The rise of commerce and industry put a new premium on education. Literacy had been a costly luxury in an agricultural regime; it was a necessity in an urban commercial world. Law tardily recognized the change. In England (1391) the feudal landowners petitioned Richard II to enforce the old rule that forbade a serf to send his son to school without his lord’s consent and reimbursement for the loss of a farm hand. Richard refused, and in the next reign a statute decreed that any parent might send any of his children to school.23
Under this education-emancipation act elementary schools multiplied. In the countryside monastic schools survived; in the cities grade schools were provided by churches, hospitals, chantries, and guilds. Attendance was voluntary but general, even in villages. Usually the teachers were priests, but the proportion of lay instructors rose in the fourteenth century. The curriculum stressed the catechism, the Creed, the basic prayers, reading, writing, arithmetic, singing, and flogging. Even in secondary schools flogging was the staff of instruction. A divine explained that “the boys’ spirits must be subdued”;24 the parents agreed with him; and perhaps ‘tis so. Agnes Paston urged the tutor of her unstudious son to “belash him” if he did not amend, “for I had lever he were fairly buried than lost by default.” 25
Secondary schools continued the religious training, and added grammatica, which included not merely grammar and composition, but the language and expurgated literature of classic Rome; the students—boys of the middle class—learned to read and write Latin, however indifferently, as a necessity in foreign trade as well as in a church career. The best secondary schools of the time were those established in the Lowlands and Germany by the Brethren of the Common Life; the one at Deventer drew 2,000 pupils. The wealthy and energetic Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, set a precedent by founding there (1372) the first of England’s “public” schools-institutions endowed, by private or public philanthropy, to provide college preparatory training for a limited selection of boys. The example was followed by Henry VI, who established (1440) and richly endowed Eton School to prepare students for King’s College, Cambridge.
Above the elementary level the education of women, with some highborn exceptions, was confined to the home. Many women of the middle class, like Margaret Paston, learned to write fair English, and a sprinkling of women acquired some acquaintance with literature and philosophy. The sons of the aristocracy received an education quite different from that of the schools. Till the age of seven they were taught by the women of the house; then they were sent to serve, as pages, a related or neighboring noble. Safe there from the excesses of affection, they learned reading, writing, religion, and manners from the ladies and the local priest. At fourteen they became squires—i.e., adult servitors of their lord. Now they learned to ride, shoot, hunt, joust, and wage war. Book learning they left to their inferiors.
These were meanwhile developing one of the noblest legacies of the Middle Ages—the universities. While the ecstasy of ecclesiastical architecture cooled, the zeal for founding colleges mounted. In this period Oxford saw the establishment of Exeter, Oriel, Queen’s, New, Lincoln, All Souls, Magdalen, Brasenose, and Corpus Christi colleges, and the Divinity School. They were not yet colleges in the modern sense; they were “halls,” places of residence for selected students; hardly a tenth of the pupils at Oxford lived in them. Most university instruction was given by clergymen in schoolrooms or auditoriums scattered about the town. Benedictine monks, Franciscan, Dominican, and other friars maintained their own colleges at Oxford; and from these monastic academies came some of the most brilliant men of the fourteenth century; among them were Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, both of whom did some damage to orthodox theology. Students of law received their training in London, at the Inns of Court.
In Oxford no love was wasted between town and gown—citizens and scholars. In 1355 the hostile camps rushed into open war, and so many heroes were killed that the year was known as that of the Great Slaughter. Despite the introduction of flogging into the universities of England (c. 1350), the students were a troublesome lot. Forbidden to engage in intramural athletics, they spent their energy in profanity, tippling, and venery; taverns and brothels throve on their patronage. Attendance at Oxford fell from its thirteenth-century peak to as low as a thousand; and after the expulsion of Wyclif academic freedom was rigorously curtailed by episcopal control.
Cambridge profited from the Wyclif controversy and the Lollard scare; cautious conservatives kept their sons from Oxford and sent them to the younger university, so that by the end of the fifteenth century the rival institutions had a fairly equal registration. New “halls” were founded along the Cam: Michaelhouse, University or Clare, Pembroke, Gonville and Caius, Trinity, Corpus Christi, King’s, Queen’s, St. Catherine’s, Jesus’, Christ’s, and St. John’s. Like the residence halls at Oxford, these became colleges in our sense during the fifteenth century as more and more teachers chose them as the places where their lectures would draw the largest attendance. Classes began at six in the morning, and continued till five in the afternoon. Meanwhile Scotland and Ireland, out of their poverty, founded the universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, and Trinity College, Dublin—four institutions destined to pour genius, generation after generation, into the intellectual life of the British Isles.
In France, education, like almost everything else, suffered from the Hundred Years’ War. Nevertheless the rising demand for lawyers and physicians, added to the traditional attractions of an ecclesiastical career, encouraged the establishment of new universities at Avignon, Orléans, Cahors, Grenoble, Orange, Aix-en-Provence, Poitiers, Caen, Bordeaux, Valence, Nantes, and Bourges. The University of Paris, perhaps because the monarchy was near collapse, became in the fourteenth century a national power, challenging theParlement, advising the king, serving as a court of appeals in French theology, and recognized by most continental educators as universitas universitatum. The rise of provincial and foreign universities reduced registration at Paris; even so the faculty of arts alone was reputed to have a thousand teachers and ten thousand pupils in 1406 ;26 and in 1490 the entire university had nearly twenty thousand.27 Some fifty “colleges” helped to house them. Discipline was laxer than at Oxford, and the morals of the students complimented their virility rather than their religion. Courses in Greek, Arabic, Chaldaic, and Hebrew were added to the curriculum.
Spain had founded its leading universities in the thirteenth century—at Palencia, Salamanca, and Lérida; others now rose at Perpignan, Huesca, Valladolid, Barcelona, Saragossa, Palma, Sigüenza, Valencia, Alcalá, and Seville. In these institutions ecclesiastical control was complete, and theology predominated; however, at Alcalá, fourteen chairs were given to grammar, literature, and rhetoric, twelve to divinity and canon law. Alcalá became for a time the greatest educational center in Spain; in 1525 it had an enrollment of seven thousand. Scholarships were provided for needy students. The salary of a professor was regulated by the number of his pupils; and every professor was required to resign quadrennially, being eligible for reappointment if he had proved satisfactory. At Lisbon King Diniz had founded a university in 1300, but the turbulence of the students led him to remove it to Coimbra, whose pride it is today.
Mental activity was in this period more vigorous in Central Europe than in France or Spain. In 1347 Charles IV founded the University of Prague, which soon became the intellectual head and voice of the Bohemian people. Other universities appeared at Cracow, Vienna, Pécs, Geneva, Erfurt, Heidelberg, Cologne, Buda, Würzburg, Leipzig, Rostock, Louvain, Trier, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Greifswald, Basel, Ingolstadt, Pressburg, Mainz, Tübingen, Copenhagen, Uppsala, Frankfurt-an-Oder, and Wittenberg. In the second half of the fifteenth century these institutions seethed with students and debates. Cracow alone had 18,3 38 pupils at one time.28 The Church provided most of the funds, and naturally called the tune of thought; but princes, nobles, cities, and businessmen shared in endowing colleges and scholarships. The Elector Frederick of Saxony financed the University of Wittenberg partly from money that came from the sale of indulgences, but which he refused to remit to Rome.29 Scholasticism sat in the chairs of philosophy, while humanism grew outside the university walls. Hence most of the universities of Germany adhered to the Church during the Reformation, with two significant exceptions: Erfurt, where Luther studied, and Wittenberg, where he taught.