Were teachers in the Middle Ages using “unremitting brutality” in beating their students, as was claimed by writers since the Renaissance? A new research project at the University of Leicester is discovering that the use of corporal punishment was not as violent and arbitrary as previously believed.
Instead, medieval writing suggests classroom punishments such as beating, flogging and whipping were carefully regimented – and were only meant to be used to aid learning.
There has been a long history of using corporal punishment to teach students. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all noted the use of beatings by teachers. Even today it is still practiced in parts of the world: while the United Kingdom and Canada have outlawed the practice, nearly half of the states in the United States still allow some level of corporal punishment.
Like today, during the Middle Ages there was also debate about when to use the rod or lash in the classroom, and the reasons used to justify it. It is the focus of Discipline and Violence in the Medieval Classroom, a research project led by Dr Ben Parsons, a Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature in the University’s School of English, and funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) fellowship.
Dr Parsons explains, “Why do schoolchildren need to be beaten? For much of the history of education, there has been a general acceptance that instruction should be accompanied by violence. The longstanding link between schooling and flogging is attested by a whole host of artefacts, from the whipping stools that survived in many early schools, to the Harrow Punishment Book, in which Edwardian schoolmasters assiduously recorded the punishments meted out to their charges.
“Even today the association persists. After the riots of August 2011, there were widespread calls to ‘bring back the strap’ or ‘return to a clip round the ear culture’, voiced by MPs and journalists alike.
“However, what these sources and statements fail to reveal is exactly why corporal punishment should make instruction more effective, and how exactly it assists in the acquisition of knowledge. It is the purpose of this research project to account for this strange association.”
Medieval scholars writers in the 12th to 14th centuries – such as Alexander of Neckam, Vincent of Beauvais and John Bromyard – put forward the idea that careful limits should be placed around beating.
Alexander of Neckam states “in truth the rod is withdrawn when things are done as required. Whips and scourges are put away, so that no form of censure might be excessive”.
In addition, the punishment should be proportional to the offence committed by the student and, as John Bromyard states, only “when the ugliness of the crime is great should the weight of the penalty inflicted be bitter”.
There were strict rules for when and how pupils should be beaten put forward by writers. Vincent of Beauvais argued that beating should always be accompanied by a formal warning. In addition, the punishment should vary according to the character of the offender, and beating should always happen before an audience.
However, there was no fixed consensus about why beating was such an important part of teaching. Among the reasons given were:
- pain helped students memorise their mistakes
- beating could be used to mould the students’ bodies, just as teaching was used to mould their minds
- fear was “the origin of wisdom”
- beating could instil morality into the students
- teachers could use beating to assert control over the students – which teaches them to obey authority
“Although their assumptions fall far outside the bounds of acceptability for us,” Dr Parsons adds, “the ways in which medieval writers treated corporal punishment is still very much to their credit. What is remarkable about these discussions is how methodically the subject was approached; even when in agreement that boys needed to be beaten, teachers did not take this responsibility lightly, but with a level of care and sensitivity that remains impressive.”
Dr Parsons will outline some of the findings from the research project so far in an upcoming paper titled “The Way of the Rod: the Functions of Beating in Late Medieval Pedagogy”, which is due to appear in the journal Modern Philology next year. Click here to read more about the project.