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  • Secular and Sacred ABCs in Medieval England
  • Candace Barrington (bio)
Medieval Schools, from Roman Britain to Renaissance England, by Nicholas Orme. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006.

So often, it is the everyday stuff that is lost to history. Take schools; twenty first-century educators are so accustomed to thinking of education as taking place within institutions with buildings, bureaucracies, and social agendas that we easily assume schools cannot exist without such formal structures. Rather than succumb to this perspective, Nicholas Orme, a leading scholar of medieval English schools, reminds us that schools existed and education took place when no one institution or system was responsible for overseeing children's education. He knows to look for the presence of schools in places other than the predictable cathedrals and monasteries. So even though the structure of modern schools can be traced to ecclesiastical paradigms, many secular values shaped the education of medieval England's youth.

The preface to this handsomely illustrated survey says that Medieval Schools "sums up [Orme's] working life" by reappraising a subject he first visited in 1973 with his book English Schools in the Middle Ages (xv). In the intervening four decades, topics both central to and touching medieval English children and their education have been thoroughly illumined by Orme in at least eight book-length studies. This body of work raises an important question: just how much new information could this book provide, especially on a topic whose documentary evidence is so elusive, available only through the accidental survival of records and off-hand allusions? Plenty, as it turns out. Though many of Orme's findings have appeared in his earlier work, this study provides a fresh, surprisingly complete picture of the various ways one could go to school in England in the centuries between the isle's Roman conquest and its Protestant Reformation. [End Page 208]

In order to convey the barriers to studying this subject, Orme begins by recapitulating the histories of English education and its institutions. The gradual process of accumulating documents and rereading references in order to unveil the rich history of medieval schools was not earnestly begun until the early 1800s. Immediately those historians discovered the great paradox: for an institution committed to literacy and document production, the written evidence regarding English schools throughout the Middle Ages is frustratingly spare. To shape their history, scholars such as Orme must turn to the records of English towns and cities, cathedrals and monasteries, families and manors, with the intent of learning how young men were trained to read and write Latin in order to perform either the ecclesiastical duties of monks, priests, and clerics, or the bureaucratic services of clerks and accountants.

Next, Orme examines the origins of medieval schools: the formal education system developed in Britain after the Roman conquest in 43 ce. He concludes that this educational program most certainly resembled that of the empire; urban-centered, it featured both private tutors and fee-earning educators who taught reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, and rhetoric in Latin to boys and some girls. After the Romans left in the fifth century and the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the sixth, Christian monasteries, rather than urban centers, became the locations for religion and education. Because literacy was essential to Christian services, the church assumed the responsibility of training the next generation to read and write. Students would have learned Latin using a grammar text such as Donatus's Ars Minor, and they would have learned from clerics, monks, or nuns whose duties included but were not limited to teaching.

During the ninth century, a series of political instabilities and Viking raids disrupted ecclesiastical institutions. Many women's religious houses disappeared, and most monasteries turned into "minsters," "religious communities less tied to traditional monastic practices, . . . [which allowed clergy to] live separately in houses, own property individually, move more freely in the world, and even marry and have families" (32). In their own time, minsters were associated with degenerated learning; the Wessex king, Alfred, sought in the late ninth century to reform learning by reviving monasticism, by developing education in the royal household, and by promoting reading and writing in English. Despite Alfred's efforts, within a century...


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