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.

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