Formal education has its roots very early in the Middle Ages, in the 800s under Charlemagne of France. Charlemagne was a shrewd leader, and understood that in order to maintain political and economic power in the ever-expanding world, he would need a resourceful and educated populace to continue to make technological and philosophical advances. Formal schooling afforded several other benefits as well, allowing religious indoctrination, instilling obedience, and teaching youth about not only history but plans for the immediate future.
Influence of the Church
For the most part, education was overseen by religious entities. The Church organized the education of youth, established the curriculum, devised testing, and guided students into particular fields of study or work based upon their noted skills and aptitudes. Some scholars were selected to continue studies past their standard formal education at universities, which began to be established in large cities later in the Middle Ages.
As arbiter of the curriculum itself, the Church had a vast influence on the attitudes, philosophies, and beliefs of the citizens exposed to its teachings. Curriculums included grammar, astronomy, logic, and mathematics, but also included philosophy and, of course, religion. The Church had a great deal of room to push its own agenda onto students, essentially indoctrinating them to the faith and ensuring the Church’s own continued power and success for another generation.
School was taught by both bishops at cathedrals and monks in monasteries. During the Dark Ages, few resources were devoted to scientific exploration or previous works of art, literature, or science. However, even during dark times, those afforded the opportunity to receive even a church-based education were at a substantial advantage over those who had no such chance, as only in school would students be taught how to read and write Latin, the universal language of the time.
Importance of Arts
Churches and monasteries have always placed tremendous value on artistic expression. Paintings are a way to visually depict stories from the Bible in a way that is accessible and easy to understand, even for those who cannot read. Students who showed aptitude in the arts were trained in technique and offered the chance to improve their skills with work in designing churches or painting frescos and murals as decorative works within cathedrals. Artistic students could also be called upon to illustrate books or learn calligraphy in order to create books.
Middle Ages Roots in Modern Education
Over time, a standardized course of study was developed. Students studied, at length, seven specific disciplines. Arithmetic, geometry, grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, and music were the seven basic disciplines in which successful students were expected to receive a well-rounded education. Those who displayed a particular proficiency for any particular discipline could continue their studies at university.
Successful completion of a university course of study offered one the title of Master of Arts, a title we still use today for those who have demonstrated great knowledge in their particular areas of study. Further education was made available at the university level in theology, medicine, law, and philosophy. Students completing these studies were awarded the title of Doctor, not unlike today’s medical doctors or doctors of philosophy.
The robes, or gown, and mortarboard, or caps, so customary at graduation ceremonies the world over also have their roots in school in the Middle Ages. Upon completion of their studies, students dressed up and attended ceremony in order to receive formal acknowledgement of their accomplishments and mastery.
Women and Schooling
Even noblewomen were not given the chance to attend school. Education was for boys and men only, regardless of class, wealth, social standing, or natural aptitude. The work women of all classes performed in their daily lives did not require extensive education, and women were not expected to build professions outside their homes or earn income from crafts or trades.
Convents frequently offered small amounts of education to the girls in their ranks. However, this education was not scientific so much as rooted in a thorough understanding of religious texts and rigorous discipline.
Women were rarely taught to read or taught basic fundamentals of mathematics. However, women’s roles in society and in their homes often forced them to learn rudimentary accounting skills, management skills, and the basic tenets of several different trades in order to efficiently run their homes. Because young girls were not sent to school, they instead remained at home during their early years, apprenticing under their mothers, who were their primary source of any education they may receive.
Again demonstrating the enormous influence of the Church in every aspect of life, universities in medieval times came about as a direct result of increasing urbanization and a resulting requirement for more professionally trained and skilled clergymen. Well-educated clergy were better able to interact with the public and enact broader social change than those who simply rose through the ranks over time without any formal training, background, or education except that which they learned during the course of their work.
Eventually, universities designed to train those with inclinations toward clergy work began offering courses in more advanced studies such as medicine, law, and philosophy as well. Universities were established in large cities, and students were generally found within those cities or the immediately surrounding areas. The focus on providing a rudimentary education to the youth in well-developed areas created, over time, a more intelligent and highly skilled population, which may well have contributed directly to the enormous scientific, artistic, and philosophical advances of the Renaissance right around the corner.
Rural children and those in small fiefdoms or villages, however, often did not receive such opportunities for to attend school in the Middle Ages and thus, no opportunity for advanced studies either. Due to their inability to receive early education and the distance between their homes and the major urban areas’ universities, such children frequently followed in the footsteps of their own parents, learning from parents or masters the skills they would need to survive or the tricks of a trade they could engage in to afford a higher standard of living.