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Popular Education During the Middle Ages

by Hugh Graham, Ph.D.

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  • Description:
    An essay on the history of medieval education which shows the major role played by the Roman Catholic Church in providing for the educational needs of the people.
  • Larger Work:
  • Pages: 118-130
  • Publisher & Date:
    The America Press, June 1933

The history of medieval education is a rich field for research, but one which is still largely unexplored. This neglect of a great age is unfortunate for many reasons. One consequence, among others, is that popular textbooks in educational history continue to repeat traditional errors and mistatements whenever they venture to refer to the status of education during medieval times. To safeguard immature students against such sources of misinformation there is urgent need of a generous supply of scientific studies covering various phases of medieval culture. It is especially necessary to warn against an uncritical acceptance of distorted views inspired by those twin enemies of medievalism: the enthusiasm of the devotees of the classical Renaissance, and the bias of the protagonists of the Protestant Revolt.


Perhaps no phase of the remarkable educational development which may be traced during the millenium which preceded the fifteenth century has received such scant courtesy as that which has to do with the efforts of the medieval Church to extend the benefits of education to the various ranks of European society, even to those who were lowest in the social scale. In this connection it is worth noting that as recently as 1914 the late Arthur F. Leach complained that there was no adequate history of English education.[1] It may be added that the reputation of Mr. Leach as a scholar rests mainly on the fact that for more than thirty years he labored successfully to lay the foundations for such a history. He disposed forever "of the current and common view that English schools and any education in England worthy of the name dated from the Reformation."[2] Experience shows, however, that the uprooting of historical errors is a slow process. For instance, a recent book[3] intended for American college students contains a selection from Green, the English historian, which gives the impression that education in England received a great impetus from the Protestant Reformation, and more especially from the Puritan element which, it is claimed, popularized the reading of the Bible in the English tongue. No hint is given that the writings of all noteworthy English authors from the days of Caedmon to those of Chaucer show familiarity with the Bible, nor that the Bible in the vernacular was in the hands of orthodox Catholics prior to the great religious and political revolt of the sixteenth century.[4]

Perhaps no book has done more to mislead American readers than Payne's translation of a work by Compayre in which the reader will find the following rather startling statement:[5]

With La Salle and the foundation of the Institute of the Brethren of the Christian schools, the historian recognizes the Catholic origin of primary instruction; in the decrees of the French Revolution, its lay and philosophical origin: but it is to the Reformers—to Luther in the sixteenth and to Comenius in the seventeenth—that must be ascribed the honor of having first organized schools for the people. In its origin the primary school is the child of Protestantism, and its cradle is the Reformation.[6]

The statement just quoted has misled many readers who have had no opportunity to consult source material. Several writers have accepted the unsupported testimony of Compayre, regardless of the fact that modern scholarship has shown that the claims made for Luther and Comenius are simply preposterous. Indeed, it can be shown that both before and after the Reformation many forces contributed to the development and extension of popular education, and that the Reformation played a minor, if not a negative, role. A study of Luther's writings reveals no high ideal of the function of the elementary school. He says:[7]

My idea is not to create schools like those we have had. . . . A boy should pass one or two hours a day at school and let him have the rest of his time for learning a trade in his father's house. . . . So also girls should have an hour a day at school.

As a matter of fact Luther was concerned mainly about secondary education.[8] Equally baseless is the claim, so often advanced, that Luther was a pioneer advocate of compulsory attendance. In this regard he was anticipated by King Alfred the Great about 893 A.D.[9] Moreover, it is a matter of record that as early as 1496 a compulsory-attendance law was actually passed by the Scottish Parliament at a time when Scotland was still an integral part of Catholic Christendom. This, the first compulsory-attendance law enacted by any European government, required barons and freeholders to send their sons and heirs to school from the age of eight or nine years until they should be "competently founded and have perfect Latin."[10] The law assumes the existence of schools which, as Grant bears witness, were planted in every considerable town in Scotland at this time.[11]

As for the educational services of Comenius, to which Compayre and others have attached so much importance, there is clearly a large element of exaggeration. A modern non-Catholic scholar, while admitting the Comenius was one of several propagandists of new educational ideas, says:[12]

Unfortunately his Great Didactic in which he set forth his general principles, attracted little attention and won less adherence, although his school books in which he attempted with very little success to apply his principles were widely used in schools. But they were little more than bald summaries of real or supposed facts, stated in Latin and the vernacular in parallel columns. In content they differed from such medieval summaries of knowledge as the well-known works of Bartolomew Angelicus, which had been widely used since the thirteenth century, chiefly in greater baldness and aridity of treatment.

Even the idea of the popular Janua linguarum reserrata of Comenius was borrowed from a work with a similar title by the Irish Jesuit, William Bathe, whose work preceded by twenty years that of Comenius. From the account that the latter gives of the "elegans inventio Linguarum Januae Hibernica," as he describes Bathe's work, we learn that translations of the learned Jesuit's book had already been made into English, French, and German from the original Latin-Spanish edition.[13]


Recent investigations of the educational history of England, Germany, and other countries have effectively disposed of the myth as to the Protestant origin of the elementary school,[14] as well as of the introduction of vernacular Bible by the Reformers.[15] Many scholars of liberal views, however, hesitate to claim a pre-Reformation origin for the elementary school, now regarded as the people's school par excellence, as its variant titles, the "common school," and Volksschule, suggest. The issue to some extent rests on a definition of terms. There is a tendency to limit the term elementary school to one which was concerned with "pre-adolescent, native vernacular education"[16] "attended by common folk who did not aspire to a professional career,"[17] and aimed at supplying "a type of education which was relatively complete."[18]

This conception of elementary education is decidedly arbitrary. It fails to include those present-day educational systems which make provision for bilingualism on the elementary-school level and it neglects to take account of recent developments which are breaking down the artificial divisions between primary and secondary education; but, above all, it does violence to the facts of history which clearly indicate marked educational development due to religious, political, economic, and social factors. It intentionally excludes any school in which even the rudiments of Latin were taught and it fails to account for the fact that vernacular education was not uncommon, a fact which is especially emphasized by the demand for printed books in the vernacular from the middle of the fifteenth century onwards in various countries, notably Germany, England, and France.[19]

The rise of the vernaculars, however, did not displace Latin in the schools for the simple reason that for the laity as well as for the clergy it was the most valuable of subjects.[20] Hence, prior to the sixteenth century, and much later, no school worthy of the name would have thought of excluding the study of Latin from the curriculum. For instance, in the vernacular schools which were established in the commercial cities of Germany from the thirteenth century onwards, Latin as well as Deutsch was considered necessary.[21]

From the preceding discussion two important conclusions emerge: first, that the origin of popular education cannot be attributed to the Reformation; and second, that a conception of the people's school that would restrict it virtually to vernacular and secular education in the three R's is lacking in historical perspective. Such an ideal of education was utterly foreign to the medieval mind which regarded another R, religion, as the very heart of the curriculum.


A major problem which invites our attention involves a consideration of the different medieval institutions which were mainly responsible for the popularization of education. It is hardly necessary to say that Christianity was not heir to any ready-made system of schools. The Church was not concerned with culture for its own sake, but as a means to advancing her own sublime mission among men irrespective of race or station in life. Although she has had at all times illustrious scholars within her ranks her ultimate objective was not the creation of an aristocracy of learning. She made her first appeal to the common people. As Christianity spread to all classes throughout the Roman Empire, Christian schools gradually displaced and superseded pagan institutions of learning. It is worth remembering, however, that the grammar or secondary schools retained their pagan character longest and that Christian elementary and higher schools developed much earlier.[22] With rise in the West of episcopal and monastic schools, Christians no longer had occasion to resort to the schools of the pagan grammarians and rhetoricians. Indeed, much of the educational history of Western Europe prior to the rise of the universities in the twelfth century might be written on the contributions of these two major educational agencies of the Medieval Church.[23]

Volumes might be written about the monastic schools alone. From the fifth century onward they spread all over western Europe.

The mere number of the monasteries—in 1500 there were no less than 37,000 monasteries belonging to the Benedictines and to branches of their Order—is sufficient evidence of the important public function of the religious orders; and if we grant that only one twentieth of these 37,000 monasteries had regular schools, they would still constitute no small part of the school system of the time.[24]

The estimate is conservative so far as the existence of schools is concerned; for it may be safely assumed that every monastery which admitted novices made provision for their education. Such was the function of the "inner school." For our purpose, however, it is important to emphasize the fact that the laity were not excluded from the educational facilities which the monasteries afforded. The "outer school" was expressly for those who did not aspire to take monastic vows. Many instances might be cited to establish the fact that boys were often admitted to monasteries, and girls to convents in order that members of both sexes might be given an opportunity to acquire religious and profane learning during their tender years. Afterwards they were free to take their places in the world according to their social station.[25]

Every cathedral town had a grammar school which was open to lay pupils as well as to candidates for the priesthood. It was presided over by a learned priest, styled the scholasticus. As representative of the bishop he was titular head of all teaching in the diocese and was in charge of the licensing of teachers.

In its internal organization the cathedral school paralleled the contemporary monastic school. It had its lower and higher divisions, the schola minor and the schola maior. In the former, sometimes called the song school, reading, writing, singing of hymns and Psalms, and the comput were taught. In the higher division, the preparatory disciplines—the trivium and the quadrivium—were taught as well as theology and other studies necessary for the priesthood. With the rise of the universities the more advanced studies were transferred to the latter. Side by side with the cathedral schools there arose other grammar schools which were associated with collegiate churches administered by a college of canons.[26] Both Riboulet[27] and Krieg[28] have pointed out the significance of these schools as a means of promoting popular education and Leach's study gives substantial grounds for believing that both the cathedral and collegiate churches had grammar schools and song schools as an integral part of their foundations. In England before the Dissolution in 1548 there were more than 200 such establishments scattered about the county.[29]

providing secondary education in the grammar schools, as well as elementary education in the song schools for all and sundry and not merely for choristers . . . to an extent far greater than was provided in post-Reformation England until the end of the seventeenth century.


The educational facilities of the Middle Ages were not limited to any one social class. They were available to the children of the peasant as well as to the children of the king, but not in the same proportion. The palace schools of the Merovingian and Carolingian periods had their counterparts in the court schools established by Alfred the Great and other monarchs.[30] In the castles of the feudal nobility the education of chivalry required a long and careful training which provided for the needs of a small but important social class. It represented a type of training that was especially necessary for the man of action, the ruler, the soldier, and the courtier.[31] In the later Middle Ages many English youths were prepared for important official positions in the king's palace, in the households of the bishops, and in the Inns of Court.[32]

A school of quite a different type was the chanty school which catered to the needs of those at the other end of the social scale. Such schools existed at least from the third century when the Church confided to deacons and deaconesses the care of orphans. During the following centuries the hospital, the almonry, and the hospice were established not solely for the care of travelers, the sick, the incurable, and the old, but also for the refuge and asylum of deserted infants. The Rules and Constitutions of several Religious Orders imposed the obligation of rearing poor and abandoned children and dispensing to them both spiritual and material food.[33]

The schools mentioned served the needs of special classes, but the school which did most to provide for the children of the masses was the parish school. Its origin is obscure. Presbyteral schools were in existence in Syria in the second century, but we are unable to assign a definite date to the rise of the parish school in the West. It probably existed from the earliest times when parishes were organized. The first definite indication we have of its establishment in the West would appear to be that which is contained in an ordinance of an ecclesiastical council held in Italy in 443 A.D. which required priests to instruct the youth of the neighborhood in their presbyteries.[34] In the following century the Council of Vaison (in the south of Gaul) commended this custom already practised in Italy, and ordered priests to establish schools in which young scholars might learn to read the Psalms and pursue the study of the Holy Scriptures, become familiar with the law of God and be worthy successors in the ministry of the Gospel.[35] During the same year (529) the Synods of Orange and Valence, also in southern Gaul, decreed that similar schools were to be erected in all villages and towns.[36]


A study of ecclesiastical legislation from the sixth century onwards reveals a clearly defined policy which was decidedly favorable to the expansion of popular education. The stamp of the official approval was placed on what in many instances was becoming a widespread practice. Both particular and general councils of the Church, imperial capitularies, and episcopal and Papal decrees show that while bishops and Popes were primarily concerned with making provision for instructing the future members of the clerical body in the sacred sciences they were also at pains to encourage and promote the education of the laity.[37] The following are specific instances of educational legislation which had a far-reaching influence on the development and extension of popular education during the Middle Ages: the councils of Tours (567), Toledo (624); Constantinople (681); Bavarian pastoral instructions (774); council of Cloveshoe, England (749); the capitularies of Charlemagne (787,789); the synods of Aachen (789, 817); councils of Chalons (813), Paris (829), Rome (853); the edict of Emperor Lothair (825); the canons of King Edgar (960); Lanfranc's constitutions (1075); synod of Westminster (1133); Lateran councils (1179, 1215). The list[38] is not exhaustive but is significant of the extent and persistency of the official policy of the Church in diffusing the benefits of education throughout the length and breadth of Christendom. M. Allain, who has surveyed the greater part of the studies of medieval schools, declares that anyone who would form an adequate idea of the intellectual status of our ancestors in past ages must have recourse to these ecclesiastical documents, the collections of the Church councils.[39]

At least three inferences of major import may be made from an examination of these decrees. The first is that education was definitely brought under the canon law. The second is that the Church displayed commendable zeal in bringing the means of education within reach of all classes irrespective of geographical location. The third is that the decrees and ordinances were no mere empty gestures, but were intended to be put into effect.

Researches conducted in different dioceses of France leave no doubt as to the wide diffusion of elementary education in that country, at least during the later Middle Ages.[40] The same is true of the various regions of Germany which have been studied in detail. Especially noteworthy is the development of municipal and burgher schools which were established to meet the needs of a new social class between the peasants and nobles.[41] In like manner the economic prosperity of the towns of the Low Countries provided conditions favorable to the great educational renaissance which drew its stimulation and support from the Brethren of the Common Life during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[42]


When we turn from the Continent to Britain we find that popular education was making steady progress. The author of "Piers Plowman," writing in the last decade of the fourteenth century, rather illiberally complains that the children of the poor made their way to high estate through the school doors.[43] Again about a hundred years later the rapidity with which printed books were bought is good evidence of the existence of a reading public. In England the printer confined himself almost exclusively to the vernacular,[44] while the first book ever printed in Scotland was one which contained poems of Dunbar and Chaucer, tales of romance and old ballads.[45] The famous Paston Letters (1422-1509) supply additional objective evidence that literacy, so far from being the monopoly of the clergy or of the privileged classes, was widespread among men and women of various social ranks.[46] The question as to the means whereby this literacy was acquired turns our attention to the schools which were existing in England towards the end of the medieval period. Leach enumerates seven classes of schools—schools connected (1) with cathedrals, (2) with monasteries, (3) with collegiate churches and colleges, (4) with hospitals, (5) with guilds, (6) and with chantries, as well as (7) independent schools, existing ostensibly and actually by themselves as independent entities.[47] Leach thinks that 300 is a moderate estimate of such schools in the year 1535 "when the floodgates of the great revolution which is called the Reformation, were let loose, most of them were swept away either by Henry VIII or his son; or if not swept away, plundered and damaged."[48]

Other writers have also noted that the onslaught which the Reformers made on the Catholic case of the chantries just cited. Speaking of the effect of the Reformation in Germany Paulsen says:[49] "The first effect of these events on educational institutions was destructive; the old schools and universities were so bound up with the Church in all respects—socially, legally, economically—that they could not but be involved in its downfall."


No one will deny that in modern times considerable progress has been made in the popularization of education, but we must not overlook the fact that the medieval Church almost without any assistance from the State did much to provide for the educational needs of the masses. We should also remember that the Middle Ages did not confuse education with mere schooling and that many phases of medieval life were decidedly educational in character. It is true that the Middle Ages had their dark shadows but they had also lights of varying degrees of brilliancy.

With slight modifications we might say of the medieval times in general what a modern scholar has said about the Middle Ages in England:[50]

They have been painted as ignorant, brutal and picturesque. We may have doubts as to the truth of the picture; we may well believe that the eighteenth century in the mass was more brutal, more picturesque, and less religious, and we may even believe that it was far more ignorant and far less moral. The Middle Ages left to the Reformation educational possibilities that were recklessly squandered.


1 A. F. Leach, Some Aspects of Research in the History of Education in England. (London, 1914), p. 2.

2 Ibid., pp. 3-4.

3 Cubberley, E. P., Readings in the History of Education (Boston, 1920), p. 261.

4 See F. A. Gasquet, The Eve of the Reformation (New York, 1900), Ch. VIII.

5 Gabriel Compayre, The History of Pedagogy (tr. by Payne, Boston, 1897), p. 112.

6 The italics are the writer's.

7 Martin Luther, Schrift an die Rathsherren, 1524.

8 Albert Stoeckl, Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Paedagogik, p. 211.

9 See Preface to King Alfred's translation of the Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory the Great.

10 See J. E.G. De Montemorency, State Intervention in English Education (Cambridge, 1902), p. 112, for text of this law.

11 James Grant, The History of the Burgh and Parish Schools of Scotland, p. 25.

12 Cloudsley Brereton, article "Education" in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

13 T. Corcoran, S. J„ Studies in the History of Classical Teaching, p. 76. Corcoran devotes 130 pages to an illuminating discussion of Bathe and his method of teaching.

14 A. F. Leach, op. cit„ and English Schools at the Reformation, (London, 1897); E. Allain, L'Instruction primaire en France avant la Revolution, (Paris, 1881); J. Janssen, History of the German People at the Close of the Middle Ages, Vol. I, 15th ed. (London, 1905); H. Graham, "Education in Medieval Scotland" Catholic Educational Review, May, 1929.

15 F. A. Gasquet, op. cit.; J. Janssen, op. cit„ Vol. I, Bk. I, Ch. H.

16 S. C. Parker, The History of Modern Elementary Education (1912), p. 3.

17 E. H. Reisner, The Evolution of the Common School (1930), p. 3.

18 J. W. Adamson, A Short History of Education (Cambridge, 1922), p. 73.

19 See J. W. Adamson, op. cit., Ch. V; J. Janssen, op. cit„ Vol. I, Book I, Ch. 1; Brother Azarias, "The Primary School in the Middle Ages" in Essays Educational, (New York, 1896); Willmann-Kirsch, The Science of Education, Vol. I, Ch. XVIII.

20 See A. F. Leach, Some Results of Research in the History of Education in England, p. 31-32.

21 Elbert Vaughan Wills, "Elementary Education in the German Cities up to the Sixteenth Century," Education, Vol. I, No. 4 (December, 1929).

22 Theodore Haarhoff, The Schools of Gaul (Oxford, 1920), p. 175; Willmann-Kirsch, The Science of Education, Vol. I, p. 191.

23 Cf. L. Maitre, Les ecoles episcopales et monastiques en occident (Paris, 1924); H. Graham The Early Irish Monastic Schools (Dublin, 1923).

24 Willmann-Kirsch, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 199-200.

25 Bede, Hist. Eccl. Gentis Anglorum, Plummer's ed„ Vol. I, p. 192; L. Maitre, op. cit., Ch. V and VI; H. Graham, op. cit., p. 192.

26 C. Krieg, Lehrbuch der Paedagogie (Paderborn, 1900), p. 95.

27 L. Riboulet, Histoire de la pedagagie (Paris, 1925), p. 126.

28 C. Krieg, op. cit., p. 94.

29 A. F. Leach, Some Results of Research in the History of Education in England, p. 20.

30 Cf. J. B. Mullinger, The Schools of Charles the Great; C. Plummer, Life and Times of Alfred the Great (Oxford, 1902), pp. 135-160.

31 J. W. Adamaon, op. cit., Ch. III.

32 T.F. Tout, An Advanced History of Great Britain (London, 1910), p. 242.

33 L. Riboulet, op. cit., pp. 125-126.

34 L. Riboulet, op. cit„ p. 123.

35 F. Ozanam, La civilization chretienne chez les Francs (Paris, 1893), pp. 473-474.

36 Krieg, op. cit., p. 97; Willmann-Kirsch, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 191-192.

37 W. Turner, Art. "Schools," Catholic Encylopedia.

38 Cf. Mansi, Concilia; Monumenta Germaniae Paedagogica; Leach, Educational Charters; Ozanam, op. cit„ Ch. IX.

39 L'instruction primaire en France avant la Revolution, Ch. II.

40 Cf. Brother Azarias, op. Cit., Pp. 172-180.

41 E. V. Wills, loc. Cit., Pp. 197-211.

42 Albert Hyma, The Christian Renaissance (New York, 1924), pp. 122-135, pp. 339-349.

43 J. W. Adamson, op. cit., p. 76; Piers Plowman, C. VI, II. 70ff. (Skeat's Ed.)

44 Ibid., p. 81.

45 H. Graham, "Education in Medieval Scotland," Catholic Educational Review, May, 1929, p. 273.

46 J. W. Adamson, op. cit., pp. 82-83.

47 A. F. Leach, English Schools at the Reformation, Part I, p. 7.

48 A F. Leach, ibid., Part I, p. 6.

49 F. Paulsen, German Education (New York, 1908), p. 64.

50 F. E.G. DeMontmorency, op. cit., p. 60.

© THOUGHT, The America Press, 1933


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