井の中の蛙

2/7/2005

Early Modern Numeracy

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:33 pm

Reading Hanley’s Everyday Things in Premodern Japan: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture with my class (which is quite interestingly divided on the success of its argument, but we’re just getting started), I was struck by my own lack of knowledge about Tokugawa era numeracy. We’ve got a pretty good handle on literacy, by class and period, but not its mathematical equivalent.

It comes up in her second chapter, on living space: the minka [commoner house] architecture which spread in the late 17th-early 18th century “required a considerable amount of calculation” (30), which presumably was available (otherwise the houses couldn’t have been built). I’ve always assumed that numeracy was pretty widespread among the urban population — merchants and artisans and anyone else involved in substantial business dealings — and that even farmers need pretty strong math skills to keep track of productivity, inputs and markets. I have also read things which suggest relatively low rates of numeracy among samurai — considering arithmetic something done by “lowly merchants” — but that is counterintuitive: household budgeting based on an annual stipend must have required some fiscal planning.

Perhaps part of my problem is that I don’t have a good idea of how a non-numerate person would function, in a modern or early modern environment. Once markets and money are involved, basic numeracy seems to be a sine qua non for daily life function. It is true that there are still plenty of non-market actors in the early, even mid-Tokugawa, so there should be some numeracy shifts to track.

But it’s going to be harder than literacy, because it can leave fewer traces. Is anyone working on this question? Rough ideas welcome.

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