Frank and revealing

An exploration of education's medieval roots shows that there's not much that's new, although today's schooling may be more inhibited. Sean Lang enjoys a survey that gives our forebears a voice

Medieval Schools: from Roman Britain to Renaissance England

By Nicholas Orme

Yale University Press pound;25

Nicholas Orme, professor of history at Exeter University, is a champion of the much-maligned Middle Ages, defending the period against those who think of it as shorthand for the primitive, the superstitious and the brutal.

Sting once wondered if the Russians loved their children; to those who have asked this about medieval people here is Professor Orme riding into the lists to deliver a resounding "Yes". Orme showed in his 2001 work, Medieval Children, that, strange as it may seem, medieval people played with their children and indulged them in much the same proportions to chastising them and giving them a clip round the ear as we do.

Now he has followed them to school. Many schools still bear the names and coats of arms of their medieval founders, though Orme points out that few can trace an unbroken ancestry: medieval schooling could be disrupted by anything from plague or warfare to the local schoolmaster moving on.

When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the schoolmaster at Bruton claimed quite falsely that his school had been attached to the newly dissolved abbey and successfully sued the government for compensation. To the fury of the locals he gave up teaching and turned the school into a malthouse.

Tracing the story of medieval schools is surprisingly difficult: they seldom had separate buildings and they generated surprisingly little paperwork. Orme shows great ingenuity in gleaning information from passing references in manuscripts, law cases, poems, even tombstones, and constructing a vivid picture of schoolroom life. For one thing, there were many more schools than we have tended to assume, and they came in many different shapes and sizes: free schools, chantry schools, grammar schools, monastic schools, even a few private schools.

Despite the Jesuits' famous maxim about giving them a child until it is seven, by no means all teachers were clergy, neither were all pupils training for the priesthood; ironically, it was only after the Protestant Reformation that the Church secured its grip on the nation's schools. But there was a definite moral agenda: one 12th-century schoolbook contained precepts that wouldn't be out of place in morning assembly today: "the fires of the jealous injure themselves but no others" or "Even a pig on a dunghill rises in order to forage; why then do humans in contrast never forsake what is filthy?"

Then, as now, literacy was the priority. Every schoolboy was expected to know his Donatus, whose book of grammar was the standard text for centuries. Orme has even worked out how children learned and pronounced the alphabet, starting with the sign of the cross and ending with Amen.

French competed with English as the schoolroom lingua franca for a while until it finally went the way of all minority languages. Medieval children learned Latin as the language of prayer, very like Muslim children learning Arabic today. At the King's School, Canterbury, the head was expected to be fluent in both Latin and Greek (the deputy head only needed Latin) and there were even language dictionaries in alphabetical order up to three significant letters. But it was hard cheese for medieval nuns: like Yorkie bars, learning Latin wasn't for girls.

Medieval education can seem surprisingly modern. At Oxford in the 13th century, you could study business, accountancy and conveyancing, with a strong subsidiary line in business French. Medieval teachers produced mnemonics and set grammar rules to verse for easy learning. Clearly aware of how to appeal to their charges' lowest common denominator, they also wrote collections of "vulgaria", commonplace phrases to parse or translate into Latin, which included "Thou stinkest", "Turd in thy teeth", and the splendidly vivid "He is the veriest coward that ever pissed".

Schoolbooks were commendably frank about the facts of life: a woodcut illustrating the Ten Commandments makes the meaning of adultery graphically clear in a way that I don't remember learning at my Catholic primary school.

One big difference from today was the ever-present birch; beating pupils was so common that, at Cambridge, newly qualified masters of grammar got to thrash a boy as part of the graduation ceremony. However, Orme points out that everyone got beaten then: apprentices, paupers, servants, wives; children were treated the same as everyone else. Even so, there's poetic justice in the Oxford schoolmaster who drowned trying to gather rods - with which to beat his pupils.

School reflected society: the master sat at the head of the hall like a feudal lord and the pupils sat bunched up on benches; at Eton, they were still sitting like this in the 19th century. Poor scholars were expected to know their place. At Dean Colet's famous school of the new learning at St Paul's, the poor scholar had to sweep the school and "oversee the sale of the urine" - definitely a stall to avoid at the school fete.

Nevertheless, learning brought the poor into contact with the better-off and gave them the means to articulate their thoughts: perhaps it's not surprising that so many medieval rebels and heretics were literate and had clearly been to school.

To medieval people, "school" was a flexible term: it could mean the children themselves or the building in which they sat, a discussion group or a style of painting. Orme considers the story in all its variations, from Roman times, when written language came to these shores, to the religious conflicts of Tudor England which had an inevitable impact upon teaching and learning. He is well served by the beautiful illustrations, of a quality we have come to expect from Yale.

Teachers can be surprisingly dismissive of even recent educational history, yet this story is part of our professional heritage. We owe to our medieval forebears everything from the primarysecondary divide to the three-term year and the six-form secondary school structure. Like us, medieval teachers had to cope with mixed-age classes, low public esteem and incessant complaints that educational standards were falling. Orme has given medieval schools a voice to which modern schools would do well to listen.

Se n Lang is honorary secretary of the Historical Association

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