Astonishing adult literacy rates in France before the 1789 French Revolution

August 22, 2011

Daniel Roche a French social and cultural historian.

From studying signatures of wills Daniel Roche has discovered astonishing figures of adult literacy in the capital at the end of the old regime [France, before the French Revolution of 1789]. In Montmartre, for example, where 40 percent of the testators belonged to the artisan or salaried classes, 74 percent of men and 64 percent of women could sign their names. In the rue Saint-Honoré—a fashionable street, but one where a third of the residents belonged to the common people—literacy rates stood at 93 percent. In the artisanal rue Saint-Denis, 86 percent of men and 73 percent of women made out and signed their own contracts of marriage.

Map of France before the French Revolution, drawn by Rigobert Bonne in 1771.

[D]omestic servants, who also came from the countryside, were virtually all literate, able to read their contracts of employment. The ‘little schools’ promoted by the Catholic missions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had evidently done their wok well. Around 1780, according to Roche, 35 percent of all wills made by the popular classes contained some books as did 40 percent of those in the shopkeeping and petty trades.



Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 180.

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