There is much debate among historians as to the literacy rate before the invention of the printing press (8th century CE in China, 1450 in Europe). In the Roman Empire alone, estimates range from 10% to almost everyone in Rome, but one thing that's almost universally acknowledged is that the literacy rate in Western Europe for centuries after the fall of Rome was in the single digits. Generally, only priests and some noblemen could read.
What's more, most Standard Fantasy Settings lack the factors that led to high literacy in our modern world. Printing presses, public schools, states... If anything they tend to be more anarchic than the real medieval Europe.
However, many authors write characters in their generic Medieval European Fantasy with the assumption that they can read. This may be for plot convenience, if reading something is key to the plot it can make things complicated if the cast needs to find someone literate. Or it may be that the writer just didn't think about the fact that most people in their setting would be illiterate.
In medieval-based video games, this becomes an Acceptable Break from Reality since the hero often spends a great deal of time reading letters, wanted posters, magic tomes, and other documents over the course of the game. There may be a handwave explaining how they know how to read if their station in life wouldn't normally allow for it.
Since this is an Omnipresent Trope only aversions and inversions should be listed. Subtrope of Artistic License History; contrast Medieval Morons. Related to Politically Correct History. When a character is presented as illiterate in a setting where literacy is the norm, that's Never Learned to Read.
- Dungeon Keeper Ami: There's no personal gunpowder weaponry, and Underworld shops are mostly identified with pictorial signs, plus Ami had to specify literate people when describing a population of Surfacers, but the concept of schoolbooks isn't unknown either.
- The Accursed Kings: Some nobles are actually proud of being Book Dumb by contrast to the educated clerics and ecclesiasts who do, to say nothing of the great unwashed masses. However, as most characters are aristocrats or wealthy merchant bankers, this doesn't come up much.
- Downplayed in The Arts of Dark and Light, with literacy in the world of Selenoth fairly widespread, although still more limited than in the real-life present day. Books are also still somewhat rare and expensive, at least as far as the lower classes are concerned; Farm Boy Speer's peasant family is noted as unusual for owning seven volumes.
- Averted in Ascendance of a Bookworm. The story has a realistic level of literacy and Myne is reincarnated as one of the large majority of poor and illiterate people in the population. Add in that books are created one at a time by trained craftsmen plus both paper and ink being expensive, makes books rare and expensive. One book costs roughly what Myne's father would earn in 40 to 50 years. Myne does however retain her memories of reading and writing in Japanese.
- Brother Cadfael: Set in 12th century England, the level of literacy varies: all the monks and nobility can read, as can most of the richer merchants, and there is repeated mention of church priests teaching young children to read. On the other hand, women are rarely able to read; even the sheriff's wife is illiterate.
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: Not only is the peasantry illiterate, many nobles are as well, and are shocked that Hank considers literacy more important than, say, knowing one's pedigree fifteen generations back.
- Justified in The Elenium by the Church pushing for universal literacy (and actually providing the education) so people can read the Church's message. This doesn't actually take that long to do, so there's a demand for other things to read; paper and the labor costs of scriveners are cheap, so books that even the urban poor can afford are available (mystery novels are said to be very popular with the girls in the brothels).
- Downplayed in Endo and Kobayashi Live! The Latest on Tsundere Villainess Lieselotte. Fiene, the only commoner in the Wizarding School, is shown to have basic literacy. However, she is shown to struggle with the knowledge that the rest of the student body—all nobles—have no problem with, up to and including the kingdom's Creation Myth. This is eventually Subverted, as Fiene is later found to be the illegitimate child of two very blue blooded nobles, but the illegitimacy itself forced her mother to hide her identity, take her out to live among the commoners, and teaching her in subtle ways. The story gives no clue as to whether actual commoners can read.
- Zigzagged in The Inheritance Cycle. Eragon is initially illiterate because, although Uncle Garrow was literate, as a farmer in a small village in the middle of nowhere he never really had any use for the skill and so didn't bother to teach it to his son and nephew. Eragon spends part of one chapter about halfway through the first book learning to read. Another chapter in the second book notes that Roran can read numbers but not letters.
- Many poor characters in Judge Dee are stated to be literate in terms of how many characters of the Chinese alphabet they can recognize and write down.
- Debatable in The Lord of the Rings, even Orcs appear to be literate, if only in some indecipherable Mordorian glyphs. Most Dwarves, Elves and Dunedain, and Hobbits, seem to be literate, though there is a remark when Sam cooks for the camp saying Hobbits learn to cook very early, earlier than "their letters, which some never learn".
- Averted in The Pillars of the Earth; fully literate people are fairly few and far between outside of the clergy, but skilled tradesmen like Tom Builder and his son Alfred can read a few words like their own names and can also read numbers.
- Zig-zagged in The Sharing Knife. Lakewalkers seem universally literate, but Farmers are hit and miss. In the first book Fawn sees a sign using both words and pictograms for the illiterate. Later she's seen to know how to read and write, but lacks practice in both since she doesn't access to many books and doesn't have anyone to write letters to.
- Averted in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels as well, where reading and writing is beyond most except for the nobility and Maesters, and books are still a highly-treasured commodity that's costly to produce. Nonetheless, the only illiterate point of view character is the humbly-born Davos Seaworth, who quickly learns how once it becomes necessary. Even Daenerys, whose only education comes from her brother (who himself had no formal education past the age of seven), is able to read and write in multiple languages.
- In the Sword of Truth, the civilized countries appear to be literate. In the fifth book, Richard visits a country where an oppressed majority isn't allowed to learn to read, and tries to explain to them the advantages of literacy, which presumably they'll have after siding with him.
- Averted in Uprooted, set in a fantasy counterpart of medieval Poland. The unusually high literacy rate in the protagonist's rural home region is justified by the local Benevolent Mage Ruler: his patronage alone draws in plenty of traveling book merchants, and they sell to the nearby towns while they're there. Other regions aren't so lucky.
- Averted in Welcome to Japan, Ms. Elf!. Despite the other world being an RPG Mechanics 'Verse where everyone has their own status screens, only mages and nobles tend to be able to read. This means that the other 70% of the population has to rely on someone who is literate to read their stats and skills for them.
- In The Wheel of Time, literacy is very high, because (per Word of God) the printing press managed to survive the cataclysm that bumped the world down into Medieval Stasis, so practically everyone is well-read. However, literacy is still low enough that shopkeepers take care to put a picture of what they sell on their signs (as was common practice in the real Medieval centuries).
- Averted in The Witcher. A line in The Time of Contempt states that most commoners can't read. In one of the short stories, the wise woman of a village keeps a book that describes witchers, and recites passages from the book when negotiating monster slaying. Geralt is surprised that a common woman can read, and even more confused when the old woman cheerfully informs him that no, she had not mastered the art of reading. It turns out she learnt it by rote memorization from the previous wise woman, who was able to recite the book in its entirety. As she's already passing the contents to a young girl (who presumably can't read, either), it's implied that generations of wise women have all been unable to read, and all learnt the book from their respective mentors, for who knows how long.
- Averted in Ars Magica, set in a fantasy version of medieval Europe. Literacy requires some training in the ability artes liberales, an academic skill that most people aren't eligible for. Magi and many of their Companions have a significant advantage in their access to this training.
- Averted in Burning Wheel: few lifepaths grant reading skill, and obstacles are quite high and difficult, especially for entire books - and it's even more difficult to read quietly! Not only that, Read and Write are separate skills: a copyist or a scribe could easily know how to write stuff without actually knowing what the letters themselves mean.
- In early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, if the optional nonweapon proficiency system is used, few player characters will bother picking the proficiency to read and write. Later editions generally play this straight, but barbarians are still almost universally illiterate until omitted out from 5th Edition. Literacy within the world itself tends to depend on the setting.
- Averted in Ironclaw: Literacy is a skill in 1st edition and a 10 EXP Gift in 2nd. A few careers include literacy, but mostly mages and some nobles.
- Averted in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Being able to read and write is a skill independent of learning spoken languages, and only a relative handful of career paths (usually related to academia or nobility) allow new characters to be literate right out the starting gate.
- Also averted in the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs to reinforce the "Dark Ages of Space" aesthetic. Though the PC literacy rate varies by specific gameline, with roughly half of a Merchant Prince's retinue in Rogue Trader being literate, while a normal Imperial Guard squad in Only War might be completely illiterate excepting maybe the sergeant.
- In the Dragon Age games, even though far more people know how to read than you'd expect given the setting, there are some exceptions.
- Casteless Dwarves (the lowest rung of the Dwarven social structure) never receive a formal education. If you play as one in Dragon Age: Origins, your older sister is a High-Class Call Girl and she was taught how to read as part of her courtesan training. It's implied that she passed these lessons on to her sibling, since a Dwarf Commoner Warden is as literate as any other player character. Origins' expansion, Dragon Age: Origins Awakening, features a casteless party member, Sigrun, who is also illiterate, and learning how to read is a minor running plot with her.
- In Dragon Age II, it's revealed that Tevinter slaves are illiterate. Fugitive slave Fenris is a party member, and if you give him a book as a gift, he'll reveal that he Never Learned to Read. You can offer to teach him, and he'll accept.
- Averted in the Adventure Mode side of Dwarf Fortress, with literacy being a skill to put points in, to be able to read. Zig-zagged in Fortress Mode, where literacy rates and the availability of books is largely down to the player's choices.
- Averted in Kingdom Come: Deliverance:
- The protagonist Henry starts off illiterate and must learn to read first.
- The bailiff of Uzhitz is also illiterate, and when he threatens the Nun Too Holy local priest with denouncing him to his superiors, the priest laughs and points out that the bailiff needs someone literate to write the letter to the bishop, and the priest is the only literate person in Uzhitz.
- Sir Hanush of Leipa is also illiterate in spite of being a noble. Hanush is a Boisterous Bruiser who prefers a more hands-on mode of governance, but when his illiteracy is pointed out he becomes a bit defensive.
- Yes, Your Grace: In the first two acts, the Lords whose standing army Eryk is borrowing can be summoned by messenger pigeon. The third act shows that the game averts the trope, as the army is made of peasants and representatives of villages need to be contacted in person by Eryk's agents because they can't read.
- Discussed in this video by Shadiversity where literacy in the Middle Ages is arbitrary depending on occupation and social status, meaning that one can be illiterate but can be knowledgeable in their craft, and that one can be literate but also uneducated. He then dives deeper in another video that some peasants are literate in the case of vernacular language.
- The commonly stated medieval literacy rates can actually be misleading depending on time, place and how you define literacy, making this trope a surprising bit of Truth in Television.
- In order to boost literacy, Korean Emperor Sejong the Great actually sat down and devised a new writing system specifically designed to be easy to learn rather than the at times deliberately difficult classical Chinese system, which requires years to learn thanks to containing thousands upon thousands of different characters. A typical commoner could not afford to spend the time to learn a language this complex and would thus be illiterate. As a purpose driven writing system, however, Hangul is remarkably easy to learn. Not only does it use phonetic characters rather than ideograms, the characters are even designed such that each character will have common features to indicate how they're pronounced. However, this led to backlash by Korean nobility and the system was suppressed for quite some time after his death.
- In Europe, literacy was not defined by how well you could read your own language but rather the official language of the educated, which was Latin. This is because while languages like English could be written down, they lacked standardized spelling and grammar and were thus difficult to use for anything important. Latin, meanwhile, had been the language of the Roman empire, had well established rules for usage and was the language used for the bible. Thus, a peasant was actually fairly likely to be literate in their own language, especially if they lived in an urban area. After all, with no standardized spelling and grammar, all you need to know is how a letter is pronounced if you want to 'read.' If literacy is instead defined at this level and for these languages, literacy rates were actually surprisingly high.