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Latin School

Latin School

The term Latin school covers a variety of educational options throughout European history. At present, it persists only in Great Britain, as a general term for secondary schools offering an academic type of education. On the continent, the former Latin school developed into the modern gymnasium in the Germanic and Scandinavian countries and the lycÉe in France, or was replaced in the course of the nineteenth century by other forms of secondary education.

The Latin school has its roots in the Middle Ages, when literate people were predominantly clerics and had to know Latin in order to perform religious services. Initially Latin schools were set up by cathedral chapters, convents, parishes, or other ecclesiastical bodies for choirboys and future clerics destined for the service of church and state. Roughly from the fourteenth century secular authorities followed suit. Kings, princes, local lords, or town councils founded Latin schools in the interest of a better education for their subjects, for the development of intellectual skills, and to provide support for their administrations. By 1500, Latin or grammar schools existed all over Europe, either under a cleric, called the scholaster, or under a secular headmaster, who was often controlled by a board. The pupils were exclusively male, and mostly between six and eighteen years old, depending on age of entry and individual achievement.

In the early modern period two major developmentsthe spread of literacy and the differentiation of teaching institutionsdetermined the position of the Latin schools within the rising educational system, either as a secondary school or as the first step in higher education. When literacy became a more common requirement in the urbanizing societies of the West, elementary schools were founded, or split off from the Latin schools, for teaching literacy and numeracy in the vernacular tongue. Henceforth, the Latin school limited itself to the classical languages: Latin and, after the rise of humanism, Greek. Since Latin was the lingua franca of the learned world of Europe, the Latin school was for many pupils a first step to the university. Until the late nineteenth century the universities were reserved for a small elite, generally not more than two percent of the males aged eighteen to twenty-four, but Latin schools may have taught several times this number. This was still a small percentage of the youth, even in the major cultural centers, but it did provide a Latin-based education to a substantial elite.

Birth of the School Class

At the turn of the fifteenth century, a historical change occurred when a new curriculum was introduced by headmaster Joan Cele (d. 1417) in the flourishing Dutch Hanseatic towns of Zwolle and Deventer. Instead of rewarding individual progress, it distinguished between eight group levels of achievement, called ordines, or classes, numbered from the eighth (the lowest class) to the first (the highest). A fixed part of the curriculum was assigned to each class. Subjects included grammar, poetry, rhetoric or eloquence, and dialectic (which made up the old trivium of the arts faculty, as a result of which the Latin school was often called the Trivial school), and in the higher classes logic, moral philosophy, and elements of the quadrivium, which included physics, arithmetics, music, and geography. For each level particular authors were selected. The most widely used throughout the centuries were probably Cicero, Caesar, Ovid, Pliny, Sallust, Terence, Virgil, and Horace in Latin (along with a few neo-Latin works like Erasmus's Dialogues ); and Xenophon, Homer, and the dramatists in Greek.

With the help of the printing press, standardized textbooks like the Latin grammar of Despauterius (c. 14601520) allowed for a truly European curriculum. Erasmus's dialogues on social behavior (De civilitate morumpuerilium ), used as a textbook throughout Europe and published in countless editions and in several translations since its first publication in Latin at Basle in 1530, have durably marked Europe's manners. Many humanists have either highly praised or fiercely criticized their education. Erasmus, who studied at Deventer under the famous Alexander Hegius (c. 14331498), rejected both the pedantry of the schoolmasters and the leveling effect of the school system on the boys' intelligence. Soon important reforms were proposed like that of the more practical method for the teaching of dialectics by the French Huguenot Petrus Ramus (15151572).

Tuition and Boarding

The new Latin schools attracted thousands of pupils and spread quickly over Northern Europe. Until the sixteenth century, pupils had wandered around as vagrants. François Rabelais's Pantagruel (1532) and the diaries of the Platter boys from Basle give a marvellous insight into that moving adolescent world, described by Le Roy Ladurie in his Beggarand the Professor. This changed in the sixteenth century. Since many pupils came from far away, boarding houses were set up, either outside the school or by transforming the Latin schools into boarding schools. These were called colleges or pensionnats in France, or public schools (Winchester, founded in 1382, was the first) in England. After its introduction in Montaigu College at Paris in the late fifteenth century, the new collegiate system became known as the Parisian style. Through the Jesuit order it swept the Catholic world from Portugal to Lithuania, with the Jesuit college at Rome becoming the Catholic model. Through Strasbourg (Johann Sturm) and Geneva (John Calvin) it reached the Protestant world too, although in the Holy Roman Empire the day school remained more popular than the college. From a material necessity the boarding school soon developed into a pedagogical tool for the moral education of the youth. In the eighteenth century, attending a boarding school became a status element of the higher classes. In these closed communities, young boys assimilated social skills, good manners, and group values, and were efficiently prepared for entrance into the male networks of the ruling class.

Initially schoolmasters were church officials for whom teaching was only a part-time job. Full-time teachers at Latin schools had often been taught themselves in the arts faculty. In Protestant Europe, the teaching job soon became an alternative to the clerical profession, until teaching developed during the eighteenth century into a full profession in itself. As such, it required adequate training and examinations (such as the first systematic and compulsory professional examination in Europe, the French agrégation, instituted in 1766 and still in existence today). In the Catholic countries, new religious orders (Jesuits, Oratorians, Piarists) devoted themselves to the education of youth, and founded or took over a huge number of Latin schools. The Jesuits drew up a general rule of study (the ratio studiorum, 1599), combined teaching and moral education in their boarding schools, developed school drama, and introduced a very successful pedagogy of emulation among the pupils. They were imitated throughout Europe, by the Protestants as well, for example at Francke's Paedagogium in Halle (1696), with its emphasis on the merits of self-achieved talent.

During the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, virtually every town had its Latin school, small or great. Teaching was not free, but since the schools were generally endowed fees were moderate, and scholarships did exist. The Latin schools served essentially to reproduce the social elites below the aristocracy, but they also enabled some gifted impecunious pupils to climb into the learned professions. In some countries at the beginning of this period students sang in the churches, and had official permission to beg in the streets in order to help pay their way.

Curriculum and Reform

Ideally, a school had six grade levels (classes) of humanities. The two or more top classes of semi-university level were realized only in the greater collèges de plein exercice or gymnasia academica. But each level could require more or less than a year's work, according to the school regulations and the pupil's capacity. School regulations varied greatly but there was a tendency toward regional or national unification. In Germany an examination called the Abitur (1788) and the baccalauréat in France (1808) were finally standardized as formal prerequisites for admission to the university.

Curricula in the Latin school turned entirely around the mastery of Latin, spiced with some Greek. Latin was the teaching language; Latin eloquence, poetry, and dialectic formed both the tool and the ideal of the classical education; and pupils were supposed to speak Latin with each other. Imitation of classical rhetoric was supposed to transfer classical values to the pupils: clarity of language equaled clarity of thought. Yet Christian values constantly interfered. Church attendance and catechization were compulsory. The Jesuits promoted religious school congregations and the Protestants strongly advocated an alloy of piety, eloquence, and erudition. Modern languages had to be learned after school time or in other schools, such as the private schools that flourished in the eighteenth century. The Czech refugee bishop Johann Amos Comenius (15921670) tried with some success to introduce multilingual and visual teaching methods through his textbooks Janua linguarum and Orbis pictus. Natural sciences and mathematics were only taught in the philosophy classes, and were not common before the eighteenth century reforms.

During the later eighteenth century the reform of the Latin school became a national issue everywhere in Europe. It was included in the Enlightenment reform of the educational system, which started from the conviction that it was the state's responsibility to properly educate its citizens: a cultural elite and a skilled bureaucracy were the two pillars of a well-ordered state. The new meritocratic ideals sapped the old society of orders and enhanced education as a tool of self-achievement. The expulsion of the Jesuits from most of the countries of Europe in the mid to late eighteenth century made reform urgent, but radical measures really had to wait for the great revolutionary wave that swept away the institutions of the ancien régime. After the Restoration period of the early nineteenth century, Latin schools reemerged with a new impetus throughout Europe, often with a curriculum adapted to the new order, except in Britain, where schools were still tied by their foundation statutes. However, they came under the pressure of modernization everywhere and were gradually replaced by the neo-humanist gymnasium or the secondary school with its modern language and science curriculum that we know today.

See also: Aristocratic Education in Europe; Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam; Education, Europe.


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Willem Frijhoff

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"Latin School." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . 23 Aug. 2017 <>.

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Latin Schools


LATIN SCHOOLS, the first educational institutions in the American colonies, were patterned on the Latin schools of England. Boston's Latin school, established in 1635, served for nearly a half century as that city's principal school to prepare the sons of elite families for college. The Massachusetts law of 1647 requiring a grammar school in every town of fifty families stimulated these schools; they also appeared in neighboring colonies and in the South. Tuition fees were charged, and the curriculum consisted primarily of Latin and Greek with a smattering of religion and mathematics. The Latin schools began to give way to the academies in the middle of the eighteenth century.


Middlekauff, Robert. Ancients and Axioms: Secondary Education in Eighteenth-Century New England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.

Edgar W.Knight/a. r.

See alsoColonial Society ; Education ; School, District ; Schools, Private .

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