Literacy can be defined as any form of written or oral communication that employs language to achieve desired ends. Literacy in history began in the Greco-Roman period. Athens, for example, had the first high literacy rate among its freeborn male population. The rest of the population, such as slaves and women, could not read; only those who were classified within Greek society as citizens could. Literacy at this point was mainly associated with the law, justice and the courts and not just within Greek society but also in Roman society.
Greek society was extremely litigious, and juries were used to pass the law. Individuals who were charged were expected to speak to the court, and jury, in their own defense. Rather than writing their own speeches themselves, they instead hired speech writers to write their own defense speeches for them. Some of these speeches have survived, and looking at them, it is possible to see the use of rhetoric and other literacy techniques to put the point across. Some of these speeches would also be published for the public to read at their own leisure as well as being used for informational purposes for those who could not travel into the big city.
In the 12th century, the Roman Catholic Church was generally opposed to the spread of literacy among the population as the leadership feared an educated public would challenge orthodox religious beliefs and the church's authority if they were able to read. At this point in history, only the clerics were allowed any education in literacy in Latin, which the public could not read, and this presented a barrier to their religious education. In general, the public was not opposed to this policy, as people were busily engaged in bringing up their children and supporting their families.
It was not until the 16th century, when Martin Luther's efforts at reformation finally bore fruit, that the Bible was opened up to the general populace. To become a Lutheran, the only qualification was to have basic reading skills and be able to repeat back what one had learned – not necessarily with understanding. The repetition of prayers together with singing and chanting served to improve commitment to religion and religious understanding.
As a result of Martin Luther's reforms, between the 16th and 18th centuries in Protestant areas, literacy among the general population began to grow. This was especially apparent in Sweden -- where at the beginning of the 17th century in Möklinta, only a quarter of the population could read, by the end of the century three out of four people could read. However, other parts of the world saw increases in rates of literacy that could not just be explained by Lutheranism. Historians also see the parallel development of the printing press, and therefore the ability to quickly and relatively cheaply publish materials, as a significant factor because reading materials were now available to the masses. Publishers,seeing a change in patterns of demand and also trying to stimulate demand in order to make profits, started printing almanacs, health remedies, recipe books and stories, which in turn increased literacy among the population as people finally had something to read.
The next paradigm shift in literacy in Europe was caused by three factors in the mid-19th century. The development of long-distance railroads meant people working on the railways had to learn how to use timetables, read directions and translate different languages for cross-border routes. Universal military service was another key cause, as military veterans spread literacy back to their home villages. In addition, the need to be able to understand written orders, for example, mobilization commands, made national governments realize that literacy was an important skill that the ordinary population needed. This belief was reinforced by literate Prussia's victory over France, and as a result, leaders of France as well as all European states, realized the need to educate their citizenry. This led to the final factor in growing literacy: the beginning of universal primary education, including reading and writing lessons. This advancement meant that literacy began to spread among all future generations, leading to nearly universal literacy for the first time.