Dive into the sources: Talking women and literacy with Christoffer Åhlman

Most people understand that literacy can be a major source of socio-political power in the present time, and it is noticeable that literacy is often studied by social scientists. But what about historians? Which aspects do they look at when they study literacy? Christoffer Åhlman, a Ph.D. student working in the Gender and Work project at the Department of History, Uppsala University, looks at the interconnection of literacy, women, education, and marriage in the early modern social context. He basically dives into several kinds of historical sources: prayer books, contracts, diaries, letters, and textbooks, to see women’s ability to read, write, and count—the skills that earned them certain social statuses, and to explain the social conditions in the early modern Sweden. Now, let’s dive.

How did you start your life as a historian or history student?

I started in church history as a Ph.D. student from a distance at Åbo Akademi in 2011. I was there only for one and a half year. I got a few small grants, so I worked as an operator and tried to write at night. I worked like that for 6 months for full time, but it was so hard to get the money. Then I saw the Ph.D. position opening here in Gender and Work, so I applied. Maria [Ågren] contacted me if I would be open to an idea to change the topic just a little. I worked in women and literacy and in women’s use of early modern prayer books, and it’s quite similar to what they wanted in the project. So, it started and drifted into the everyday life. It had been like that even in my first project. And it worked out quite well.

What do you find intriguing about studying about work?

This part of everyday life is quite essential, and it’s so nuanced during this period. It’s related to the part I’m studying, which is how women used literacy. It was clear, for example, when a woman taught a child to read. It’s quite clear that her use of literacy was quite essential to her way of making a living. But to sign a contract when you sell a piece of property or a plot of land, maybe it’s not the most essential thing when it comes to the payment you get. Property was important, but literacy in this context became important too.

 

I have a big interest in these social networks and they are a key to understanding how literacy was used in everyday life. I find quite often in early literacy research that these social networks have been a way to explain why people didn’t learn how to write.

 

What did women do with prayer books?

Sometimes you can find hymns, for example. They had many different roles in private reading, but they also show how private devotion was connected to other household members. The book in itself had a more social role to play, and you can see that sometimes people used them in a social context where relatives, family, and other acquaintances wrote words of wisdom. They had a wider role to play, not only a religious one.

Where did women in the early modern period learn to read and write?

Often in the home. Even if there were women who took part in specific writing and counting classes, we must not forget that most of the teaching took place in the household. No matter if it was private teachers or the parents, it was the most important kind of teaching during this period and cannot be underestimated.  When it came to private teaching, women played an important role. We should therefore not forget the importance women had, especially when it came to the public teaching which was connected to the church.

What did women write during this period?

Could be letters. Could be diaries, count books, verifications. Sometimes they just signed the contracts. Also, private prayer books, for example. It had to do with the social status, of course. It’s much easier to find literate women who were connected in some ways to a social context where literacy was needed in general. They had to learn this. I have a big interest in these social networks and they are a key to understanding how literacy was used in everyday life. I find quite often in early literacy research that these social networks have been a way to explain why people didn’t learn how to write. They became quite passive in that perspective. I would like to see the opportunities to learn instead, which I think was extremely important.

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Talking about social status, was marriage important to women in the early modern period?

I think it was very important and vital. They wanted to get married because they had to make a living and support the household. Also, when I see how women used literacy in different tasks, this was often connected to their roles as a wife of men for whom literacy was a part of everyday tasks, for example the wife of a clergymen or an inspector. So, their social status is a key to understanding how many women used literacy. But it does not always have to be a question of marriage, because you can find daughters who helped out by doing the accounts in a household who made a living through trade. I would say it is primarily the social context, and this include marriage.

Did Sweden have a schooling system back then?

Yes and no, because that depends on what you mean by schooling and teaching. It was so different during this period [1600-1700] in Sweden. We had much more of common schooling later, during the 19th century, even though it could differ between parishes and dioceses. This difference was even bigger during the early modern period. Some parishes had for example not the money to start up schools, or hire a teacher. Some parishes didn’t even have a physical school building. Sometimes teachers, who sometimes were women, had to travel around from farm to farm, from household to household. Sometimes they had teaching in the villages where people gathered, and sometimes only the parents taught. The schooling system in this period was very complex and varied. It’s impossible to talk about general schooling during this period.

 

…it does not always have to be a question of marriage, because you can find daughters who helped out by doing the accounts in a household who made a living through trade. I would say it is primarily the social context, and this include marriage.

 

How did you analyze the sources and what did you find out from your research so far?

I dive into the sources, basically. I studied several different themes; you have the ability to read, the ability to write, and the ability to count. These themes are very important when it comes to literacy because you often have [an understanding of] ‘literacy’ that summarizes all these abilities. But in Sweden and many other countries, reading ability and writing ability developed quite differently. That’s why I find it more useful to have them as separate themes. When I look at teachers who taught children to read, I often found the verb phrases, for example in account books, which are very essential. But when it comes to writing, I look at both verbs and physical traces in different source materials. It’s a combination.

Did you get much feedback from other researchers?

Of course, I think it’s hard not to get help when you’re a part of a big project. So, absolutely. I’ve got feedback from many colleagues. I think it’s quite great to work in a team because even though you have colleagues and work in an institution, most people are working on projects that are far from your own. But here [at Gender and Work] you get to work with several scholars that study different aspects of the same context. You’re able to get help and complement each other in some sense. I think it’s a very interesting and fruitful way to go, especially in the humanities where working as a group is not so common. Also, the social interaction like sitting down and having a fika with colleagues in the project, which is very important for Swedes, plays an important role because you often talk about each other’s research. You’re so connected to many people that are experts in areas that are on the border of your own. You’re always able to get help. Otherwise, I think it’s quite easy especially in the humanities to get quite isolated when it comes to research. In this project you get so many good insights. In an open seminar you often get the same questions because people don’t know what you’re studying. If you’re studying literacy in the context that these people have knowledge about, you will get great questions.

What’s your plan after you finish your Ph.D. next year?

I just want to continue. I wouldn’t have chosen this if it wasn’t something I really wanted to do and am passionate about. So, of course, I’m gonna do whatever it takes to carry on with it and to be a part of this world. ⧫

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