For medieval, read modern;11th - 15th centuries;Millennium Edition

31st December 1999 at 00:00
Pupils in the Middle Ages were much as they are today, and society was nowhere near as illiterate as people think, reports Gerald Haigh

We use "medieval" almost as a term of abuse now, and it is consequently easy to think of the Middle Ages as a time of darkness, brutality, superstition and unremitting toil.

Those elements, of course, were there. At the same time, though, there was more reading, writing and scholarship than we are sometimes led to believe. Professor Nicholas Orme of Exeter University, the leading authority on medieval schooling and childhood, believes that medieval society was widely literate. It was group literacy, in the sense that those who could not read knew someone who could.

Much of the learning went on in the home. In Anglo-Saxon times, parents were expected to teach their children the basics of behaviour, morality and religion, and in many cases this undoubtedly extended to basic literacy.

Nevertheless, schools as we know them - self-contained, open to the public, with professional teachers - were invented in this country in the 12th century.

Latin, the language of religion, commerce and scholarship, was difficult to learn, and the best way to learn it was in the concentrated atmosphere of a school.

By the 13th century, therefore, there was in every town of consequence a school for perhaps 100 boys, open to all who could pay. Some were elementary or "song" schools (so called because of the concentration on plainsong); others were grammar schools for the higher study of Latin.

Some, it seems, were both, and the boundaries - including the one between school and higher study as well as that between elementary and grammar - were in any case not clear-cut. There was no national system, hence the study of medieval schooling is a matter of local history, or the history of individual schools.

Girls, though largely excluded from the mainstream of education, were sometimes educated in small private classes, or learned to read and write at home. By 1500 there were certainly some elementary schools for girls, with schoolmistresses, and these may have existed earlier.

Fees in school were low - perhaps three shillings (15p) a year at a time when a decent annual salary was pound;10. Classes were large, up to 120 in some cases.

Here, sitting on benches, through an eight to 10-hour school day, boys learned to read and write in Latin, which they translated originally into French, but from about 1350 into English.

The schoolmaster might have been a priest, but many were not. Schoolmastering was an accepted way of earning a living for literate men who might have gone into the priesthood but got married instead. There was a kind of clerical status somewhere between layman and priest, into which the schoolmaster fitted.

In any case, contrary to what is sometimes assumed, education was not under the direct control of the Church - this came in the 16th century. Professor Orme says that the relationship between the medieval Church and education was "more like that between the Conservative party and the public schools today. There were lots of personal links and common values which fed into each other, but the Church did not appoint schoolmasters or impose what was to be taught".

In the schoolroom itself, there was a deal of rote learning and oral repetition. There was lots of corporal punishment, too, for it was a violent age in which the death penalty for criminals was common, and people could be flogged for being beggars. At the same time, there is evidence that schoolmasters used the same motivational ploys as today's teachers - asking children to write about their pets, their games, and their home lives.

As well as these town schools, it is likely - though records are sparse - that there were many private classes run by priests or by other literate men and women to earn money in their spare time.

Education in the home continued, too, as did the education of young people in other homes, to which they were sent, perhaps as apprentices.

The 13th century was in some senses one of the high points in the story of English schools. With universities not yet in full stride, many of the schools employed very able teachers who took learning to a very high level. The best schools were places of excellent scholarship, and sharp wit.

The compelling conclusion is that the time-traveller would find many points of reference between the medieval schoolroom and a classroom of today.

The huge class would restrict the range of teaching styles, but the cut and thrust of oral work, questioning, praise and admonition would be recognisable. Writing was usually done on a wax-covered wooden board, with a stylus. Paper was increasingly available as the period progressed.

As for the children themselves, they were as they are today. The idea that they were somehow different - that they were "little adults" or that there was a cooler relationship then between parent and child, owes its continuing existence to the influential views of the Sixties French historian, Philippe Aries.

He argued that the concept of childhood did not exist in medieval society, but in this decade much evidence has been found to refute that suggestion.

Professor Orme himself is working on what will be a seminal work on medieval childhood. He says: "The thesis of the book is that medieval children are modern. The standard of living is different, but nothing else is. When you go back you find the same tenderness of relationships, the same culture of childhood - there are toys, games, rhymes. Childhood is a constant."

It seems fitting that as the millennium ends, there should be this re-affirmation of the fact that our children, and the task of teaching them, are as they ever were.

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