Schools and Learning - The Middle Ages

Rich or poor, even the youngest children had an important role to play in medieval times
- fetching and carrying or running errands.

In poorer households, girls were taught by their mothers how to cook and make clothes
and other useful items, while the sons were trained to do a job or craft. Following the
family trade or traditions was very important, even for those with little money.

Very few children had the opportunity to go to school, but if a boy showed a gift for
learning he was taught to read and write by the monks in a nearby monastery. The son
of a lord in the fourteenth century might have been educated in such a place, while the
daughter of a wealthy family may well have attended a convent school or perhaps had a
private tutor at home.

Sometimes, in a separate building beyond the monastery, monks set up a small school
for local children who did not plan to become monks or priests. In Germany and France,
both the sons and daughters of less wealthy families were taught in 'little schools'. Here
they were taught religion, to sing and count and to behave well.

Most medieval schools were run by the Church, and were set up originally for the
purpose of training men to become members of the clergy. Of course, priests and monks
had to be able to read and write to conduct or take part in religious ceremonies, so
monasteries became the centre of learning.

As well as in monasteries, there were schools in cathedrals and occasionally in smaller
churches too. A young boy could enter the 'song' school of a Cathedral school around
the age of seven, where he would learn the Latin chants and responses for religious

Boys would learn to read from prayer books and a Psalter - a book of the psalms of the
Bible - and to sing prayers in Latin.

In many countries, writers and scholars had used Latin since the Romans ruled over
much of the world. The Bible and all the church services were in Latin, so, after the
'song' schoolboys could enter 'grammar' schools (England) where a lot of time was
spent learning the Latin language and rules of Latin grammar.
These grammar schools were for boys only. Ages ranged from around seven to fourteen
and all ages were taught together in the same room. Teachers were very tough on their
pupils and beatings were common. There is a story of a teacher in Oxford, England who
fell into the river and drowned while he was collecting branches to be used for flogging!

Pupils had to learn their lessons by heart. Paper and ink were costly and books were
rare, so the teacher read aloud to the pupils. Writing was done on slate or wax tablets.
There were no dictionaries in the Middle Ages so pupils would probably spell words
however they wanted!

A different type of education

The young sons of noblemen would be taught to become soldiers, practicing with
swords, shields and hobbyhorses made from wood.

These boys, aged between seven and ten were usually sent away to live in another
nobleman's household, where they became pages and later, squires. Here the sons of
knights learned how to become knights themselves. They were given a basic education
and learned good manners as well as weaponry skills.

Part of a page's job was to serve at the lord and lady's table, thus learning that the
highest honour was to serve others. It was considered important too for the noblewoman
of the household to befriend a page, so that he could learn how to treat a lady. In
addition to being taught how to behave properly the page would spend seven years
learning weapon skills as well as riding, hawking, playing chess, music and dance.

At the age of fourteen, a page would become a squire. In a short church ceremony, he
would be handed a sword and for the next seven years he would train for battle.

A squire still maintained some minor duties too, but now when serving at table his job
was to carve the meat and serve the wine. It was the squire's job to take care of his
lord's horses. He also looked after his lord's weapons and armour and helped him dress
- armour had to be kept oiled and polished so that it didn't rust.

At the age of twenty-one, a squire could become a knight, but those who were too poor
to buy their own horses and other equipment remained squires much longer, sometimes
all their lives. Knighthood was seen as a big step up the social ladder and so it wasn't
unheard of for the sons of wealthy noblemen to be knighted as young as twelve.

Squires were knighted by the lord or king in a religious ceremony. Along with his
companions, the young squire would pass the night in prayer. He was bathed; to
symbolize the washing away of his sins.

Later on in the Middle Ages, the knighting ceremony changed, becoming even more of
an occasion. The sword was blessed and the squire vowed to obey the laws of chivalry.
The king rested a ceremonial sword on the squire's shoulders and declared him to be a
knight. This was called 'dubbing'. He was given a pair of spurs - the symbol of courage -
and beginning with the spurs, ladies buckled on his armour.

So, some children were destined to become knights, fighting battles and jousts, while
others were to become skilled with their hands or work the land. I wonder which you
would have chosen?

Maureen Vincent-Northam 2002

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