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  • For Richer, For Poorer? Free Education in England, c.1380–1530
  • Nicholas Orme (bio)

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Schoolmaster and pupils, early Tudor period. Title page of Expositio Hymnorum (London: R. Pynson, 1497). Reproduced in Edward Hodnett, English Woodcuts, 1480-1535, with Additions and Corrections (London: Printed for the Bibliographical Society at the Oxford University Press, 1973), courtesy of the Bibliographical Society.

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The education of poor children, especially boys, was seen as a worthy object of charity in medieval England. Many monasteries supported groups of poor boys from the thirteenth century onwards, and from the 1380s benefactors began to endow grammar schools offering free education to the public. This article argues that such charity tended to benefit wealthier families more than the poor to whom it claimed to minister. It was often given to boys with influential connections, did not always meet all the costs of education, and took for granted a social status that the poor would have found hard to reach.

Poverty And Charity

It was an axiom of the Christian culture of medieval England that the poor deserved charity. More precisely it applied to the "deserving poor": children, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly—those who could not work to support themselves. Such charity included education. "Set scholars to school or to some other craft," wrote the author of the popular poem Piers Plowman in the 1360s, telling merchants how to spend their surplus wealth.1 Edmund Dudley, minister of Henry VII, urged the same one hundred and fifty years later. "Let not to depart [i.e. part] with some of your silver to comfort and relieve poor scholars, and especially such as be willing and apt to learn . . . for a better chantry [institution of prayer] shall ye never found."2 The poor needed help with their schooling because education in the middle ages involved costs, like education today. How costly it was depended on what you learned. Schools did not all teach exactly the same, and there was an important division between them, and sometimes within them, that must be explained at the start.

Broadly speaking, school education in later medieval England was a Latin education and consisted of two stages.3 Children began by learning to read, absorbing the Latin alphabet from a tablet and going on to practice reading from Latin prayer books, usually the book of hours and the psalter. Some pupils probably stopped their schooling at this point, and used their knowledge of [End Page 171] Latin letters to read English; indeed by at least 1500 it is likely that some of this elementary learning was carried out in English. The next stage was to study grammar, meaning Latin: mastering its morphology and syntax, translating from English to Latin, composing Latin prose and verse, and speaking the language. The teaching of reading was sometimes done in elementary schools and sometimes in an elementary class within a grammar school. Not all grammar schools taught reading, however. Some thought it beneath their dignity, and required their pupils to arrive already able to read and sometimes even knowing basic Latin. The expenses of education varied according to its level. Learning to read was cheaper: a fee of 4d. a quarter, or 1s. 4d. per annum, is mentioned in the fifteenth century. Grammar cost about twice as much. In the late thirteenth century, when prices were lower, a similar sum is recorded for learning grammar; by the fifteenth, after a period of inflation, charges of 8d. a term, or at least 2s. a year, appear to have been usual, and the amount was sometimes higher.4

At first sight these sums do not appear unduly large, but they are not the whole of the story. Parents who sent a child to school (principally boys, although there was some teaching of girls to read) had to be able to afford to lose their labor: doing useful tasks at home, on a farm, or in a workshop, and, after they reached puberty, earning money as servants. Next there were additional costs of schooling: schoolbooks, writing materials, and decent clothes so that the boy would look the equal of...


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