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How literacy shaped England’s history

Compelling though it was, in my mind, The Century that Wrote Itself, Adam Nicolson’s romp through the 17th Century, was a story told back-to-front.  

In search of personal histories that defined the era, Nicholson started with the almost confessional records left behind by John Oglander, a member of the gentry who made his home on the Isle of Wight. Oglander turned household accounting into an art-form by adding incredibly personal details. He wrote about the event he would never recover from, the death his beloved son George, in his own tears. Oh my son, Oh my George, would my life have excused thine. Sometimes seemingly trivial, sometimes begrudging – and in his own blood – the five remaining volumes describe a man battling an unstoppable revolution, and that revolution, the cause of the changes Oglander despised, was literacy. Shop-keepers were learning to read and write, and were then being given powers to govern! But the root of his frustration and his fear, and the extent of the changes that were to come, wasn’t immediately apparent.

Until the start of the 17th Century, few people worried that their personal correspondence would be read by anyone other than the party to whom it was addressed. There was no such thing as an envelope. There was simply no need. But then we saw codes being introduced, letters substituted with symbols or perhaps the introduction of foreign words or phrases – hints that the couriers (the equivalent of today’s postmen) were learning to read.       

It was only when we reached the story of Thomas Tryon, a sharp young country shepherd that a picture truly began to emerge. Understanding the value of knowing your ‘letters,’ at the age of thirteen, Tryon traded one of the two sheep he owned in exchange for lessons in reading and writing. By the age of eighteen he had sold his flock and moved to London, where he was apprenticed to a hatter. The fact that he was able to afford to have his portrait painted is a measure of his social mobility. 

Working men, whose contribution to culture would have been rubbished, even felt that their own stories were worthy of recording. Leonard Wheatcraft – self-styled ‘Leonard the Bard’ – wrote one of the first autobiographies. His  stories are not of acts of bravery and honour but of laddishness and seducing young women. But Wheatcraft wasn’t without talent. In much the same way as DBC Pierre did, when in debt, he wrote his way out of trouble, composing The Beggar’s Delight, a song that is still performed today.

By the end of a programme that had started out on a serious note, having donned a laurel wreath, Nicholson had become positively frisky. But postmen, shepherds and likely lads – previously posing no threat – these were the people Oglander felt his way of life was being threatened by. And so it was. I would have like to see Nicholson return to those fears rather than skip off down the hillside in a style more reminiscent of Morecambe and Wise than historian. After all, the ruffian son of a blacksmith had risen through the ranks in times gone before.