I lerne song

Tom Shippey

  • Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England by Nicholas Orme
    Yale, 430 pp, £25.00, June 2006, ISBN 0 300 11102 9

Nicholas Orme’s Medieval Schools is something of a capstone on a long scholarly career devoted to the history of education, running from his English Schools in the Middle Ages (1973) to Medieval Children (2001), and taking in thirty other studies listed in the bibliography, most of them the product of detailed archival research. It is accordingly rather a cheek for a reviewer to take issue with his main point, firmly repeated at the start and the end of this book, that ‘medieval education was not a precursor of modern education, but the same thing in different circumstances.’ That depends on what you mean by ‘modern’. Certainly some features of the history laid out by Orme are easily recognisable; they have lasted in literary memory and even into living memory. But actually contemporary? It would be interesting to read an Ofsted report on a medieval school.

For one thing, education in post-Roman times was essentially concerned with literacy and with Christianity, and at first very closely linked with monasticism. The aims of a monastic teacher dealing with a seven-year-old ‘oblate’ – a boy offered to the monastery by his parents – were direct and practical. The boy had to learn to play his part in the continuous round of services of the Benedictine day, which meant learning to sing responses. That came first, but it was almost as important that he learn to read, again for liturgical purposes, and to learn Latin, the language of the Church and of the Bible. Once these things had been achieved, it is true, the possibilities for further progress were enormous. The Venerable Bede started as an oblate at St Paul’s, Jarrow, but by the time of his death in 735 was surely the most learned man in Europe. A more typical outcome, though, was described six centuries later in Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale’. The pious little boy asks his slightly older schoolmate what the Alma Redemptoris Mater is about, and the senior one says he knows it’s in praise of the Virgin Mary, but that’s all: ‘I kan na moore expounde in this mateere./I lerne song, I kan but smal grammeere.’ He’s learned the song by rote, in other words, and will get round to Latin later; and his pious junior learns it by rote as well, neglecting his ‘prymere’ to do so.

Learning grammar was a good deal harder for Anglo-Saxons, and for later Englishmen, than learning song, and consequently we know a good deal more about the process. Writing elementary grammars was not beneath the dignity of the most important churchmen of early England. St Boniface, who died a martyr’s death as the Apostle of Germany, started as a teacher at his little monastery at Nursling, and wrote a Latin grammar. Tatwine, who ended up as archbishop of Canterbury, composed a Latin textbook for the monastery of Breedon-on-the-Hill. The northern monk Aethelwulf, perhaps from Bywell near Hexham, boasts of his teachers Eadfrith and the heroically named Hyglac. When Harold was killed at Hastings, the canon who went to beg the body from William was Ailric the ‘Childemaister’ of Waltham. And among the many works of Aelfric of Cerne, and later of Eynsham, were the first Latin grammar written in Old English, and a Latin Colloquy that was designed as a simple text for use in school; it was later translated into Old English, and further expanded by his near namesake Aelfric Bata, who may have been schoolmaster at Christ Church, Canterbury, and who wrote Colloquia of his own.

Despite these admirable efforts, Latin was and remained a hard language to master. Reading some of Orme’s examples, one begins to wonder how anyone ever learned anything at all under the medieval curriculum. Many people still remember their mensa-mensa-mensam-mensae-mensae-mensa, rapidly followed by servus-serve, bellum-bellum, and all the other noun declensions, singular and plural, nominative to ablative. Yet even with this surviving if vestigial knowledge, it is quite hard to make out the sense of Alexander of Ville-Dieu’s mnemonic verse, which starts: ‘Rectis as es a dat declinatio prima’ (‘First declension nouns have -as, -es, -a, for their endings’); this is immediately qualified by ‘As well as -am in some proper names taken from Hebrew’ (and much more). Evrard of Béthune’s handy guide to irregular verbs is even more inscrutable: ‘Cre-, do-, se-, nex-, iu-, sto-, la-, mi-, ve-, to-, fir-, pli-, ne-, cu-, so, /Turn in the perfect to -ui or -i, never to -avi.’ If Wells’s Dr Moreau had remembered this, he would never have said to the terrified Prendick, of the Beast-folk on his island: ‘Non sunt homines, sunt animalia qui nos habemus – vivisected.’ He would have known (see third item in the list just given) that verbs like (vivi)secare form their perfect as vivisecuimus, not ‘vivisecavimus’ or the pidgin Anglo-Latin ‘habemus vivisecti’.

And, of course, if anyone had produced anything like Dr Moreau’s effort at a proper school, even in Wells’s time, he would have got six of the best for sure. One of the constant themes in Orme’s account, though he doesn’t harp on it, is the long-lasting conviction that Latin could be learned only ‘under the rod’. In Aelfric Bata’s Colloquy 28 the wretched child being thrashed cries out that he’s dying, only to be told grimly by the thrasher: ‘Non es mortuus adhuc’ (‘You’re not dead yet’). Four hundred years later the bishop of Norwich forbade classes to be held in churches, because the screams of the children interrupted services. When Cambridge appointed a master of ‘glomerye’, or grammar, he had to demonstrate his fitness for the post by birching a boy in public, though we are told it was a selected ‘shrewed’, or naughty boy, and he was paid fourpence for his ‘labour’. Far too much ingenuity has been expended on beating over the centuries, instruments ranging from the familiar cane, birch and Scottish tawse to the ferule, with its hole at one end specifically designed to raise a blister, the ruler over the knuckles for the little ones, the American paddle, the fearsome ‘pandybat’ of the Christian Brothers, and so on, and on. It is surprising that more teachers weren’t lynched. When one especially harsh Anglo-Saxon schoolmistress died in the nunnery at Wimborne, the future Saint Leofgyth went out with her girl-classmates, and to relieve their feelings, stamped their tormentor’s grave-mound flat: a kind of ‘Goodbye Sister Chips’.

There were some moderates at any given time, but even their statements sound familiar. The statutes for the choristers of Wells Cathedral laid down that boys who wouldn’t learn their lessons should be warned kindly, then sharply, then beaten; or, as a Marlborough alumnus once explained to me mnemonically, the rule was ‘explain, detain, then cane.’ Songs about the woes of school are a minor literary genre (no doubt very amusing to schoolmasters). A boy at Magdalen College School in the 1490s wrote a powerful contrast between life at home, with breakfast in bed, and life at school, up at five, no breakfast, nothing but ‘monishing and stripes’. Or as an Irish classmate said sadly to C.S. Lewis at Campbell College more than four centuries later: ‘This time last month, I wouldn’t have been going in to Preparation, I’d have a wee tea-cloth laid for me at one end of the table and sausages to my tea.’

‘Prep’, ‘parsing’, ‘forms’, which were the benches the pupils sit on, the word ‘usher’ for a teacher, from hostiarius, the junior master who sat by the door: all these have stayed in memory, but are surely now extinct in practice (no sign of any of them at Hogwarts, for instance). If one remembers them, the memory comes from reading Tom Brown’s Schooldays, or even Tom Brown at Oxford, in which the medieval practice survives of allowing poor boys or young men to scratch an undignified education as ‘servitors’ to their betters, permitted to sit in on classes in exchange for carrying out menial duties – but not, or not till Tom Brown takes charge, to row in the college eight. But though some features of medieval education may have lasted just about into the 20th century, when does something recognisable as what we would call a ‘school’ – ‘grammar school’ or ‘public school’, but anyway some institution with an educational rather than an ecclesiastical-vocational purpose – take shape? This is the question that exercises Orme most, and it is not an easy one to answer, in spite of the author’s long labours in many archives.

One factor may have been the difference between secular cathedrals, like Salisbury or St Paul’s, and monastic ones like Canterbury or Winchester. The former ran a song school for the choristers and a grammar school for the general public, taught by a master from the cathedral foundation. Masters of this kind were liable to get promoted and pass the teaching on to a low-rank deputy. But in monastic cathedrals the schoolmasters would not be monks and could not become so; their institutions drifted towards becoming schools for the city rather than the cathedral. In London, two schools grew up (not without friction) outside the jurisdiction of St Paul’s and the bishop of London, at the churches of St Martin-le-Grand and St Mary Arches, belonging to the king and archbishop of Canterbury respectively. But many schools are recorded, one way or another, often outside cities: Orme counts more than 70 in the 13th century, their number steadily increasing – in an appendix he lists more than 400 in England and Wales between 1066 and 1530.

Many of them were very small. While Winchester was lavishly endowed from its foundation in 1382, with provision in the 1400 statutes for a headmaster, an usher and 70 ‘poor and needy’ scholars, much more typical was Lady Katherine Berkeley’s foundation at Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire two years later, with endowments of £17 a year to provide for a schoolmaster, two scholars, and free lessons for anyone who wanted them. These less ambitious institutions have usually not survived but in their time may have been more practically useful. Schools like Winchester, founded for the ‘poor and needy’, but offering valuable perquisites like free board, lodging and education, tended to be infiltrated by the children of influential people whom it was unwise to offend – or who, as now, just knew how to work the system. Not everyone approved of all this free education for the poor in any case. In 1391, ten years after the Peasants’ Revolt, the House of Commons asked Richard II to forbid serfs from sending their children to school, in order to ‘save the honour of all freemen of the realm’ (the king did nothing about it). Whatever his connections with the Peasants’ Revolt itself, the curiously cross-grained author of Piers Plowman had some years earlier also complained about the way ‘bondemen barns haen be made bisshopes,’ while his later imitator in Piers the Ploughman’s Creed positively fulminated about it: ‘Now mot ich soutere [cobbler] his sone setten to schole,/And ich a beggers brol [brat] on the book lerne,/And worth to [become] a writere and with a lorde dwell,/Other falsely to a frere, the fend for to seruen!’

Mention of the friars raises the issue of the orders which from the 12th century began to challenge Benedictine dominance, and especially the fraternal orders. Orme devotes a chapter to these, and notes the increasing variety and strong competitiveness of the high Middle Ages, when there were many different arrangements for supporting scholars and paying teachers. Nunneries, for instance, which according to Orme remained rather unambitious, with notably inadequate Latin, nevertheless tended to take in boarders, girls and little boys, though what they taught may have been social polish and strategic chastity rather than grammar. Chaucer’s Reeve comments sourly that the upwardly striving Miller will marry only a convent-educated virgin, while his wife, the illegitimate daughter of a priest, puts on airs because of her ‘nortelrye’ (a sarcastic mangling, perhaps of nurture and chivalry) ‘that she had lerned in the nonnerye’. But the friars especially, spreading all over England ‘as thikke as motes in the sonne-beem’, as the Wife of Bath says, at least made education respectable and profitable, with strong potential for careers.

What actually went on in all these diverse establishments inevitably remains obscure. Orme explains what is known of curricula and textbooks, of schoolroom layouts, of endowments and statutes and much else, but the life of his book comes very often from carefully collected low-grade materials, accidental survivals from the schoolroom. One traditional way of teaching was by latinitates and vulgaria, the former a Latin sentence set as an exercise, the latter its English equivalent. One sees teaching of this sort, for instance, in M.R. James’s ‘A School Story’. The master has set the boys the exercise of writing a Latin sentence using a form of the verb meminisse, ‘to remember’, and most of them duly write howlers like meminiscimus patri meo (the joke falls flat now, but would have raised a laugh for a thousand years). But one boy, McLeod, second-sighted like so many Highlanders, for some reason finds himself writing ‘Memento putei inter quatuor taxos,’ ‘remember the well between the four yews,’ which is good Latin but has alarming and spooky consequences. Some fifteen school notebooks containing sentences of this kind survive from around 1400. They contain humorous howlers, jokes about school, fragments of songs, and even a bit of a ghost story: ‘Bloodless and boneless standeth behind the door.’ Proverbs were a staple of this subgenre, being short, amusing and easily memorable. The Distichs of Cato were used from Anglo-Saxon times all the way through to the Reformation: Erasmus thought it worthwhile to write a commentary on them.

But with the Reformation the state began to take a hand, keen to convert old endowments to ‘good and godly uses, as in erecting of grammar schools’, as well as to supervise the curriculum, and keep an eye open for crypto-Catholics in the teaching profession. If it was a profession. Orme notes that Holofernes in Love’s Labours Lost is the archetypal irascible pedant, and observes (without listing them) that there are nine such figures in Shakespeare’s plays. Teachers seem to have been defensively anxious about their pay and status from an early period, at least from the time they started to be paid stipends. Orme suggests that this is because they deal with children, the most powerless group in society; though from an early period the English aristocracy seems to have been much readier to spend money on grooms for their horses than on teachers for their children – £50 a year as against £10, as one disgruntled medieval teacher remarked.

As private education gets dearer, that may be one thing that changes. But, to return to Orme’s thesis, has education essentially stayed much the same, even if ‘in different circumstances’? It seems to me that whatever vestigial similarities there may have been between medieval habits and those of, anyway, the 19th century, the medieval curriculum is now dead. Latin as the major goal of education has died out, along (no doubt coincidentally) with corporal punishment as the major means of achieving it. Donatus’ eight ‘parts of speech’ survived from late antiquity to 1542, when a book with that title was compiled by royal order and imposed on all schools; it stayed in print till 1858, and the idea has remained a kind of academic superstition almost up to the present day. At a major American university not long ago incomers into the English department were asked suspiciously by an older scholar to name them, to see whether they were fit to teach. But hardly any of the newcomers could pass the test – it is actually rather a silly one, in English – and failing was a badge of honour for the young.

Has change been incremental, as American scholars have tended to believe: a steady process of laicisation, leading from monastic schools to clerical ones to the ‘muscular Christianity’ of Arnold’s Rugby, and through to the determined multiculturalism of today? Orme is not convinced, pointing to many reversals and sidetracks: whether education is becoming more or less religious is by no means obvious even now, in Europe or the US. Can one see increasing professionalisation? Over fifteen hundred years, blips aside, education has certainly become steadily more available, and the number of full-time teachers has steadily grown. One might wonder whether this has been a conservative or a subversive trend. Many in the Middle Ages thought the latter, but on the other hand, schools until fairly recently tended to support ‘wealth, hierarchy and masculinity’, as Orme puts it. Arguably, as private education makes a comeback, they are doing so again. Perhaps all one can conclude is that schools have always varied, and teachers have adapted to circumstances. However, Orme has told the story, and laid out the evidence, with a rigour and an accessibility unlikely ever to be matched. In one appendix you can even check a list of early schools, then cross-refer to an index of school by county to see where you might have gone if you had been a medieval.