The art of counting: Reconstructing numeracy of the middle and upper classes on the basis of portraits in the early modern low countries

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In the past decades, numeracy has taken an increasingly important place in the study of human capital formation, as well as in literacy studies and studies on formal education and book production. In order to understand levels of education, scholars have recently tried to develop new ways to measure the level of education, particularly because it has since become apparent that the measures of literacy historically have not always been very accurate. To measure numeracy, population surveys have been used to show that in the past respondents who were innumerate had a tendency to state their ages as round numbers, ending in 0 or 5. Finding suitable data in the pre-modern age to analyze numeracy via age heaping is a cumbersome task, however. In this article, the authors explore the possibilities of using art, especially individual portraits in which the age of the sitter is indicated on the portrait by means of the Aetatis suae formula, as a source to study human capital formation and numeracy. This article has two main objectives that contribute to different areas of economic history as well as art history. The authors first demonstrate which criteria should be taken into account when building a database, especially for artistic artifacts. Secondly, they use the dataset to contribute to the understanding of numeracy levels among the well-to-do in the Low Countries in the early modern period. The analysis will show that women's numeracy was often even higher than that of men. Notwithstanding the high overall level of women's numeracy compared to other countries in Europe, the authors will also test the recent hypothesis put forward by Peter Földvári, Bas Van Leeuwen, and Van Jieli Leeuwen-Li that when women's ages were mentioned, they were usually reported as part of a married couple and possibly adapted to the ages husbands reported.


Externa organisationer
  • Utrecht University

Ämnesklassifikation (UKÄ) – OBLIGATORISK

  • Ekonomisk historia


Sidor (från-till)41-56
Antal sidor16
TidskriftHistorical Methods
StatusPublished - 2013 jan 1
Peer review utfördJa
Externt publiceradJa