What Did Medieval Schools Do for Us? Nicholas Orme Returns to the Classroom to Find out How Boys, and Girls, Were Educated from the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors; and Finds That the Foundations of Our Education System Were Laid during This Period

By Orme, Nicholas | History Today, June 2006 | Go to article overview

What Did Medieval Schools Do for Us? Nicholas Orme Returns to the Classroom to Find out How Boys, and Girls, Were Educated from the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors; and Finds That the Foundations of Our Education System Were Laid during This Period


Orme, Nicholas, History Today


THERE ARE FEW WORSE insults than 'medieval', or safer ones, because those who might be offended are no longer with us! Where education is concerned, independent schools, old school buildings, unfashionable subjects like the classics, or strict regimes, can all be dismissed as 'medieval' without imagining what medieval schools might have been like. If anyone does imagine them, it is probably as few in numbers, poorly equipped, with unimaginative teaching, and pupils kept in order by vigorous corporal punishment- altogether different from what good modern schooling should be.

The history of schools in England begins a long way back, probably soon after the Romans came in AD 43. The Romans used reading and writing for a wide range of purposes, and many signs of these survive today. There are milestones and tombstones carved with inscriptions, and words stamped onto pottery and tiles. There are the wooden tablets from Vindolanda near Hadrian's Wall containing letters and inventories, and the metal plates with prayers and curses found in the waters of Bath. These writings were in Latin, and if you wished to learn to read or write in Roman Britain, you did so in that language.

Little is known of how schools functioned in Britain. In the Roman empire as a whole, however, it was common to find elementary teachers of reading in towns, and the major cities supported more learned schoolmasters who would teach grammar and rhetoric (how to write and speak Latin correctly and read the best classical authors). While only the noblest and wealthiest in Britain would have studied these subjects, mostly boys at that, many others must have learnt to read and write at a basic level since the bits of Latin that have survived on everyday objects are often crudely spelt and expressed.

When Roman control in Britain evaporated soon after AD 400, the western half of the country reverted to rule by native British kings. The eastern half became infiltrated by Anglo-Saxons, who established kingdoms of their own. One might have expected Latin literacy to have dried up also. It did not--any more than literacy in English or French disappeared when colonialism ended in Africa. By AD 400 Britain was becoming Christian, and Christianity is a religion of books and writings: the Bible, prayer-books, letters, laws, and non-Christian Latin scholarly works. British Christians--clergy and the more important laity--needed to go on learning Latin to read or write it.

As soon as the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, which happened after 597, they followed this path as well.

There were, however, two big educational changes in the post-Roman era. One was a change in where schooling took place. By 400 the towns in Britain were in decline. They no longer contained enough literate people to support schoolmasters teaching the public. The centres of literacy in Britain moved from the towns to monasteries, and it was monks who now provided schooling, primarily for boys and youths intending to be monks but not invariably so. It was to be a long time before free-standing teachers appeared again in the towns of what by then would be England.

The other change involved how schooling was done. In Roman times, when a good deal of Latin was spoken even in Britain, you went to school to learn the Latin alphabet, but after that you could pick up much of your knowledge of Latin from Latin speakers around you. The advanced teachers of grammar and rhetoric assumed that you had a basic knowledge of Latin already, and sought to polish and improve it.

After 400, when there were far fewer Latin speakers in Britain, learning it informally became difficult. One solution was to learn the Latin alphabet but to use it to write in your local language, and from about the fifth or sixth century this was done in Welsh and Irish, and later on (by the seventh century) in English. But although these languages were suitable for composing poetry and local laws and customs, you still needed Latin to access religious and learned writings and to communicate with people in France and Italy. …

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