At Runnymede in 1215, King John of England did NOT sign Magna Carta. He couldn’t. He didn’t know how to write. (He affixed his seal to the document instead.)
The great Charlemagne couldn’t write either. In his later, post-conquering-most-of-Europe-and-making-Christian-conversions-by-slaughter years, Charlemagne took an active interest in all branches of learning. But after his death, his former mathematics teacher, Einhard, reported that though Charlemagne even kept a tablet under his pillow to practice writing when he couldn’t sleep at night, he never mastered the skill. Since Einhard doesn’t say that Charlemagne never mastered reading either, I think we can assume that Charlemagne could read—and that, given the size of King John’s personal library, that King John could probably read, too.
I’ve been reading up on the subject, and it turns out that to contemporaries of the two kings, for them to be able to read but not write wouldn’t have appeared at all unusual.
Until quite modern times, it turns out, reading and writing weren’t studied concurrently. Reading came first, and most students left the schoolroom before they advanced beyond that. Those who continued their education learned first to write numbers, not the alphabet. To be able to keep simple accounts on paper (or, earlier, parchment) was much more useful than to be able to write words, since there was always a handy clerk or something around who could take dictation.
Only a student who persevered for years learned to write at all; and no one but a scholar was expected to do more than to copy someone else’s words. (Books of paradigms for letters, and even simple sermons, were widely sold.) A person was called “literate” who could sign his or her own name*; and to be able to produce an original work was a mark of an uncommon level of educational attainment.
Since I learned to read and write simultaneously (and in my mind, they’ve always appeared inseparable), this seems very strange to me. After some thought, I’ve decided it’s analogous with the way that most people can reproduce—with voice or a musical instrument—a tune that they hear; some have learned to read other people’s notes; but only a relative few can actually compose original music.
In fact, now that I’ve written that down, I really like the music analogy. For one thing, as far as I know it’s mine, which prejudices me in its favor; and for another thing, it makes me feel like Mozart. –Okay, not the Mozart of the “Requiem”, more like in his “Twinkle, Twinkle” days; but Mozart nonetheless.
It also makes me feel better about the fact that the other day I caught myself making an egregious error in simple subject-verb agreement in something that I wrote. In the past, a mistake like that would have embarrassed me very much. This time I just said to myself, “Not everyone is born a Mozart!” and let it go.
*Check out this 1867 report from Britain on literacy among the poor, in which “able to read” and “can produce a simple signature” are separately noted; or this 1902 bulletin from the Department of Labor which has columns labelled “Able to read and write,” “Able to read,” and “Illiterate.”