Don Quixote & Literacy Rates Throughout History

Starting a PhD has meant a dive back into coursework, and this term (which started back in January), I’ve been enrolled in, I think, one of the most interesting, exciting, and disorienting courses of my academic career: a directed reading of Don Quixote. I finished the 900-page tome about two weeks ago, and I’ve now moved on to exploring a diverse body of critical and historical writings about Cervantes and what many call the first modern novel.

Reading, writing, and literacy are central to Don Quixote. Reading, after all, is the root cause of Don Quixote’s madness, and the ironic conceit of the novel itself is that, the narrator claims, it was initially written in Arabic by a Moor named Cide Hamete Benengeli and later found and translated into Castilian Spanish. In part one, there is even a series of chapters in which a priest reads the unpublished manuscript of a novel titled The Novel of the Man Who Was Recklessly Curious to a group of guests at an inn. This is the longest and most famous of the interpolated narratives in part one of Don Quixote, a technique that Cervantes, for the most part, left out in part two, due to reader criticism.

For a novel so preoccupied with the written word and how it makes meaning, many of the characters in Don Quixote, including Sancho Panza and his wife, are illiterate. When faced with the task of reading or writing, these characters must seek out a member of one of the groups within Spanish society that would be more likely to produce literate subjects—for instance, the clergy (hence the priest reading the interpolated novel in part one) or the nobility (both the Duke and Duchess of part two are literate). And this isn’t a one-time occurrence in the novel: in several instances, illiterate characters (especially Sancho Panza) ask literate characters to read and transcribe for them.

This (and a conversation about it with a friend) got me thinking: what was the literacy rate really like in sixteenth-century Spain? Well, thanks to prudent researchers and the convenience of the Internet, it was quite easy for me to find out. OurWorldInData, an Oxford-based online publication, has an incredible interactive page that charts literacy rates throughout history in a number of different countries. The pre-1800 Europe graph was, obviously, the most useful for my purposes, and from it I learned that the literacy rate in Cervantes’s Spain would have been 4-5%, which, quite honestly, is astonishing. This was an abysmal literacy rate when compared with the literacy of other European nations in the same period, such as Britain (~35-40%) , France (~25%), and Germany (~25%).

These numbers, indeed, seem to support the prominence of illiteracy in Don Quixote. At the same time, they also affect my understanding of who read the novel in Spain when it was first published (clearly a very select group of people) and how it was received based on the attributes of that readership (i.e. of a certain class, education, and financial background). Although the numbers themselves can’t reveal these sorts of details, they’re a great place to start with this question and others like it.

Featured image courtesy of M. Martin Vicente on Flickr.

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