Reading, Writing and Grammar;Millennium Edition

31st December 1999 at 00:00
Learning started with the alphabet, which was standardised certainly by the 14th century. In written form it began with a cross as a reminder to the learner to make the sign of the cross before starting to recite (the alphabet was in fact sometimes called "The cross row").

There followed a capital A and then all the other letters in lower case, with alternative forms for "r", "s" and "u". After the letters were abbreviations for et and con, and three dots ("tittles"). Right at the end were the words "et amen".

The three dots started out looking like a division sign, and was an abbreviation for the Latin "est". It became truncated and eventually everybody forgot what it meant. It was one of the "hangers on" (the ampersand was another) that the alphabet accumulated over the years. The alphabet seems to have been ritually chanted (including the words "tittle, tittle, tittle") with little relation to meaning or context.

The alphabet was consistently written in this way on parchment, on wooden boards, or on a whitewashed wall for at least 300 years. The alphabet might have been written in a primer which also contained the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

In the grammar schools, the study of Latin could be taken to a very high level, and might be angled towards either the Church or the language of commerce. In this sense, therefore, there were business schools in the Middle Ages.

The elementary work in Latin was taken from the grammar book "Ars Minor" by Aelius Donatus, a teacher in Rome in the fourth century AD. His book, albeit with many revisions, was in use for 1,000 years and was so embedded in the system that boys in the early stages of grammar school were often called "donats" or "donatists".

Sources and further reading: Early schools are mentioned in monastery and church documents. Fees are recorded, for example, and schoolmasters' salaries can be deduced from them and checked against the level of wealth in schoolmasters' wills.

For later schools, pupil and teacher notebooks exist - these are a valuable source of early nursery rhymes, and many sentences used for translation give insight into everyday life.

Several sources are reproduced and discussed in Nicholas Orme's 1989 "Education and Society in Medieval and Renaissance England" (Methuen), which together with his earlier "English Schools in the Middle Ages" (Hambledon), provides the best introduction to the subject.

Both are out of print, but are available in education libraries.

Nicholas Orme's "Medieval Children" will be published by Yale University Press in 2001.

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