RTL Today contributor Tara Mancini explores Luxembourg's literacy boom in the 17th and 18th centuries.

If we were to initiate a betting pool, questioning which cities on the European continent historically boasted high literacy rates, which were average, and which were below average - would Luxembourg rank among your top five? Or perhaps your top ten? Let's ponder this.

In 1779, at St. Michel’s Church, Anna Catherine, the daughter of Theadoric Lahaije, married Joseph Beiren, son of Joannis Beiren. Both Anna's father and her husband were recorded as merchants. Unsurprisingly, Anna was capable of signing her name alongside her husband’s, although due to her minor status, a parent's signature was also required. Similarly, in 1780, Joannes Agidus, another merchant, married Susanna Wijst at St. Nicolas Church. Both were of legal age and signed their marriage banns.

Interestingly, merchants in Luxembourg City consistently demonstrated high literacy rates, with over 90% of them signing their marriage banns between 1779 and 1783. This applied to grooms, brides, and their parents alike, suggesting that entire merchant families were literate, albeit representing a small fraction of the overall population.

Meanwhile, at St. Jean's parish in Grund, Thomas Schmitz, a typographer, and his bride Agnes Plier, the daughter of a tailor, both signed their names in 1780, as did Michel Rhelinger, a teacher and citizen, who married Elisabeth Weidmenthe, a shoemaker's daughter. Oddly, while the typographer and his bride both signed their banns, only the teacher, not his bride, did so. Based on this sampling, it appeared that shoemakers' daughters tended to be illiterate, whereas tailors' daughters were usually able to sign their names.

In contrast, it wasn't surprising to find that Joannes, a laborer and son of farmers, and Nephanus, a day laborer and the son of peasants, along with their brides, were unable to sign their names. Similarly, Wilhelmus, a citizen and burner of wood in Claussen, couldn't sign either.

What did surprise me was that many soldiers could sign their names - over 70% of them, in fact. Joseph Robertus, a corporal in the Temper Indijlee Legione from Darsberg, and Agidii Schmidt in the Legione De Mouraij from Flanders, both soldiers, were able to sign their names. However, Petrus Hollerix, a pikeman in the local legion, could not.

(What is up with the dypthon , by the way? Was this a clue? Were the local schools teaching traditional German, a dialect or a Franco-German language? Could this impact signature rates? We'll discuss this in a future article.)

Although it may be predictable that merchants and legionnaires were likely to be literate individuals who signed their marriage banns, artists also frequently signed. This included one married couple, Thomas Ansieaue, a sculptor, and Regina Haster, both of whom signed their marriage banns in 1779 at St. Michael’s Church.

Most people are aware that North Holland was a paragon of literacy rates in the 17th and 18th centuries, for both men and women. Many attribute North Holland's high literacy rates to Protestantism, with bibles written in local languages. Similarly, other Protestant regions like Dutch Limberg, the Duchy of Oldenburg, and the city of Mittelrhein also had high rates. However, Catholic regions such as East and West Flanders, Belgian Limberg, Paris, and most of Southern France had markedly lower rates. As Luxembourg was historically Catholic, would it also have had low literacy rates?

We have previously seen that Luxembourg had both primary and secondary schools, funded with public money, offering education to all, regardless of class. Could it be that Luxembourg overcame the Catholic-Protestant literacy divide? Furthermore, an intriguing pattern is observed in France and Germanic regions: cities on trade routes or with economic relations with the Netherlands tended to have higher literacy rates than those geographically distant from Holland. Could trade and economics be influencing factors?

All these factors present an intriguing dilemma. On the one hand, Luxembourg shares a Catholic heritage with its neighbors France and Belgium, and its former rulers in Spain and later Austria. On the other hand, it shares a Franco-Germanic heritage and language with the Netherlands and has trade relations with the Dutch. So, where does Luxembourg lean - towards its Catholic roots or its Franco-Germanic heritage and trade relations? Time to place your bets!

This investigation is exciting, although it comes with an unfortunate surprise. We'll be using marriage banns, which have been used to understand literacy rates in the Netherlands and neighboring regions, to provide a direct comparison. For example, Amsterdam, described as the Golden Apple of education, had literacy rates of 85% for men and 64% for women by the 18th century.

For a signature from Luxembourg to be included in this study, it needed to have the 't' crossed and the 'i' dotted. Simple marks like '+', 'X', or 'O' were not counted. Sometimes, a groom or bride would write out two or three of their initials (e.g., J:T:R); though the letters were clear and printed well, this type of mark was also excluded.

St. Nicolas's parish members were limited to those living in Ville Haute, within the city walls, excluding residents from outside the city walls such as Grund or Limpertsberg. In contrast, St. Michel’s parish members came from various regions including Ville Haute, Grund, Clausen, Petite-Marly, Pfaffenthal, Siechenhof, and Weimershof. In total, 212 couples were counted from St. Michel’s parish and 172 from St. Nicolas, totaling 374 marriage banns from 1779-1783.

Now, let's examine the results. First, we'll consider only the grooms from within the city walls, represented by St. Nicolas parish in Luxembourg City. The Ville Haute demonstrated a 69% signature rate, surpassing Paris (48%), outpacing London (60%), and sliding ahead of Lyon (64%). However, it fell short of the Dutch of North Holland. Instead, it nestled in between Dutch Limberg (66%) and Reims, France (73%).

Towns surrounding Luxembourg City, sampled from St. Michel (48%), aligned with Belgian Limberg (48%) and Paris (48%). Combining the signature rate results for the grooms from both St. Michel’s (48%) and St. Nicolas (69%) we get a 57% average. Luxembourg City, inclusive of suburbs, was 9% ahead of Paris and only 3% behind London in male signatures.

Sampling marriage banns from various smaller towns and villages in the Duchy revealed that grooms across Luxembourg averaged a 55% literacy rate. This is significant as it's rare to find a wide range of people from both urban and rural regions being educated. Notably, these grooms' signature rates from smaller towns in Luxembourg still outperformed Paris.

These results raised an intriguing question. Luxembourg, historically Catholic, saw grooms achieving a higher literacy rate than those in France, barring Reims. However, these results emerged after compulsory education began in Luxembourg and before Napoleon's invasion and the subsequent depression.

What about the brides?

The results for grooms were significantly higher than those in Catholic regions, possibly due to influences from Franco-German roots and trade relations with the Netherlands. Conversely, the results for brides were dismal. Brides in the City of Luxembourg showed a low 22% average literacy rate, significantly lower compared to Germanic and French regions. It appears that for the females of Luxembourg, both Catholicism and exclusion from their Germanic roots where women often ran businesses and were involved in trade had significant influences.

It's fascinating to observe that out of the 159 grooms from Luxembourg City and suburbs who didn't list an occupation, 53% could sign their names. Whether these grooms were peasants, day laborers, or burgers who simply chose not to sign their name remains unknown. This lack of a job title meant an occupation couldn't be ascribed to them.

Luxembourg exhibited a significant literacy disparity between men and women, akin to Catholic Belgium, yet did not show a noticeable gap between individuals from urban and rural environments. In Luxembourg, male literacy, as indicated by signature rates, exceeded 50% in both city and countryside settings in the towns surveyed, barring two petite villages adjacent to the French border. This elevated literacy rate among males could be attributed to economic and trade relationships. The influence of Catholicism appears to have played a role in shaping gender-based education in Luxembourg. Urban living conditions might have assisted females in cities to attain literacy, while women residing outside the city walls grappled with substantial illiteracy rates. Signature rates among grooms in Luxembourg seem to echo patterns aligned with economic trade relations, while female rates reflect the nation's Catholic heritage.