There is a lot of misunderstanding about education during the Middle Ages. Many people believe that there was little to no education and that people were illiterate. While your education level would depend on your status, there was a strong push for education across all sections of society in the Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages, most formal education was religious, conducted in Latin at monasteries and cathedral schools. In the 11th century, we began to see the establishment of Western European universities. Free education in basic literacy was offered by parish and monastery schools.
How you were educated in the Middle Ages would depend on several things. The nobility was more likely to be formally educated, while peasants would be instructed in trade, often via an apprenticeship. Let’s discuss formal primary education, apprenticeships, and University education in the medieval period.
Table of Contents
- Formal Education in the Middle Ages
- At What Age Did Education Begin in the Middle Ages?
- What Were Schools Like in the Middle Ages?
- What Did Children Learn in the Middle Ages?
- What Was University Education In The Middle Ages?
- How Were Peasants Educated In The Middle Ages?
- How Many People Were Educated In The Middle Ages?
- How Did The Church Influence Education In The Middle Ages?
Formal Education in the Middle Ages
Most people formally educated in the Middle Ages were boys. They were given to the Church to be educated, or they were of noble birth. Some were fortunate enough to be educated by a schoolmaster in their town.
Most formal schooling in the Middle Ages was run by the Church. Boys who were to be educated would either attend monasteries or cathedral schools. Even the few urban municipal schools of the time would follow a curriculum heavily influenced by religion.
Some girls were educated in schools, or in convents, or if they were nobility. Girls would also be educated by their mothers and by tutors.
Usually, children were educated if the parents believed it was worthwhile and had the money for it. Medieval schools could be found in churches, teaching children to read, in town grammar schools, monasteries, nunneries, and business schools.
Because of the expense of preparing parchment, students rarely took notes, and much of their work was memorized. In the same way, tests and exams were often oral rather than written. Only later in the 18th and 19th centuries did we see a shift toward written university examinations.
At What Age Did Education Begin in the Middle Ages?
For apprenticeships, children were sent to train and fostered by their masters from around seven.
Formal education would often begin before this. Home education started as early as three or four when young children learned rhymes, songs, and basic reading.
Many children would learn the essentials of reading from their mothers (if they were educated) to be able to read their prayer books.
Women in the Middle Ages would not only learn to read for religious purposes but also to improve their ability to run their households. While the men were away, either at war, touring their lands, or for political reasons, women would need to run the home, so reading was essential.
Education would continue for as long as it was worthwhile. For example, a boy studying to be a member of the clergy would likely learn into their teens. They would study into their late teens and early twenties for higher-status roles in society, such as lawyers or doctors of theology.
What Were Schools Like in the Middle Ages?
Because most schooling in the Middle Ages fell under the purview of the Church, they were mainly religious. Elementary Song, Monastic, and Grammar were the three main types of schools.
Elementary Song Schools
A primary education, generally only for boys, centered around reading and singing Latin hymns. These schools were usually attached to a church and run by religious authorities. The boys were given a basic foundation in Latin by singing these Latin Ecclesiastical songs.
If they were lucky, and the Elementary Song school had a well-educated priest, they might receive a better education.
Monastic schools were run by monks attached to a particular order, where the monks were the teachers. As the Medieval period progressed, monastic schools became centers of learning, where boys would study several subjects beyond Latin and Theology.
Grammar schools offered a better education than the Elementary Song schools and focused on grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Instruction was conducted in Latin. Later in the Medieval period, the curriculum was broadened and included natural sciences, geography, and Greek.
What Did Children Learn in the Middle Ages?
Boys and girls were first taught how to read in Latin. The majority of theological texts and essential scholarly works were in Latin. If their mothers were educated, children would learn their first reading skills from their mothers.
Women were very involved in teaching their children how to read, which was encouraged by the Church. Medieval prayer books had images of Saint Anne teaching her child the Virgin Mary to read.
Later, towards the end of the Medieval period, people began to be also educated in their mother tongue. This is known as vernacular education.
The initial education was subdivided into seven liberal arts units known as the trivium and quadrivium. These units form the basis of classical schooling.
The trivium in classical schooling consisted of Latin grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The remaining four elements—the quadrivium—were geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. From here, students would later further their education via the Church, working as a clerk, or if they were men, through university.
What Was University Education In The Middle Ages?
The first universities in Western Europe were set up in present-day Italy, in what was then the Holy Roman Empire. From the 11th to the 15th centuries, more universities were created in England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Scotland.
The universities were centers of education focused on the arts, theology, law, and medicine. They evolved from the earlier traditions of monastic and cathedral schools.
Universities were, in part, an answer to the demand for more educated clergy to spread the Catholic religion. While those educated in a monastery could read and perform the liturgy, if you wanted to move to a higher level within the Church, you could not rely on this primary education.
Instruction was in Latin and included the trivium and quadrivium, though later, the Aristotelian philosophies of physics, metaphysics, and moral philosophy were added.
How Were Peasants Educated In The Middle Ages?
Because formal education was for the wealthy, few peasants were educated in the same way. In general, peasants would need to learn the skills that allowed them to work. They would gain these skills by following their parents’ examples on the land and at home.
By the time children were older, those who would not inherit were usually sent to become indentured to a master. While daughters were often married off, the first son would inherit the land.
The remaining sons would need to learn and trade or work on another farm, hoping to one day buy their own land.
Usually, children were placed in apprenticeships in their teens, though sometimes this was done when they were younger. In some cases, part of the apprenticeship included learning reading and writing.
While the assumption is that the majority of peasants were illiterate, this assumes that they were only unable to read and write in Latin, the language of formal education. It is possible that many could read and write in their vernacular.
In 1179, the Church passed a decree that every cathedral had to employ a master for those boys who were too poor to pay the tuition fees. Local parishes and monasteries also had free schools that would offer basic literacy.
How Many People Were Educated In The Middle Ages?
Because the Middle Ages is such a significant period, it’s impossible to answer this with a single number. While the number of formally educated people was lower in the early part of the Middle ages, by the 17th century, the literacy rate was much higher.
In 1330, it was estimated that only 5% of the population was literate. However, education levels began to rise across Europe.
This graph from Our World In Data shows the worldwide literacy rate from 1475 to 2015. In the UK, the literacy rate in 1475 was at 5%, but by 1750, it had risen to 54%. In contrast, the literacy rate in the Netherlands starts off at 17% in 1475 and reaches 85% by 1750
How Did The Church Influence Education In The Middle Ages?
The Church held a dominant role within medieval European society, and the head of society was the Pope. Education was, therefore, part of the religious experience—education was how the Church spread its religion to save as many souls as possible.
Education was used to increase the number of clergy members and to allow people to read their prayers. Whereas today, most parents want their children well-educated to increase their chances of a successful life, education in Medieval times had a less secular goal.
As the drive for higher positions in the Church increased, masters in Cathedral schools could not cope with the number of students. Wealthy students would hire teachers, which became the foundation of later Universities.
The universities began to offer more sciences, and there was a gradual move away from religious education towards the secular.
The children of nobility were most likely to be formally educated, with peasants attaining education through apprenticeships. Serfs were not permitted an education in most cases. Formal education began with Latin literacy and expanded to include the arts, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy.
Much of the formal education in medieval Europe was overseen by the Catholic Church. It was focused on Ecclesiastical texts and prayer books. The aim was to spread Christianity and save souls rather than pursue advancement.
- https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09695940120033243 https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/object/103RW6
- Orme, Nicholas (2006). Medieval Schools. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Header image courtesy: Laurentius de Voltolina, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons