Literacy is the ability to read and write. Its antonym is illiterate. The term literacy also refers to the possession of enough reading and writing ability to function in society. People are functionally illiterate if they cannot read or write well enough to carry out activities that are common in the social settings, such as employment, school work, and voting.
Before the 1400's, the vast majority of people in Europe were illiterate as most people never had the opportunity to learn to read because there were few schools and books. Although people at every level of society could read, most literate people belonged to the upper classes.
In the 1440's, the German printer Johannes Gutenberg became the first European to print a book from movable type. As a result, reading material was eventually mass-produced in Europe and inexpensive books became more widely available. One of the first books printed in Europe was the Bible. During the 1500's, the Protestant Reformation and Roman Catholic Counter Reformation spurred people's desire to read the Bible for themselves.
With the spread of commerce and industry during the 1700's and 1800's, a large number of people migrated to cities to take jobs. Increasingly, people had to read instructions and perform other tasks, such as following procedures, that required literacy. In addition, governments began to value education, thus the public school system expanded. By the late 1800's, formal education had become fairly common, and many children were being taught to read in school. As a result of these developments, more people had the opportunity and motivation to learn to read and write, causing the literacy rate to rise rapidly after 1800.
Also see my related blog posting on poverty, education, literacy, and the brain.
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