A Social History of English Handwriting

J.I. Whalley describes the development of handwriting in the early modern period.

The invention and spread of printing in the mid-fifteenth century may have curtailed the employment of the copyist; but the consequent multiplicity of books brought learning, and the desire for learning, to a far wider variety of people than the laboriously hand-copied book could ever do. In England, during the next century, the dissolution of the monasteries had a similar effect, as the monks scattered and their libraries were broken up.

The general stability of life under the Tudors gave rise to conditions in which trade could prosper and the importance and wealth of the middle-class increase. These factors, together with the arrival of humanist learning, all stimulated an increasing awareness of the benefits of literacy. The Elizabethan period abounds in diaries, letters, accounts, literary works and similar products of the non-professional writer.

But, despite the increase in writing among the general public, and the obvious need for instruction, not until the last quarter of the sixteenth century did the first English copy book appear. Entitled A booke containing divers sortes of hands, it was, like its successors for many years to come, greatly influenced by continental styles.

Notwithstanding the political troubles of the seventeenth century, everyday life continued much as before. People still bought and sold, married, educated their children, and carried on their businesses; and the continued increase in literacy gave rise to a new English profession that of the writing master.

For many years his position remained anomalous. Was he a genuine member of the learned professions? He thought he was. The learned professions, however, despised the ‘mere scrivener’; and the long battle for social acceptance is reflected in the published works of the writing masters themselves.

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