Malleable Minds. The education of medieval children began at an early age. For the most part, people considered that young children were malleable and impressionable; therefore, the sooner good habits and knowledge were inculcated the better they would be retained. Children were believed to learn through word and example, so parents and teachers were told to take care in how they behaved and spoke in front of children.
Aristocratic Children. In the late eighth and early ninth centuries Charlemagne sought to have his children thoroughly educated in a manner suitable for the offspring of an emperor. He wanted both his sons and his daughters to be taught to read and be familiar with the liberal arts. Along with this higher education, the children were also instructed in skills associated with their gender roles. Thus, the boys learned to ride horses, use weapons, and hunt, while the girls were taught how to spin and sew.
Training Warriors. Charlemagne’s desire that his children learn the liberal arts may have reflected his own thirst for learning. Most aristocratic boys were educated mainly in skills that would serve them in their careers as warriors, military leaders, and defenders of home and realm. This training was concentrated on developing excellent riding skills and expertise with weapons such as swords, axes, and bows. Even boys as young as six were instructed in horseback riding and the use of arms. From a young age they also participated in the hunt, an activity that not only provided food but also honed their skill with weapons. Virtue was also considered important for boys of the warrior class. They were expected to be good leaders and loyal vassals, who would wield their weapons and exercise their authority with prudence and wisdom.
Knights in Training. Throughout the Middle Ages, the aristocracy placed their sons with other families to complete their military training and preparations for knighthood. The families were usually related or united by bonds of loyalty and honor, if not by blood. A boy started out as a page in a noble household, serving his elders but growing up, often side by side, with the lord’s son. This period usually lasted from about the age of seven until the boy was ten. While serving in the hall, the boy observed the manners of the knights and learned how to comport himself. By the age of sixteen or seventeen, a boy had usually become an accomplished rider and been well trained in the military arts. Physical games such as wrestling and running races helped to build the strength necessary to wield weapons while wearing full armor. Hardiness was important, and young boys were trained to be able to sleep in uncomfortable circumstances and endure physical discomforts similar to the conditions of military expeditions.
Knighthood. When a boy had acquired the necessary expertise, experience, and maturity, he was presented with his arms, a rite of passage that initiated him into the responsibilities of his rank. This stage might occur between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. Sometimes the arms were presented by the boy’s father, at other times by the man who had supervised the boy’s military training. This presentation was a means of consolidating the relationship between the two families. Groups of young knights formed the retinues of kings or lords. These groups helped to foster the honor and loyalty that bound men together. In the early Middle Ages they were joined together as warriors, while in later, more peaceful times, they were united in their loyalty to a lord, wearing his livery and living in his household.
Rural Education. Less is known about how the children of common rural folk were educated, both in religion and in reading and writing. Parish priests, parents, and godparents gave such children a basic religious education, which might be supplemented by the depictions of religious stories that decorated the local church. In the late eighth century Charlemagne ordered the establishment of schools where priests were to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and singing to local children, both free and serf, at no charge. Similar orders were issued by the Church. For example, at the end of the eighth century, Theodulf, Bishop of Orleans, decreed that “priests have schools in the agricultural areas and the large rural villages, and if the
faithful want to entrust their children to them to learn letters, let them not refuse to receive them.” By the eleventh century, these types of schools had multiplied. There is evidence that the inhabitants of a locale cooperated to hire and pay a schoolmaster for their children. It is likely, however, that most rural children did not move beyond the most elementary level of education.
Urban Education. From the thirteenth century onward, as urbanization increased, schools began to appear at a rapid rate in cities throughout Europe. For example, it has been estimated that, by about 1350, there were some eight thousand to ten thousand children attending schools in Florence. Merchants and members of the urban elite tended to give their sons more education than did those lower on the social scale. The children of merchants and artisans, both boys and girls, attended neighborhood schools, where they learned arithmetic, reading, and writing. In the upper ranks of urban society, boys might also learn Latin and progress on to grammar school. From there, a career in the Church became a possibility.
Education for Girls. There is less available information on the education of girls than of boys. In aristocratic circles a girl was carefully trained for the extensive responsibilities she would assume as mistress of a large and complex household that incorporated farming, craft, and military functions. Like girls in other social classes, she would learn to spin, sew, and embroider. Like her brothers, a girl would also be taught how to ride horses and hunt with falcons. Aristocratic girls were taught to read so they could read the psalter and other devotional texts, keep household accounts, and introduce their children to letters. Their model in schooling young children was St. Anne, who was frequently depicted teaching the young Virgin Mary to read. In fact, mothers of all social ranks were responsible for teaching their children, boys and girls, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Hail Mary. An aristocratic girl might have a nurse or governess to assist with her education or teach her specific skills. For example, if the girl were destined to marry and live in a foreign land, she might have been taught from an early age the language and customs of the country where she would spend her adult life.
Preparing Girls for Marriage. Girls who lived in a city, especially if they were from the families of established artisans, were sometimes sent to the local elementary school along with their brothers. There they would learn to read the vernacular and perhaps to write and do basic arithmetic. Girls from wealthy families might also be sent to convents to be educated and taught comportment. A girl’s education, however, ended much earlier than her brother’s because she was not trained for any profession. The most important qualities for a medieval girl were good comportment, modesty, and chaste behavior—all of which helped her to attract a husband and be a good wife. Even a daughter of a poor household could enhance her marriageability with a good upbringing and strong morals. Also, if she knew how to keep a household and could spin, a woman had skills that made her a valued wife and partner in the household economy.
Daniele Alexandre-Bidon and Didier Lett, Children in the Middle Ages: Fifth-Fifteenth Centuries, translated by Jody Gladding (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).
Jeremy Goldberg, “Girls Growing Up in Later Medieval England,” History Today, 45 (June 1995): 25-32.
Shulamith Shahar, Childhood in the Middle Ages (London & New York: Routledge, 1990).