Reading is now such a basic skill, seeming to transcend consid­erations of gender, that it is hard to think of it as having a history at all, let alone a past that belongs to the history of the relationship between men and women. But the act of reading has itself varied enormously over time, a fact that is immediately apparent from the physical form that the written word has taken. If we think of the elaborately illustrated manuscripts copied out by medieval scribes, for instance, we are obviously in a different world from that presupposed by the mass production of printed books. An early fifteenth-century manuscript of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde pictures the author reading his narrative poem to King Richard II and Queen Anne surrounded by lords and ladies of the court, an image that underscores the oral, performative character of reading in an age of limited literacy. Indeed, in this period even reading to oneself seems typically to have meant reading out loud. Thus, among the rules of the early medieval Benedictine Order is a direction that ‘[a]fter the sixth hour, having left the table let [the monks] rest on their beds in perfect silence; or if anyone wishes to read by himself, let him read so as not to disturb the others’ (quoted in McLuhan 1969: 116). Reading

might be an aid to meditation, but the fact that the words on the page are spoken could also undermine an atmosphere of concentration.

Here we have two brief examples of what might be called the social relations ofreading. In the first, to put a text into circulation is to read it to an audience. Chaucer’s purpose is informed by a deep moral seriousness: he wanted to contrast the love of Christ with the precariousness of worldly passion, setting the majesty of religion against the vicissitudes of courtly love, and the illustration shows him standing in an outdoor pulpit. Yet his poem was also written to entertain and to amuse, an emphasis that came to predominate in the more secular, post-medieval period. When printed books started to appear in court society they were

intended less for reading in the study or in solitary leisure hours wrung from one’s profession, than for social conviviality; they are a part and continuation of conversation and social games, or, like the majority of court memoirs, they are substitute conversations, dialogues in which for some reason or other the partner is lacking.

(Elias 1982: 275)

Once again, reading has a public and occasional quality about it in that it is an extension of the everyday rituals and routines of courtly life. But Elias’s description also hints at a more modern relationship to the book in which reading is a silent and deeply private experience, an inner colloquy that entails a withdrawal of the self from the social whirl. On this view the colourful portraits to be found in the seventeenth-century Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon prefigure the minutely observed dissection of Parisian society two centuries later depicted in the novels of Balzac and Proust.

In general terms we can say that, despite its importance, the ability to read and write was an exceptional accomplishment until the middle of the sixteenth century. And only in the nineteenth century did literacy become at all commonplace. As David Cressy observes, ‘England, for most of her history, has been a partially literate society, in which the art of writing and record-keeping was confined to a clerical, governmental and commercial elite’ (Cressy 1990: 838). Reading, a skill that would have been learned before writing, was probably more wide­spread and was given a boost by the invention of printing, since standardized type was easier to read than handwritten script. Nevertheless, in the early years of printing the law was used to prevent some people from reading. An Act of 1543 outlawed the reading of the Bible in English among the ranks of the lower orders which included apprentices, yeomen and women.

It is hard to be sure how many people could read at any given time because, unlike writing, reading leaves no clear historical traces. A rise in the number of books or pamphlets undoubtedly shows an increase in the demand for reading material, but it is impossible to know exactly how many people could make use of it. However, taking the ability to sign one’s own name as a rough guide to the distribution of literacy, it is clear that reading was a highly gendered activity. ‘At the time of the English Civil War’, says Cressy, ‘more than two-thirds of all Englishmen — contemporaries of Milton and Cromwell — could not write their names’, whereas for women the figure was ‘as high as 90 per cent’ (Cressy 1990: 844). This gap continued despite the fall in illiteracy rates, but with the growth of towns and cities as commercial centres we begin to see significant variations. In London, for example, about half the women had become literate by the 1690s, about the same proportion as for men in the English countryside, and this advance continued into the eighteenth century. It is against this metropolitan background that the plays, poems and novels by the female writer Aphra Behn (1640—89) need to be understood, with their trenchant critique of male power and gender ideologies.

If the cultural context of London life was crucial to Behn’s achievement as one of the first women to make her living from writing, the absence of social support elsewhere created real obstacles. When Anne Bradstreet’s poem The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America (1650) was first published in New England it was prefaced by a long apologia from her brother-in-law assuring readers that she had not neglected any of her womanly duties in making time to write. In colonial America many women seem to have been able to read, but they were not expected or encouraged to write. Michael Warner cites the example of a printer’s wife in late-seventeenth-century Maryland who set type and ran the press after her husband died, but could not sign her name. Until the end of the eighteenth century the schools that taught colonial American children to read were called ‘woman schools’, while those that taught them to write were known as ‘masters’ schools.’ Women could not write without feeling some sense of inappropriateness or inhibition. ‘To write’, Warner emphasizes, ‘was to inhabit gender’ (Warner 1990: 15), but his aphorism is no less true of reading. Even instruction within the family was often gendered, the responsibility for teaching children to read being vested in the mother, while writing remained the pedagogic preserve of the father.