Until the twelfth century, when Viking raids ceased to be an expected part of everyday life, almost all scholarship took place inside the monastery. Occasionally a high-born lord would learn letters from his mother, but mostly it was the monks who taught the oblates -- monks-to-be -- in the tradition of the classics. Using first a stylus on wax and later, when their command of their letters had improved, a quill and ink on parchment, young boys learned grammar, rhetoric and logic. When they had mastered these subjects they moved on to arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Latin was the only language used during instruction. Discipline was strict, but not necessarily severe.
Teachers did not always confine themselves to the knowledge taught and retaught for centuries past. There were definite improvements in mathematics and astronomy from several sources, including the occasional Muslim influence. And methods of teaching were not as dry as one might expect: in the tenth century a renowned monastic by the name of Gerbert used practical demonstrations whenever possible, including the creation of a forerunner of the telescope to observe heavenly bodies and the use of an organistrum (a kind of hurdy-gurdy) to teach and practice music.
Not all young men were suited to the monastic life, and though at first most were forced into the mold, eventually some of the monasteries maintained a school outside their cloisters for young men not destined for the cloth. As time passed these secular schools grew larger and more common and evolved into universities. Though still supported by the Church, they were no longer part of the monastic world. With the advent of the printing press, monks were no longer needed to transcribe manuscripts. Slowly, monastics relinquished this part of their world, as well, and returned to the purpose for which they had originally congregated: the quest for spiritual peace.
But their role as the keepers of knowledge lasted a thousand years, making the Renaissance and the birth of the modern age possible. And scholars will forever be in their debt.
Sources and Suggested Reading
The links below will take you to an online bookstore, where you can find more information about the book to help you get it from your local library. This is provided as a convenience to you; neither Melissa Snell nor About is responsible for any purchases you make through these links.
Life in Medieval Times by Marjorie Rowling
Sun Dancing: A Vision of Medieval Ireland by Geoffrey Moorhouse