Medieval schools conducted by monks and nuns within the confines of a monastery for the religious training and general education (1) of oblati, or youth who intended to enter the monastic or clerical life and lived at the monastery and (2) of externi, or youth who were preparing for public life and lived at home. Monastic schools are not to be confounded with monastic centers of study and culture for monks and nuns.
Origins and Aims. Although monasteries were originally intended exclusively as centers of asceticism, as early as the 4th century in both East and West they accepted even young children as pupils. Since according to the norms of monastic asceticism monks and nuns as a group were expected to read the Bible, its commentaries, and the lives of the saints, they felt obliged to teach the children to read these texts, and these alone. In the East, first St. pachomius (c. 320–340), then St. basil (c. 330–379) and St. john chrysostom (c. 347–407) adopted this custom but these schools wielded little influence. The same system prevailed in the West at the monastery of St. Martin at Ligugé (founded in France in 361), St. Honorat of Lérins, and in some African abbeys in the 5th century (see ligugÉ, ABBEY OF; LÉRINS, ABBEY OF). Here, however, since Latin was no longer spoken, the need arose to teach it to the children as a foreign language. This led the monks to use profane authors, which they did very sparingly, since these literary studies were considered merely as an introduction to Sacred Scripture. In fact, education of children was not the original monastic aim, and until the 6th century, in keeping with St. Benedict's Rule, monasteries continued to be almost solely schools where one was instructed in "the Lord's service."
Organization. The number and age of the children varied, with the number usually small and some of the children very young, about six or seven years old. The majority, but not always all the children, were destined to become monks, either of their own desire or more often because their parents "offered" them to God in the monastery. Courses of study consisted primarily of learning to read Latin and secondarily of writing, chant, arithmetic, and learning how to read time on the sundial. The principal text was the Psalter.
From the 8th century on, mention is made of the seven liberal arts, divided into the trivium and quadrivi- um. These terms, however, indicate little more than literary themes, which had scarcely any influence on the programs of study. Actually, there was no precise program. Pupils simply passed from simple reading exercises to exercises in more difficult texts. Reading aloud was common practice, for it helped fix texts and ideas in the mind. Dialogue between pupils and master or among the pupils was also used. Sometimes the child was asked to recite before the master what he had learned. The master (magister or scholasticus ) determined the method to be used. He had full power over the child, whom he kept under constant surveillance, held to a very strict discipline, and, particularly with adolescents, subjected to corporal punishments that at times were very severe. There were some instances, though very rare, of tenderness toward the children, who, if they were oblati, became monks or nuns regardless of age as soon as they had learned to read. They then left the school and devoted their time in the community to lectio divina, to meditation, and sometimes to study. The monks' books, which were different from those used in school, consisted mainly of texts by profane authors sometimes accompanied by a gloss.
This first type of school, called claustral, was destined primarily for future monks and situated within the monasteries. A second type, called nonclaustral, was intended for nonresident children and situated outside the enclosure. In more than one place, however, the latter were considered incompatible with monastic observance and consequently either suppressed or entrusted to seculars. It was loyalty to this typically monastic ideal that caused the Cistercians to refuse to operate schools. They were introduced into their order only much later and contrary to the ideals of the original foundation.
Significance. Although monastic schools in time showed some decline, their twofold organization continued virtually the same everywhere throughout the Middle Ages. The Carolingian renaissance in the 9th century, however, brought about a revival of monastic education and the rise of many schools that, despite their small enrollment, exercised a strong influence over an extended period of time. Among the most renowned were Clonmacnoise, Kildare, Clonard, Kells, Armagh, Bangor, in Ireland; Dumio, Braga, Liebana, St. Aemilian, in the Iberian peninsula; Bobbio, Monte Cassino, Farfa, Nonantola, in Italy; Wearmouth, Jarrow, York, Canterbury, Lindisfarne, Whitby, Malinesbury, in England; Fulda, Sankt Gall, Reichenau, in Germany; Gorze, Lobbes, St. Hubert, St. Amand, Liège, in Lotharingia; and Luxeuil, Aniane, Tours, Corbie, St. Wandrille, Fleury, Cluny, in France. Although the School of Bec in France was a "school of the Lord's service" and not strictly speaking an institution of learning, Lanfranc, prior at Bec and later archbishop, and Anselm, Lanfranc's student, sent out scholars whose influence was widely felt (see anselm of canterbury, st.). Some historians have attributed to the monastic schools of the Middle Ages too high a level of instruction. In some towns, it is true, especially in the 11th and 12th centuries, there were some schools, generally cathedral or episcopal, where higher studies were offered and where even some monks were educated. Two facts, however, must be noted. (1) Compared with episcopal, cathedral, or lay schools, monastic schools were more universal and continuous. This was particularly true until the end of the 8th century. (2) While the town schools gave rise to scholastic education, which was oriented toward speculation or pastoral action, monasteries favored humanism, the herald of a literary tradition more compatible with contemplative prayer and a liturgical cult.
Bibliography: h. i. marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, tr. g. lamb (New York 1956). p. richÉ, Éducation et culture dans l'Occident barbare, VI e –VIII e siècles (Paris 1962). É. lesne, Les Écoles de la fin du VIII e siècle à la fin du XII e (1940), v.5 of Histoire de la propriété ecclésiastique en France (Lille 1910–43). j. leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, tr. c. misrahi (New York 1961). d. knowles, The Monastic Order in England, 943–1216 (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng. 1962).