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The Medieval Child, Part 5: The Learning Years

Childbirth, Childhood and Adolescence in the Middle Ages

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In Part 4 of our series, we looked at the playful years of childhood. In this segment we'll examine the phase of life between childhood and adulthood, beginning with education.

The physical manifestations of biological puberty are difficult to ignore, and it is hard to believe that such obvious indications as the onset of menses in girls or the growth of facial hair in boys were not acknowledged as part of a transition into another phase of life. If nothing else, the bodily changes of adolescence made it clear that childhood would soon be over.

It has been argued that adolescence was not recognized by medieval society as a stage of life separate from adulthood, but this is not at all a certainty. To be sure, teenagers were known to take on some of the work of full-fledged adults. But at the same time, such privileges as inheritance and land ownership were witheld in some cultures until the age of 21. This disparity between rights and responsibilities will be familiar to those who remember a time when the U.S. voting age was 21 and the military draft age was 18.

If a child was to leave home before reaching full maturity, the teen years were the most likely time for him to do so. But this did not mean he was "on his own." The move from the parents' household was almost always into another household, where the adolescent would be under the supervision of an adult who fed and clothed the teenager and to whose discipline the teen was subject. Even as youths left their families behind and took on increasingly more difficult tasks, there was still a social structure to keep them protected and, to some extent, under control.

The teen years were also the time to concentrate more intensely on learning in preparation for adulthood. Not all adolescents had schooling options, and serious scholarship could last a lifetime, but in some ways education was the archetypal experience of adolescence.

Schooling

Formal education was unusual in the Middle Ages, although by the fifteenth century there were schooling options to prepare a child for his future. Some cities such as London had schools that children of both genders1 attended during the day. Here they learned to read and write, a skill that became a prerequisite for acceptance as an apprentice in many Guilds.

A small percentage of peasant children managed to attend school in order to learn how to read and write and understand basic math; this usually took place at a monastery. For this education, their parents had to pay the lord a fine and usually promise that the child would not take ecclesiastical orders.2 When they grew up, these students would use what they'd learned to keep village or court records, or even to manage the lord's estate.

Noble girls, and on occasion boys,3 were sometimes sent to live in nunneries in order to receive basic schooling. Nuns would teach them to read (and possibly to write) and make sure they knew their prayers. Girls were very likely taught spinning and needlework and other domestic skills to prepare them for marriage. Occasionally such students would become nuns themselves.

If a child was to become a serious scholar, his path usually lay in the monastic life, an option that was rarely open to or sought by the average townsman or peasant. Only those boys with the most notable acumen were chosen from these ranks; they were then raised by the monks, where their lives could be peaceful and fulfilling or frustrating and restrictive, depending on the situation and their temperaments. Children at monasteries were most often younger sons of noble families, who were known to "give their children to the church" in the early Middle Ages. This practice was outlawed by the Church as early as the seventh century (at the Council of Toledo), but was still known to take place on occasion in the centuries that followed.

Monasteries and cathedrals eventually began to maintain schools for students who were destined for the secular life. For younger students, instruction began with the skills of reading and writing and moved on to the Trivium of the Seven Liberal Arts: grammar, rhetoric and logic. As they grew older, they studied the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Younger students were subject to the corporal discipline of their instructors, but by the time they entered University such measures were rare.4

Advanced schooling was almost exclusively the province of males, but some females were able to acquire an admirable education nonetheless. The story of Heloise, who took private lessons from Peter Abelard, is a memorable exception; and the youth of both genders at the court of twelfth-century Poitou undoubtedly could read well enough to enjoy and debate the new literature of Courtly Love. However, in the later Middle Ages nunneries suffered a drop in literacy,5 reducing available options for a quality learning experience. Higher education for females depended largely on the individual circumstances.

In the twelfth century, cathedral schools evolved into universities. Students and masters banded together into guilds to protect their rights and further their educational opportunities. Embarking on a course of study with a university was a step toward adulthood, but it was a path that began in adolescence.

   Continued on Page Two: University.

Notes

1. Power, Eileen, Medieval Women (Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 75.

2. Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 161.

3. Medieval Women, p. 73.

4. Rowling, Marjorie, Life in Medieval Times (Berkley Publishing Group, 1979), p. 143.

5. Medieval Women, p. 73.


Guide's Note: This article was originally posted in March of 2001 and was updated in May of 2009.

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