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Education in the Middle Ages

By Danièle Cybulskie

Let’s have a five-minute look at medieval education.

medieval education - Martianus Capella, Noces de Philologie et de Mercure La Grammaire et son amphithéâtre d'élèves Commentaire partiel de Rémi d'Auxerre Italie (?), Xe siècle
Tenth century image of teaching – from BnF, Manuscrits, Latin 7900 A fol. 127v

If parents wished for their children to have schooling in the Middle Ages (and, naturally, if they had money) there were a few options. Many monasteries offered to educate boys, since learning was almost always meant to set children on the path towards a life in the religious community. Or, if parents preferred a more urban environment, they could send their children to cathedral schools – once again, run by the church. In some places, municipal schools existed, but their curricula would also run along religious lines (by our standards). Boys who were destined to become knights would be fostered in other knights’ homes to learn their martial skills, and noble girls could either receive instruction from nuns (at a cloister), or from other women or tutors in the home, although this could be a little dangerous to a young lady’s virtue, as Heloise’s parents discovered.

At school, students were instructed in Latin, since it was the language of intellectual thought, with vernacular (that is, mother-tongue) schools appearing as the Middle Ages drew to a close. The curriculum consisted of a “liberal arts” education, which was divided into the trivium and the quadrivium, according to classical tradition. The trivium consisted of grammar (Latin, that is), rhetoric, and logic. The quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

Students did take notes during their lessons, but would most often use wax tablets, since vellum was very expensive (being made of animal hide), and paper was not prevalent until the late Middle Ages. As a result of the lack of note-taking paper, students were forced to memorize great quantities of information, something that would have come more easily to them than it would to us, as they were not trained to write things down instead of remembering (as we are now). Exams were done orally, both for this reason and as an exercise in rhetoric.

When a student finished his liberal arts education, he could move directly into a career in the church or as a clerk, or her could choose to further his education at university (yes, “he” – as you might have guessed, these options were not available to women). Universities offered courses which were excluded by the liberal arts curriculum: theology, law, and medicine. Because of this tradition, medical and law schools are separate from undergraduate programs to this day. Rather than being the gigantic buildings universities are now, they were gatherings of people who came to learn from individual scholars, in the same lecture format you often see today. Students would attend universities based on who they wanted to learn from. There were several major universities in Europe: Paris, specializing in theology; Bologna, specializing in law; and Salerno, specializing in medicine, to name a few. Oxford University was created by students of the University of Paris who were banned from going by Henry II, and is the oldest English university – it’s about a thousand years old.

Universities became so large that their dynamics often swayed the dynamics of the towns in which they existed, to the displeasure of the citizenry. In Paris, there is still a section of the city which is called “The Latin Quarter,” due to the high number of students who lived and attended university there over the centuries. There were often bitter disputes between “town and gown,” as the unruly students wreaked havoc, rioted outright, or simply lived debauched lives in their towns. Citizens fought back by inflating prices on unavoidable necessities, such as lodging. Cambridge University, itself, was created as a result of one of these town-and-gown fights; students from Oxford left the city after the falling-out, and created their own school.

Evidence we have of student life consists of textbooks from cathedral schools and university charters, of course, but much more interesting are the letters asking parents for money, and the songs about drinking and womanizing. You can find a couple of these songs here (personally, I like the third one best as representative of the type of songs we often find). Clearly, university life hasn’t changed that much over the past thousand years (in the picture below, you can even see a student asleep at his lecture).

Here is a late-14th-Century painting by Laurentius de Voltolina, called “University.” I hope it brings you happy memories of your own school days.

medieval university

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You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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