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Light on a dark age;History

Linda Blackburne investigates the ways in which children learnt and played in the middle ages

The medieval period is truly a dark age when it comes to information about children's lives. The Christ child dominated religious paintings, but ordinary children, especially girls, were neither seen nor heard much in the histories or art of the obscure millennium from 500 to 1500AD.

But boys did surface sufficiently for historians to piece together a picture of their lives, and to touch the imaginations of medieval painters such as Pieter Brueghel.

A medieval schoolboy's day was as long as an adult's. He would get up by candlelight at about 6am and often have his breakfast at school at about 8am. The lunch-hour was from 11am to noon or 1pm. School shut at 4pm, and the evening meal was eaten soon afterwards. Bedtime was early to save on candles and because they had to get up so early.

Latin and French were the official languages of the country up to the 17th century. Boys learnt to read and write in Latin at school, but learning Latin was not considered important for girls, who were more likely to learn to read at home. Even by the 15th century there were only a small number of girls in schools.

A typical town school was attended by the sons of gentlemen, yeomen farmers, shopkeepers and craftsmen. School fees were cheap at about three shillings a year. But this meant schoolmasters, who were usually self-employed, might teach classes of anything from 50 to 120 boys aged from seven to 18. Pupils sat on benches and older boys helped the master by teaching younger classmates.

"A schoolmaster was a relatively low-status job," says Professor Nicholas Orme, medieval historian at Exeter University. "He would need to teach about seven pupils to earn pound;1, so in a year he would only earn about pound;10, a respectable salary for the time but not as good as a clergyman's or a prosperous shopkeeper's."

There were no school uniforms, but all the boys wore long gowns, belted at the waist with an ink horn, a goose quill and a knife to sharpen it. The wearing of gowns proclaimed to the world that they belonged to a higher class than manual workers.

Nicholas Orme is the author of White Bird Flying, seven historical stories with a spiritual theme for pupils aged nine to 13, published by Addison Wesley Longman (pound;4.40, pound;26.40 for six)

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