Revisiting Historical Literacy: the Potential of Digital Humanities Approaches

Historians of early modern society have, since the late 1970s, relied on the pioneering work of David Cressy for their estimates of literacy rates. These were calculated from signatures on official documents, with a full signature equated with full literacy, and a ‘mark’ equated with illiteracy. Yet scholars of the period working with large numbers of signed documents – e.g. those on the Women’s Work in Rural England project and the Marine Lives team – have become increasingly aware of the sheer variety of signatures, marks and initials that early modern people used. As a result, we believe it is high time for (a) a new typology of signatory techniques and an exploration of what they can tell us about literacy skills (b) new quantitative analysis of literacy skills and their relationship to gender, age, social and occupational status, nationality, etc.

We believe there are a number of digital humanities approaches that can play a key role in this process. We are exploring the potential of IIIF standards, viewers and annotation tools to support large scale international collaborative working on historical literacy. Specifically, we are developing an IIIF demo of manifests for marks, initials and signatures from multiple IIIF image servers (e.g. by occupation, type, year range), with content from the English High Court of Admiralty and notarial records at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

In parallel, we are scaling up our involvement with Transkribus technology for spatial analysis of manuscripts and for handwriting recognition. We are particularly interested in integrating Transkribus spatial analysis of documents (text and line regions) with IIIF manifests and annotation capability. This will enable IIIF manifests to highlight marks, initials and signatures within manuscript pages.

Finally, we are designing a data study group for computer scientists and historians, to scope out tools for pattern recognition of signatures and marks in historical manuscripts as a basis for sub-population identification. This data study group will use images and data sourced both from our IIIF and Transkribus experiments.

Our paper outlines progress so far in revisiting historical literacy and seeks feedback from conference participants on specific technologies and on technology supported large scale collaborative research.