By Lucie Laumonier
Have you ever wondered how peasant children were educated in the Middle Ages? And if they even went to school? The short answer: most did not, though they still received a training of sorts.
There are many reasons why few children from medieval peasant families attended school. The most obvious is that literacy, especially in Latin, was quite unnecessary for tilling the soil, harvesting vegetables and raising cattle. School attendance might mean that parents had loftier aspirations than peasantry for their offspring, such as a future career in the clerical orders or in manorial administration. Another reason is that schools were a relatively scarce resource in rural settings compared to urban areas.
Indeed, most schools were located in towns, such as the cathedral schools attached to the seat of the diocese, or the municipal schools or “grammar schools” that bloomed in the later Middle Ages. But sending one’s children to a town-based institution implied either a long commute or finding board and lodging in town. These options came at a financial cost that not all peasant families could or wanted to afford. Money, then, is yet another—all too familiar—factor that explains the lack of schooling among the children of the peasantry. With a focus on England in the later Middle Ages, this article looks at the various ways in which peasant children were educated and learned: at school, at home, and in the houses of strangers.
One source of education accessible to the least fortunate came from the monasteries. These institutions, many of which were established in the countryside, had a monastic school. While they were first reserved to the oblates—the young aspiring to become monks—seats were also available for children from the surrounding areas. But sending a child to school came at a high financial cost for the humble families of the countryside.
To remedy the situation, some English monastic schools may have adopted a more open policy with regards to the teaching of poor peasant children. The monastery of St. Albans, some 35 kilometres north of London and whose grammar school opened in 1286, was one such place. From the fourteenth century onwards, the school was endowed by wealthy individuals to offer financial support for the education of the poor, who probably came from the surrounding manorial estates.
Though scant, there is evidence of peasant children being enrolled in local schools. They usually started between the ages of 6 and 8, roughly equivalent to when children start elementary school today. In England, the evidence comes from the licences that peasants had to obtain from their lord to be allowed to send their children to school. In the Manor of Norton, 17 such licences were granted between 1300 and 1348, roughly one every other year. In the Manor of Winslow, 15 licences were issued between 1327 and 1348, nearly one per year. After the plague, numbers in Winslow dropped to one every third year.
When doubt that one had secured the lord’s licence arose, the manorial court launched an inquiry. Peter Tyrsi, from the Manor of Wakefield, was subjected to such an investigation in 1286. The manor’s jury wanted to establish if he had or not received permission to “put his sons to book-learning.” Indeed, those who omitted to request permission were fined. In 1339 for instance, Richard Ponteys, from Winslow, was amerced (charged) 3 denarii for sending his son Geoffrey to school without the lord’s licence.
While monastic schools certainly provided opportunities for a few, most peasant children received no formal education there. Those who stayed at their parents’ home were expected to work on the farm, gradually learning the skills they would need as adults in just such a setting. Children fed the chickens, harvested vegetables, sowed, fetched firewood and watched their younger siblings.
Two sources informing on the children’s daily activities are miracle stories and, in England, inquiries of the coroner, known as the “coroner’s rolls.” Both shed a dramatic light on the children’s stories. In essence, they are dry accounts of accidents and deaths. But they also illuminate the context of the accidents and provide insights into the way in which children gained experience.
Some accidents testify to the role of older children, sometimes as young as 6 years of age, in the care of babies and toddlers. One mother for instance left her 4-month-old daughter in the watch of a sibling while she went to shear a sheep. On her return to the house, she found the baby lifeless, entangled in the bands of her cradle, hanging head down. Watching siblings may have been a responsibility equally shared between brothers and sisters until they reached adolescence.
Children followed their parents around in the manor, learning through observation and experience. The Bedfordshire coroner’s rolls recount an accident involving a 10-year-old boy. He was working in the manor house kitchen, chopping vegetables when he dropped his knife and stabbed his foot. A number of rural children also worked alongside their parents in workshops. Children were active members of the English pottery industry. They fetched, carried and trampled clay. They prepared clay balls and made sections of the pots, gradually gaining skills in the craft.
By contributing to the household economy, children gained valuable knowledge and practice. But perfecting the skills of agriculture, artisanal crafts or household management mainly took place during one’s teens, when one received greater responsibilities. The Bedfordshire rolls, for instance, tell us about Robert, 11, who was watching his father’s livestock when he was struck by lighting. In fact, the commonality of service placements and apprenticeship indentures involving teenagers illustrate the association of adolescence with work and training.
Service and Apprenticeship
At around age 12, a number of teenagers were sent away from home to work as servants or apprentices. Exactly how many is impossible to know but the custom was common enough to have been dubbed the “lifecycle service” by historians of the family. The concept characterizes certain patterns of work and marriage in premodern Northwestern Europe. With a number of nuances, the lifecycle service also applies to the medieval era and to Southwestern Europe, where teenagers left their childhood home to work and learn in the house of a relative or stranger.
According to Jeremy Goldberg’s estimates, one in 10 English rural dwellers aged 14 and older worked as a servant. While some rural teenagers remained in the vicinity of their community to work, many moved to a nearby town or city, where employment in artisanal crafts and wealthy households was more prevalent. The migration of young workers to urban areas increased markedly after the Black Death throughout Western Europe.
Some of these teenage servants were hired to perform household tasks. One example involves an 11-year-old female servant who failed at her task when the toddler she was supposed to watch escaped and fell in a river. The toddler was ultimately saved by the miraculous intercession of St. Thomas Becket. The notion of service, however, did not solely apply to domestic work. Service signified a position of dependency vis-à-vis the employer. The term applied to household servants, apprentices and subaltern workers alike.
In the case of agricultural service, male teenagers were expected to plough and female teenagers to milk cows; all should sow, till and harvest, fetch wood and water, and so forth — anything their employer demanded. In one of Henry VI’s miracle stories, an adolescent girl was working in a sandpit when one of the walls collapsed on her, burying her under a gigantic pile of sand. Her coworkers managed to dig her out after she prayed to the saint.
Few adolescent servants and apprentices received a salary for their work, but they were lodged, fed and dressed. Service was seen as a form of training, especially—evidently—in the case of apprentices. Service was a point of entry into future paid work and a preliminary step to marriage, especially for girls whose master was often involved in their endowment.
During the Middle Ages, few peasant children attended school. But medieval education was not restricted to formal schooling. In a society where most people were peasants and where literacy was much more limited than today, training was primarily practical. Peasant children gradually learned agriculture, animal husbandry, household management and, sometimes, artisanal crafts. They learned by observation and experience, being asked from a young age to undertake menial tasks. Their responsibilities and involvement in the household economy increased when they reached adolescence, an age of life more closely associated with training and service.
Jeremy P. Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy: Women in York and Yorkshire c. 1300-1520 (Clarendon Press, 1992).
D. M. Hadley, K. A. Hemer (eds.), Medieval Childhood: Archaeological Approaches (Oxbow Books, 2014)
Miriam Müller, Childhood, Orphans and Underage Heirs in Medieval Rural England: Growing Up in the Village (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
Nicholas Orme, Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England (Yale University Press, 2006).
Top Image: British Library MS Royal 10 E IV fol. 235r