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Clerks in the Manessa Codex (1300 AD)

Clerks in the Manessa Codex threatening students with sticks (1300 AD) – Medieval schools

Who went to school?

In medieval Europe, even fewer kids went to school than in the Roman Empire. People were poorer, and kids had to work in the fields weeding and harvesting and taking care of pigs and chickens.

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Most people never learned to read or write. Richer people often home-schooled their children, especially girls and disabled children, who were not allowed at the regular school.

Women in medieval Europe

What was medieval school like?

If they got to go to school, most kids started at around seven years old. Your parents had to pay for it. The teachers were usually Catholic nuns or monks or priests, sometimes Jewish rabbis, and the classroom was usually the local church or monastery or convent or synagogue. In Islamic Spain, local mosques ran excellent schools.

What is a monk?
What are nuns?
Rashi and his Jewish school
Madrassas in Spain

Many schools only took boys, but some let girls learn too (in separate classes). Some classes had only one or two kids, but others were as large as a hundred kids. School started when the sun came up and lasted until the sun went down – longer in summer, shorter in winter. Most kids sat on the floor, or on piles of straw. Like earlier teachers, medieval teachers often beat the children with sticks or tortured them in other ways.

What did people use straw for?

What did kids learn in school?

Young monks at school

Young monks at school – Medieval schools

Whatever language kids spoke at home, at school they learned to read and write in Latin, the language of the Church, or in Hebrew if they were Jewish, or Arabic in Islamic Spain. Books were very expensive in early medieval Europe. Only very rich kids could ever own a book.

History of paper
What is parchment?
How about papyrus?
History of wax and tablets
Make your own wax tablet

Most kids learned by listening to the teacher say something and then memorizing it and repeating it. People usually wrote with a sharp stick on wax tablets. But by the 1000s, Europeans were able to import paper from Egypt, and by 1250 Italians were making their own paper, and books started to be more accessible.

Roman numbers

A copy of Aristarchus' work on parchment from Constantinople, about 950 AD, showing the relative sizes of the sun, the Earth, and the moon

A copy of Aristarchus’ work on parchment from Constantinople, about 950 AD, showing the relative sizes of the sun, the Earth, and the moon

Kids in India and West Asia were using Arabic numbers during this time, but in Europe people were still using Roman numbers. That made it hard to do math, so most kids didn’t learn much math – just how to count out loud. Some older kids did learn a little botanyastronomyphilosophylogic, and how to make good speeches.

Math in medieval Europe
Heloise and Abelard
Roger Bacon and science
Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle

Grammar schools

Teenagers usually stopped going to school, but if you went on you could go to a grammar school, where you would learn Latin grammar. Even fewer people – mostly people who were going to be monks or rabbis – went on to college or yeshiva. Some serious scholars travelled to Islamic Spain or to North Africa or Egypt to study there.

Learn by doing: make a wax tablet to write on
More about Islamic schools
Medieval Jewish yeshivas
Universities in Medieval Europe

Bibliography and further reading about medieval schools:

Universities in Medieval Europe
School in the Medieval Islamic Empire
Medieval Europe home