As we have mentioned in our disclaimer, most of our articles examine historical scholarship of the Middle Ages in England and North France from 1060-1550. This is not going to be the case with this article. Medieval education in Europe was so varied from place to place that it can not be covered by just this remit. We will be mentioning England, France, the Italian states, Spain and Scotland. This article will not cover the education of crafts- and tradesmen, which will be the topic of a later article regarding Guilds and Craftsmen.
The importance of education
It is estimated that by 1330, only 5% of the total population of Europe received any sort of education. For most people, education during the medieval times was not deemed a necessity. Its need only became apparent with the rise of bigger kingdoms, which relied on skills like administration, arithmetic and, of course, the written word, in order to manage them.
Even then education, as we understand it, was not accessible or even desired by everyone. Schools were mostly only accessible to the sons of high lords of the land.
Medieval education and the Church
In most kingdoms in Europe, education was overseen by the church. The church organised the curriculum of studies, created the testing and marking system and, of course, guided the students through their studies. The very fact that the curriculum was structured by the church gave it the ability to mould the students to follow its doctrine. Bishops in cathedrals, priests in churches and monks in monasteries were the teachers of many institutions founded by the church.
Institutions managed by the church focused more on language and the arts, and less on the sciences, but even the knowledge of reading and writing Latin gave the graduates of these institutions a huge advantage. Illumination, painting (fresco) and calligraphy were very important for the church and were taught to those showing artistic aptitude. These three forms of art ensured that books could be copied and that temples would be decorated, inspiring awe in those who entered them.
The levels of medieval education
Unofficially, education started from a very young age. This sort of early education depended on the feudal class of the child’s parents. Depending on the country older children might, if they showed aptitude and their parents had the funds, attend either a Grammar or a Monastic school. Only the brightest and wealthiest of these pupils would graduate and continue to receive University-level education.
Even the children of serfs would be taught the skills needed to survive by their parents. The boys would be taken out into the fields to observe and to help their parents with easy tasks, while the girls would work with the animals at home, in the vegetable garden with their mothers, or watch them weave.
Young boys of noble birth would learn how to hunt and swing a weapon, while the young ladies of nobility would learn how to cook.
Children of craftsmen and merchants were educated from a very young age in the trade of their fathers. Trade secrets rarely left a family and they had to be taught and understood by all male (and unusually, female) heirs, in order to continue the family legacy.
Grammar schools were usually built beside, or very close to, a cathedral or a large church. The main subject of study in those schools was Latin (reading and writing). In addition to this, students were also taught rhetoric – the art of public speaking and persuasion – which was a very useful tool for both men of the cloth and nobles alike. Finally, the students had some basic exposure to subjects such as arithmetic (mathematics) or other sciences, depending on the expertise of the educators.
During the late medieval era (in England), grammar schools broadened their curriculum to include ancient Greek, English, other European languages, natural sciences and geography.
Lessons frequently started at sunrise and finished at sunset. This meant that in the spring/summer months, school could last for many hours; the opposite was true for the winter. Discipline was very strict – mistakes in lessons were punished with the birch (or the threat of it). In theory pupils would never make the same mistake again after being birched, as the memory of the pain inflicted was too strong.
After the 1400s, Grammar schools fell under the jurisdiction of a major university, like Cambridge or Oxford. Each year the university would appoint, by committee, two grammar masters, who would journey from one grammar school to the other and mark the students. Being a grammar master was so lucrative that they had to change staff every three years to minimise corruption.
Though similar to grammar schools, monastic schools (Scholae monasticae) were founded and run by monastic orders like the Benedictine monks. Monastic Schools were part of the monastery which included them, and accepted only members of the cloth. Run by monks, but under the loose control of the Vatican, monastic schools became havens of art and the sciences during the medieval era. Many monks focused on studying and copying ancient Greek and Roman books and explored theories of Plato, Eratosthenes, Aristoteles and Hippocrates. Monks made huge contributions in the effort of retaining past knowledge and, in some monasteries, the most radical monks explored subjects like physics, botany and astronomy.
The University arose around mutual-aid societies of foreign students called “nations” (as they were grouped by nationality) for protection against city laws which imposed collective punishment on foreigners. These students then hired scholars from the city to teach them. In Bologna, these various “nations” decided to form a larger association, or universitas – the first university.
University education, across the whole of the continent, was a luxury to which only the wealthiest and brightest could ever aspire. Since the creation of the first university in 1088 [1. There are multiple accounts placing Bologna’s university founding in 1088, but it is not certain. ] A.D. in Bologna, Italy, universities have been considered to be self-regulated, scholastic guilds of students and teachers who work under the sanction of an ecclesiastical or civil authority.
Initially, medieval universities had no physical manifestation. Students and teachers met in houses or churches and, occasionally, public parks (mimicking the ancient Greek philosophers). Later, universities began to rent and, in the case of many, construct buildings specifically for their purposes.
Students attended the Medieval University at different ages, ranging from 14 (if they were attending Oxford or Paris to study the Arts) to their 30s (if they were studying Law in Bologna). During this period of study, students were often living far from home and were unsupervised; thus students developed a reputation, both among contemporary sources and modern historians, for drunken debauchery. Students were frequently criticised in the middle ages for neglecting their studies in favour of drinking, gambling and sleeping with prostitutes. Considering the fact that 1/3 of the high clergy (bishops, archbishops, cardinals) attended university by the 1400s, this paints a very interesting picture of the early lives of those who commanded the Catholic church.
While students were “in tenure” they were afforded the legal protection of the clergy. Because of this, no one was allowed to physically harm them. For church-founded universities, this extended to a ruling that students could only be tried for crimes in an ecclesiastical court. The students’ immunity to corporal punishment led to the breaking of various secular laws, and even promoted acts of theft, rape and murder. It is fair to say that there were uneasy tensions with secular authorities. Student strikes were not uncommon; in Paris, after a riot which left several students dead, all the students left the city for two years.
The student – teacher dynamic
The dynamic between students and teachers in a medieval university was significantly different from today. In the University of Bologna students hired and fired teachers by consensus. The students also bargained as a collective regarding fees, and threatened teachers with strikes if their demands were not met. The “Denouncers of Professors” was a special committee that judged the quality of a professor’s work and fined them if they hadn’t completed a course on time, or if they failed to achieve the educational standard expected. Professors themselves were not powerless, however; forming a College of Teachers, they secured the rights to set examination fees and degree requirements. Eventually, the city of Bologna ended this arrangement, paying professors from tax revenues and making the university a chartered, public institution.
The curriculum & the seven liberal arts
New university students would enter the institution around the age of 14 or 15 years old, following the successful completion of Grammar school; however, only the most capable students would have been accepted. University studies started before sunrise (5:00-6:00 am) every weekday. A Master of Arts degree in the medieval education system would have taken six years; a Bachelor of Arts degree would be awarded after completing the third or fourth year. By “Arts” the degree was referring to the seven liberal arts – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These were all taught in Latin, both speech and text, and students were expected to be fluent and able to converse and debate intelligently in the language. The trivium comprised the three subjects which were taught first – grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These three subjects were the most important of the seven liberal arts for medieval students. Later the curriculum also came to include the three Aristotelian philosophies – physics, metaphysics and moral philosophy. It is important to note that subjects were separated into courses and each course was essentially the study of a book or key text, such as a book from the bible or one of Aristotle’s works.
Once a student attained the level of Master, he was able to pursue studies in one of the higher faculties of law, medicine or – the most prestigious degree of medieval education – theology. Studies in the higher faculties could take up to twelve years for a master’s degree or doctorate, which were initially considered the same. Within these additional six to twelve years, a student was awarded an additional bachelor qualification and a licentiate (‘licence’ in Latin) which meant that the individual had the right to exercise this discipline.
In some cases, especially in Scotland, wealthy Lairds (lords) and Burghes used their assets to transform their home into a school. This started with just the members of the family and kin but, in some cases, expanded to become what is know as a “household school” which would educate neighbours and family alike. These schools were primarily, though not restrictively, focussed on boys. Most girls would get their education in a nunnery if possible but, by the end of the middle ages, girls’ schools funded by local lairds started to make an appearance.
Education of the serfs
Elizabeth de Clare inherited a third of her family estates after her brother died at the Battle of Bannockburn. Elizabeth took a keen interest in education. After the death of her third husband in 1322, Elizabeth decided against marrying again and focussed all her power into helping the education of those who needed it most.
In the mid-1300s Elizabeth was one of the richest women in England but, unlike many rich people, Elizabeth believed it was important to help the poor. Her accounts show that in one five-month period she gave help to over 5,000 different people; of these, 800 received a daily allowance from Elizabeth.
Elizabeth de Clare disagreed with the view that serfs should not go to school. She arranged for a large number of people who lived in her villages to be educated. She also paid for those boys who showed talent to be educated at Oxford and Cambridge universities.
In 1336 Elizabeth supplied the money for the foundation of Clare College, Cambridge. This provided an education for twenty scholars. As well as donating a considerable amount of money, she also became involved in deciding what the students should study. Students at Clare College attended lectures on law, medicine, religion and the arts.
The sons of the peasants could only be educated if the lord of the manor had given his permission. In 1391, King Richard the II of England and his parliament passed a law which stated “No serf or villein…. should put his children to school.” Any family caught having a son educated without permission was heavily fined. Whilst this legislation was maintained, the education of all serfs in England was halted. Historians today believe that this policy was another way in which authority figures attempted to control the peasants, since an educated peasant/villein might prove to question the way things were done and upset the balance of power which kept the nobles strong.
Education of Women
Students held the legal status of clerics which, according to the Canon Law, could not be held by women; women were therefore not admitted into universities.
Most girls were not educated at all, unless their parents placed them in a nunnery. Their education would not have been scientific, but would have focused on the study of scripture and on child care, and they would not necessarily have been taught to read. The text De eruditione filiorum nobilium (On the Education of Noble Girls) was the first medieval pedagogical text to both systematically present a comprehensive method of instruction for lay children and to include a section devoted to girls.
In some rare instances, women were taught reading and basic calculus; this was mostly the case when the assets they had to manage, for their manor, required significant management skills and trading. This was more often seen in the Italian States, where women held higher positions of power, such as in the Medici family.
The quill and the paper
Paper was expensive and ink could only be afforded by monasteries and the highest ranks of nobility. Students in grammar schools hardly ever used a quill. Instead, students learnt how to write using a waxed tablet and a stylus. Only when their calligraphy was perfected, and only then if they could afford it, would students be allowed to use paper for writing.
Medieval education differences across European states
As aforementioned, education in Europe varied greatly from kingdom to kingdom. Restricted access to medieval education became the whip that kept the populace in line, and for those lucky enough to be educated it was a sword that freed them from a life of ignorance and forced servitude. Generally, there is a very clear negative correlation between the strictness of the regime and the access to education; the more centralised and rigid the system, the less likely the populace is to have access to education.
A clear example of this can be found in the differences of approach between England and Scotland. England, with a very strict authority model and a governance system which aimed to become more centralised, allowed no serf to be educated and provided no education for women. At the same time Scotland, a decentralized system of authority, saw the rise of open-to-all universities and serfs who had their education fees paid by local lairds (if the laird saw promise into them), and where women also had some access to education.
Even more extreme, in France we see a decentralized system which is highly focused on education; this translated into tens of universities founded in the duchies of the country.
Furthermore in Spain we see both Muslim, Basque and Castilian professors and students joining to study and research together, something unprecedented in any other European nation, and all of this regardless of the strong relations between Spain and the Vatican and the Holy See.
Read related articles
- Gies, F. & Gies, J. (1981) Life in a Medieval City. New York: Harper and Row.
- Graham, H. (1929) “Education in Medieval Scotland,” Catholic Educational Review, May, 1929, p. 273.
- Leach, A.F. (1914) Some Results of Research in the History of Education in England. London: British Academy. p. 31-32.
- Leach, A.F. (1915) The Schools of Medieval England. Accessed March 2015.
- Rait, R.S. (1912) Life in the Medieval University. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Rowling, M. (1970) Life in Medieval Times. New York: Perigee Books.
- Simkin, J. (2014) Education in the Middle Ages. Accessed March 2015.
- ‘The grammar schools of the medieval university’, in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, ed. H E Salter and Mary D Lobel (London, 1954), pp. 40-43 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol3/pp40-43. Accessed March 2015.
- A. Giesysztor, Part II, Chapter 4, page 136: University Buildings, in A History of the University In Europe, Volume I: Universities in the Middle Ages, W. Ruegg (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1992.