The transmission of culture from generation to generation was undertaken by the family, the Church, and the school. Moral education was stressed in the Middle Ages at the expense of intellectual enlightenment, as intellectual education is today stressed at the expense of moral discipline. In England it was not unusual, in the middle and upper classes, to send a boy of seven or so to be brought up for a time in another home, partly to cement family friendships, partly to offset the laxity of parental love.26 The splendid school system of the Roman Empire had decayed in the tumult of invasion and the depopulation of the towns. When the tidal wave of migration subsided in the sixth century a few lay schools survived in Italy; the rest were mostly schools for training converts and prospective priests. For some time (500–800) the Church gave all her attention to moral training, and did not reckon the transmission of secular knowledge as one of her functions. But under the prodding of Charlemagne cathedrals, monasteries, parish churches, and convents opened schools for the general education of boys and girls.
At first the monastic schools bore nearly all this burden. A schola interior provided instruction for novices or oblates, and a schola exterior offered education to boys, apparently without charge.27 In Germany these monastic schools survived the disorders of the ninth century, and shared productively in the Ottoman Renaissance; in the ninth and tenth centuries Germany led France in the graces of the mind. In France the disintegration of the Carolingian house, and the raids of the Northmen, struck cruel blows at themonastic schools. The palace school that Charlemagne had established at the Frank court did not long outlive Charles the Bald (d. 877). The French episcopacy grew stronger as the kings grew weaker; when the Norse raids subsided the bishops and secular clergy were richer than the abbots and the monasteries; and while the monastic schools declined in the tenth century, cathedral schools rose at Paris, Chartres, Orléans, Tours, Laon, Reims, Liege, and Cologne. When the good and great Fulbert died at Chartres, Bishop Ivo (1040?–1116) maintained the standards and renown of its cathedral school in classical studies; and this fine tradition was carried on by Ivo’s successor Bernard of Chartres, whom John of Salisbury, in the twelfth century, described as “in moderntimes the most astounding spring of letters in Gaul.”28 In England the cathedral school of York was famous even before it gave Alcuin to Charlemagne. The school of Canterbury became almost a university, with an abundant library, and no less a man as secretary than the aforesaid John of Salisbury, one of the sanest scholars and philosophers of the Middle Ages. In such schools those students who were preparing for the priesthood were apparently supported by cathedral funds, while others paid a modest fee. The Third Lateran Council (1179) decreed that “in order that the opportunity of reading and making progress may not be taken away from poor children … let some sufficient benefice be assigned in every cathedral church for a master who shall teach gratis the clerks of the same church, and poor scholars.”29 The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) required the establishment of a chair of grammar in every cathedral of the Christian world, and instructed each archbishop to maintain also chairs of philosophy and canon law.30 The decretals of Pope Gregory IX (1227–41) directed every parish church to organize a school of elementary instruction; and recent researches indicate that such parochial schools—chiefly devoted to religious instruction—were common throughout Christendom.31
What proportion of the adolescent population went to school? Of girls apparently only the well-to-do. Most convents maintained schools for girls, like that which at Argenteuil gave such excellent classical training to Héloïse (c. 1110); but these schools probably reached only a modest percentage of girls. Some cathedral schools admitted girls; Abélard speaks of the “women of noble birth” who attended his school at Notre Dame in Paris in 1114.32 Boys had a better chance, but it was presumably difficult for the son of a serf to get an education;33 however, we hear of serfs who managed to get sons into Oxford.34 Much that is now taught in schools was then learned at home or through apprenticeship in shops; certainly the spread and excellence of medieval art suggest wide opportunities for training in arts and crafts. One calculation reckons the number of boys in elementary schools in England in 1530 at 26,000 in an estimated population of 5,000,000—about one thirtieth of the proportion in 1931;35 but a recent study concludes that “the thirteenth century made a closer approach to popular and social education than the sixteenth.”36
Normally the cathedral school was directed by a canon of the cathedral chapter, variously called archiscola, scolarius, or scholasticus. The teachers were clerks in minor orders. All instruction was in Latin. Discipline was severe; flogging was considered as necessary in education as hell in religion; Winchester School greeted its students with a frank hexameter: Aut disce aut discede; manet sors tertia caedi—“Learn or depart; a third alternative is to be flogged.”37 The curriculum began with the “trivium”—grammar, rhetoric, logic—and passed on to the “quadrivium”—arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy; these were the “seven liberal arts.” These terms did not then bear quite their modern meaning. Trivium, of course, meant three ways. Liberal arts were those that Aristotle had defined as the proper subjects for freemen who sought not practical skills (which were left to apprentices) but intellectual and moral excellence.38 Varro (116–27 B.C.) had written Nine Books of Disciplines, listing nine studies as constituting the Greco-Roman curriculum; Martianus Capella, a North African scholar of the fifth century A.D., in a widely used pedagogical allegory On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury, had barred medicine and architecture as too practical; and the famous seven remained. “Grammar” was not the dull study that loses the soul of a language in studying its bones; it was the art of writing (grapho, gramma); Cassiodorus defined it as such study of great poetry and oratory as would enable one to write with correctness and elegance. In medieval schools it began with the Psalms, passed to other books of the Bible, then to the Latin Fathers, then to the Latin classics—Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Statius, Ovid. Rhetoric continued to mean the art of speaking, but again included considerable study of literature. Logic seems a rather advanced subject for the trivium, but perhaps it was good that students should learn to reason as early as they loved to argue.
The economic revolution brought some changes in the educational scene. Cities that lived by commerce and industry felt a need for employees with practical training; and against much ecclesiastical opposition they established secular schools in which lay teachers gave instruction in return for fees paid by the parents of the pupils. In 1300 the fee for a year in a private grammar school in Oxford was four or five pence ($4.50). Villani in 1283 reckoned 9000 boys and girls in the church schools of Florence, 1100 in six “abacus” schools that prepared them for a business career, and 575 pupils in secondary schools. Secular schools appeared in Flanders in the twelfth century; by the second half of the thirteenth the movement had spread to Lübeck and the Baltic cities. In 1292 we hear of a schoolmistress keeping a private school in Paris; soon she was one of many.39 The secularization of education was on its way.