Medieval Education in England was the preserve of the rich. Education in Medieval England had to be paid for and medieval peasants could not have hoped to have afforded the fees. When William I conquered England in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, he took over a country where very few were educated – including the wealthy. The most educated people were those who worked in the church but many who worked in the monasteries had taken a vow of isolation and their work remained isolated with them.
As Medieval England developed so did the need for a more educated population – especially in the developing world of merchant trade. Important trading towns set up what became known as grammar schools and it was not unusual for a wealthy local merchant to have funded such a school. Latin grammar formed a major part of the daily curriculum – hence the title of the schools. Latin was also the language used by merchants as they traded in Europe. Very few Dutch merchants spoke English – but they could speak Latin. Very few English merchants spoke Dutch or Spanish, but they could speak Latin. Hence why European merchants used the language. Any merchant who wished to trade in Europe effectively could not have hoped to have done so without knowledge of Latin. These merchants ensured the survival of their firms by ensuring that their sons were equally conversant in the language – hence the establishment of grammar schools.
All lessons taught in a grammar school were in Latin. Lessons were taught in a way that boys had to learn information off by heart. Whether they understood what they had learned was a separate issue! Books were extremely expensive in Medieval England and no school could hope to kit out their pupils with books.
By 1500, many large towns had a grammar school. One of the oldest was in the important market town of Maidstone in Kent. Schools then were very small. Many had just one room for all the boys and one teacher who invariably had a religious background. The teacher would teach the older boys who were then responsible for teaching the younger ones.
Lessons frequently started at sunrise and finished at sunset. This meant that in the spring/summer months, school could last for many hours. The opposite was true for the winter. Discipline was very strict. Mistakes in lessons were punished with the birch (or the threat of it) In theory pupils would never make the same mistake again after being birched, as the memory of the pain inflicted was too strong.
For those who excelled at a grammar school, university beckoned. Medieval England saw the founding of both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Both universities were renowned seats of learning – though both universities had a reputation for exuberant student behaviour at this time.
The sons of the peasants could only be educated if the lord of the manor had given his permission. Any family caught having a son educated without permission was heavily fined. Historians today feel that this policy was simply an extension of those in authority trying to keep peasants in their place, as an educated peasant/villein might prove to be a threat to his master as he might start to question the way things were done.
Very few girls went to what could be describes as a school. Girls from noble families were taught at home or in the house of another nobleman. Some girls from rich families went abroad to be educated. Regardless of where they went, the basis of their education was the same – how to keep a household going so that their husband was well kept. Girls might learn to play a musical instrument and to sing. But the philosophy of their education remained the same – how to keep a successful household for your husband.