Thursday, November 13, 2014

Education in the High Middle Ages—incubator for religious obedience and avenue for social mobility

by Deborah Bogen

If you’re a young man interested in upward mobility in the 1200’s – even in the face of religious teaching that such ambition is sinful – what can you do?

You might get yourself into battle where fates change in a bloody second. Lowborn camp boys can work their way into favor so when a squire is killed they might be trained to higher duties.

It’s a plan — but dicey. Most people in the vicinity of battle die. If the actual fighting doesn’t do it, there’s disease and drunken mayhem among the troops to send you into the next life.

But don’t despair. Another avenue of advancement awaits the boy born with a clear voice and a good ear. He can become a chorister, a young scholar who learns plainsong melody and Latin (& sometimes English.) You may later become a monk, or a cleric in the secular arm of Church.

Most boys who held these spots were recruited from the noble classes, but there were always places for “almonry boys,” poor lads who benefited from the gifts of the rich. These patrons provided food and lodging, sometimes even slates and robes.

So if you were blessed with a pure tone and found yourself in this privileged situation what happened? You got an education that reflected the general tone of the time, i.e., the belief in an all-powerful God and the worthiness of making all things (even your ABC’s) serve His purposes.

What dis that mean? Nicholas Orme in “Medieval Schools from Roman Britain to Renaissance England” recommends looking at the Church’s power over schools not so much as procedural and regularized, but as the application of a more general understanding about God, his creation and society customized by teachers in various locales.

This means we can think of local schools in the same way we think of micro-climates when trying to understand biology, farming and cookery in a particular place. It’s possible to say things about the climate of California as a whole, but it may be more useful to speak of the climate of a smaller place. Likewise, medieval schools, students, teaching methods and resources exhibit an influence by the prevailing religious thought of the times, but interesting details differ from place to place.

But even with this variability, the records we have of individual places, teachers and patrons still give us a picture of an extremely religion-infused educational experience for most, if not all, students in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Let’s start with the ABC’s.

In Anglo-Saxon England students learned the Latin alphabet first. Later, this was augmented to include the letters called ‘thorn’ and ‘eth’ for “th” and ‘wyn’ for w, so that students could read both Latin and English. But what interests me most about the alphabet of the times is the way children were taught to recite and write it.

The writing of the alphabet always began with a cross (+) to prompt the scholar to cross himself and to say the words ‘Christ’s cross speed me’ (or similar) before beginning. The letters (with the addition of two common abbreviation signs for con- and est) were then recited and the exercise was ended by the word “Amen.”

So by the 12th century, the alphabet has been Christianized and the recitation of it was a devotional act, i.e., a prayer. A young student learned the basics of his education, the tools that would later give him words and sentences in which to understand and express ideas, as a prayer. Since God was listening and Christ was beseeched, reading itself became an act of religious faith.

The “song” part of early schooling involved the memorizing of psalms, antiphons, and hymns sung to plainsong melody. This explicit religious teaching entered the classroom not as a special activity (as in many parochial schools today) but rather as the scholar’s main endeavor. As students became more proficient they were given texts to read, most often prayer books, (sometimes alternate religious texts like books of hours) which clarifies the importance of learning the Latin alphabet first. Religious texts were written in Latin. Educated persons were expected to know the Paternoster, the Credo (The Apostles’ Creed) and, after the 12th century, the Ave Maria (Hail Mary) in Latin.

This expectation is conveyed vividly a few centuries later in John Rastell’s play, The Four Elements, circa 1520, in which a comic character says:

“Lo, he hath forgotten, you may see,
the first word of his abc.
Hark, fool, hark! I will teach thee:
P,a, pa; t,e,r, ter.”

The religiosity underlying education was not just expressed in the actual teaching. External physical signs were present as well.

Students were usually tonsured (like monks) and dressed in robes that reached their feet, mimicking those worn by the upper classes. Thus students were visually called out as “not manual laborers,” another chance for potential social mobility. The right of clergy to invoke judgment by religious authorities (as opposed to civil) was often extended to students, again identifying them as a privileged class. Religious penalties for crimes were usually less harsh than those imposed civilly.

We have records of some later school buildings and classrooms. Although earlier schools were lodged in already existing churches, halls or homes, once special buildings were built they often reflected a religious basis for learning. For example, Erasmus describes a school in the very early 1500s as containing these visual aids:

1) a board that contained the prayers that were to be said in school each day

2) an image of the child Jesus teaching in the Temple (placed above the master’s chair)

3) and above that an image of God, the Father, speaking the words “Ipsum audite” (“hear him.”)

In this case God himself is represented as instructing students to heed the master’s teaching, which is, of course, highly reflective of the teachings of the Church.

The makeup of the student-body is another way in which young scholars might have understood their studies as part of religious devotion. The number of students allowed in a school was often governed by figures considered to have religious significance. E.g., there might be twelve students to reflect the number of Jesus’ disciples or thirteen to reflect the disciples and Jesus himself. Winchester (1384) and Eton (1440) each housed 70 students matching the number of disciples Jesus sent out to assist the apostles. In 1500 Colet chose 153 as the number of scholars to be accepted by St. Paul’s, reflecting the number of fishes the disciples hauled in with their nets after the risen Jesus appeared to them and instructed them to draw up their nets on the right-hand side.

Those of us who write stories set in the Middle Ages face any number of challenges based on lack of information. Since data is particularly sparse in certain areas, research into what happened in rural schools, in private homes, in the Jewish community and among daughters is difficult. Sometimes there’s no real alternative to extrapolating from what is available. I worry all the time that I may be getting it wrong, but the time period is too compelling to abandon, and the possibility for insight and accurate representation is exciting and worthwhile.

Certainly it’s important to consider what effect religion-infused education might have had on developing brains and minds. In an age when respected individuals wore hair shirts, confessed daily and died rather than forsake their faith, the reality of a pre-occupation with religion cannot be denied, but many modern readers find this hard to posit. It’s for those of us who want to write and read about this fascinating period to try and set our characters convincingly in the theologically based world they surely lived in.


Deborah Bogen is a poet with three prize-winning collections. She's new to the art of the historical novel. Her first book in this genre, "The Witch of Leper Cove," brings the 13th century to life through the struggle of a small community to save their healer, Alice of Aldinoch, from the Inquisition's "soul-saving" attentions. The second book in the Aldinoch series, "The Hounds of God," is in process and should be out next year.

Deborah's website 
Deborah's Amazon Author Page
The Witch of Leper Cove

1 comment:

  1. We should not forget that in Yemen and other Arab countries literacy is taught by transcribing and memorizing the Koran -- or phrases about the evil of the West and death to Americans, of course.


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