For the vast majority of my ancestors, when going back in time the sociocultural level gradually decreases until I end up having poor farmers. The rate at which the level decreases depends on the branch, but this pattern is globally universal.

I'd like to know how can I estimate which of my ancestors were literate and which weren't. I guess this would mean to know when various countries introduced obligatory school, even for the lower and less privileged classes. The countries I'm interested in are: Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria.

The earliest ancestor I'm 100% sure was literate and poor farmer, because I have a letter he wrote, was born in the 1820s in Switzerland. His handwriting is good but his orthography is absolutely awful.

  • I think it would be safe to assume that anyone making their mark on documents would be illiterate at that time. I have no idea how many people could sign their name but were otherwise largely illiterate. I suspect that some letters may have been dictated so perhaps even the existence of a letter may fall short of proof that someone was literate.
    – PolyGeo
    Jan 28 '16 at 10:53
  • I don't feel I have enough for an answer for this question but, Obviously the only way you can be sure if an ancestor was literate or not is to find sources on a case by case basis. If you are looking for a mathematical answer, i.e "based on the fact that 'ancestor' was born in 'country' in 'date', he has a 'percentage' chance of being literate based on the average literacy rates for the time." Then there should be a few tools out there to help you. Jan 28 '16 at 11:04
  • Based purely on population rather than profession: ourworldindata.org/data/education-knowledge/literacy/… Has a nice graph for two of the countries you mentioned (France and Germany) going from 1475 to 2003. nber.org/chapters/c7434.pdf - page 37/47 has some data about the literacy of german recruits between 1881-1912 Jan 28 '16 at 11:06
  • @DannyBarber Come on, this graphic has less than one point every 100 years, do you really believe it is useful? This document is however very interesting/useful, even if it doesn't really answer my question.
    – Bregalad
    Jan 28 '16 at 14:49

The best estimation of a person's literacy is probably different in every situation because determining that fact is dependent upon what types of documents your ancestor caused to be made in their lifetime, which documents still exist and which documents you can find/have access to today.

In some countries, some (not all) national censuses record the literacy of individuals within their population. There are also other types of censuses that may contain telling information (ie, municipal, church). A will and/or estate file will likely tell you a lot about the person's history and education. School records, obviously - but keep in mind that, just because school was instituted in your ancestor's area at a given point in history, a family did not have to send their child and parents could pull their kids out at any age to help keep the house/farm afloat.

Keep in mind that it was common for a poor farmer who could not read or write and didn't really have a regular need to would call upon a friend, relative, priest or other professional who did have the skill. That person would write the letter as dictated to them.

Hope this helps! LDC Family History & Genealogy Consultant


Before 1500 most people had no need to read, unless they worked for the State or the Church. Literacy increased substantially over the next century or two with the coming of cheap printed books, postal services, and trade guilds.

If you know when and where someone lived, their sex, status, occupation, and religion, then you can probably figure out (statistically) how literate they were (or should have been).



Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.