One of the conceits of much scholarly literature concerning the ancient peoples of Iraq was that the overwhelming majority of the population was completely illiterate in the cuneiform writing system used. The idea is that the writing system was so complicated and difficult to learn that only a few scribes could possibly have been able to master the system.
Thus we get comments like this:
There was no general reading public in ancient Mesopotamia, with a literacy rate of probably at less than 1 percent. Even if there were a relatively large number of people who knew how to read, an inscription commemorating a specific victory or victories would be much more appropriate to a king’s glory than a chronicle of his victories with a great deal of other information stored in an inaccessible archive. We have no evidence that those tablets would have been read aloud at specific events or on certain days during the year. Indeed why they were even compiled is as puzzling a question as why they were preserved.1
The above is dubious in the extreme it also works on an essentially binary idea concerning knowledge of the cuneiform writing system, the notion that either there was complete mastery of the writing system or a total lack of knowledge of the system and that outside of those extremes there was no knowledge of the system.
Thus we get the idea that partial knowledge of the system was for all practical purposes functionally non-existent in society.
Before we get into the reams of evidence concerning the use of the system one should mention the very widespread use of the Chinese system of writing. Despite its vast number of characters, (In the thousands easily.), the system was both widely known and taught in China well before the Europeans came in contact with China. Despite the well-known difficulty of learning the system a very large % of the adult population of China by c. 1200 could at least read the script even if they could not use or penetrate its more obtuse aspects. Literacy was surprisingly widespread in pre-modern China and this with a script that was more complicated and required much more memorization of characters than the Babylonian system.2
Thus the difficulty of writing system does not necessarily mean that the script is not widely known or only the specialist knowledge of a few scribes.
The argument is usually that the Babylonian system was both too complicated and too difficult to learn without years of full time training in its intricate nature. This argument is rather easy to make. After all Babylonian for example was written with a script that was originally invented to write Sumerian, a language quite different from Babylonian / Akkadian which was a Semitic language. Sumerian is related to no known language. To indicate just one important difference; Sumerian is a strongly agglutinative language. In this type of language words are constructed to a large extent by adding suffixes and affixes to a root word. Babylonian / Akkadian tends instead to keep words isolated not to build up words. The result is that the fit is not so good.3
None of this affects very much the central issue which is not expert use of the writing system but whether or not people could have enough familiarity to read basic documents.
After all it is clear that the cumbersome nature of the writing system along with the need to learn other languages, especially Sumerian meant that it required years of training to become expert in the use of the writing system. However ordinary people did not need to know Sumerian or the intricacies of the writing system all they needed to know was how to read and understand the basics of the system in their everyday language. Further they did not generally need to write documents and if they did it would be documents like, if you are a merchant, those related to commerce and has such a fairly restricted vocabulary. So that a merchant as in the above example would not need to know all the complexities of the system but only a fairly restricted version of it in order to get by with his day to day business.4
The best evidence that knowledge of the writing system was fairly widespread is the proliferation of contracts and other legal documents. It appears for example that it was a common practice to have at home a small archive of important documents. Especially germane in this respect was the use of written deeds to verify the transfer of property, especially of land.5
In fact we have such things as the following letter from the time of Hammurabi, (c. 1700 B.C.E.), reports that a certain Gimillum said:
My family’s field is located in the district of the locality of Mehrum. Among the old tablets from the temple of Nisaba, I saw:
‘…field of one bur four iku belonging to the soldier Adallalum; …field of one bur four iku belonging to the soldier Wardum, Albana territory, district of Mehrum and Muhattat.’6
The above indicates that among farmers there was some level of literacy and that the idea that literacy was confined to a small percentage of the population and that the intervention of a scribe was necessary in order for routine documents to be read and written down is simply an exaggeration.
Certainly the commercial documents, discovered, which number in the hundreds of thousands would indicate that it was very common for merchants to be able to read their contracts and apparently at least a few of them could write to some degree.7
As in the case of China in the 18th century there were degrees of literacy. Only a few people would have had expert familiarity with the script and the various languages that a trained scribe would have, but a far larger proportion of the population would have had the ability to read at least some of the script and some at least would have had the ability to write to some extent.
Certainly literacy both in reading and writing seems to have been fairly widespread among the upper classes. So it appears that people of other classes had varying degrees of literacy. Certainly being able to read some if not all of the script was much more common than being able to write in it but even so “literacy” was almost certainly much more common than under 1% of the population. Although people who were to various degrees partially literate almost certainly greatly out-numbered those who were fully literate.8
What actual percent of the population of Mesopotamia was actually literate and in what degree(s) of literacy cannot of course be known today but it was probably, considering the difficulty of the script, greater than we would expect.
1. Verbrugghe, Gerald P., & Wickersham, John M., Berossos and Mantheo, Introduced and Translated, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor MICH, 1996, p. 19. Actually the archives were not inaccessible and tablets were taken out and read. In fact the Babylonians, Assyrians etc., seemed to have had a genuine interest in their past. Further the Kings etc., liked to have available to them the past achievements of monarchs to compare their own acts too, and to serve has a models for emulation. See Charpin, Dominique, Reading and Writing in Babylon, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 2010, pp. 178-246.
2. For China see Mote, F. W., Imperial China, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 1999, p. 325. Parker, Geoffrey, Global Crisis, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2013, pp. 577-581. For a look about how literacy and schooling penetrated even to the village level see Spence, Jonathan D., God’s Chinese Son, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1996, pp. 23-33.
3. Doblhofer, Ernst, Voices in Stone, Paladin, London, 1973, pp. 141-145. See also Sumerian Language, Wikipedia Here.
4. Charpin, pp. 154-177.
6. Quoted in Charpin, p. 113.
7. Footnote 4.
8. Charpin, pp. 61-65.
8. Charpin, pp. 61-65.