reading was an extension of memory. Here individuals were able to “read” certain Biblical passages they had once memorized, but not others less familiar.

Compounding the problem are the limits of the sources. Historians have traditionally used the ability to sign one's name as an index of literacy. In France, where brides and grooms were required from 1686 on to sign the local parish register, efforts to estimate literacy rates on the basis of signatures date back to the late nineteenth century. Since then, historians of literacy have also tallied signatures on baptismal records, petitions, oaths, military conscription lists, or court depositions. Signatures are to

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1
For the sources from which I have derived the statistics cited in the section below, see the bibliographical essay at the end of this chapter, 119–20.

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