During the Middle Ages, the ability to read and write was enjoyed by only a small minority consisting of the wealthy and ecclesiastics. This caused issues in society, mainly through abuses in tax collecting, as of course the peasants couldn’t read the sheriff’s documents, enabling corruption within this practice. However, where text failed to allow the majority to communicate, pictures thrived, in the form of imagery and other forms of personal endorsement which allowed for the promotion of oneself during this period.
Due to the high rate of illiteracy, traders faced a great problem in finding another way, aside from the written word, of promoting themselves and their goods to potential customers walking past their shops, or of catching the eye of those wandering through the market stalls. The solution came in the form of hanging large visible images of the goods or services that they sold outside of their shops or atop of their market stalls, with the addition of ‘street barkers’ who stood near their businesses, heckling passers-by to advertise the goods and coax them into perusing what the trader had to offer.
In the wider field, occupational surnames were also used as a way to advertise and promote goods and services, as the local town would pick up and begin to associate a trader with their trade, with examples like ‘Miller’, for those who worked in a grain mill, and ‘Taylor’, who were, of course, tailors, with many of these names still surviving today.
Other means of non-textual endorsement from this period which still survive today are the use of imagery on the signs outside of public houses to allow for the illiterate to understand that the building was a pub, and what it was called. This dates back to the Roman era, where bushes were hung outside of wine bars, and from the 14th century, inns and taverns began to use the recognisable pictorial signs that would bare imagery associated with their names, such as an image of two sparring roosters, for an inn called ‘The Fighting Cock’.
Here, then, we see that although the majority of the population in the Middle Ages was illiterate, this didn’t prevent individuals from being able to understand the world around them, as personal endorsement allowed traders to communicate with their customers.