When education meant Bible study

14 December 2006

Well-bred scholars: Aristotle is shown here as a teacher of richly dressed boys; from the book

Well-bred scholars: Aristotle is shown here as a teacher of richly dressed boys; from the book

Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England
Nicholas Orme

Yale University Press £25 (0-300-11102-9)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

Richard Cross admires an account of schools, teachers, and curricula in medieval England

WRITTEN as a sequel to the same author’s Medieval Children (2001; reviewed Books, 15 February 2002), this book provides a full account of medieval schooling. Its first part gives general descriptions of the educational curricula, structures, and institutions; the second provides a chronological account of the development of medieval schools.

The work is a rewritten version of Orme’s 1973 book on the same subject, though Medieval Schools is “more of a survey and less of a monograph”. It is printed on glossy paper and lavishly illustrated from manuscripts and early printed sources, along with maps and photographs. Nevertheless, scholarly standards remain as high in this volume as in the earlier monograph, with which it shares a considerable amount of material.

The narrative is always engaging and sometimes racy (“Teaching, one suspects, became the destination of some young men who had aimed at the priesthood but lost their vocations through falling in love”), and is packed full of material of interest to Church Times readers. There are rich pickings on medieval parish life, and Orme gives a good and sometimes vivid sense of the everyday lives of medieval people and priests.

There is a strong sense in which medieval education at all levels was closely linked with the Church. Orme is wary of generalisations, but one fact emerges reasonably securely through the account. During the period, there was a shift away from the Church as the main provider of education. To begin with, schools were ecclesiastical, be it cathedral, monastery, or (after the Norman Conquest) parish, and teachers were the staff of these institutions.

But later in the period, schools were increasingly distinct from such structures, and teachers were increasingly laymen. With the growth of the universities and, ultimately, the devastating effects of the Black Death, the teaching profession itself became more lowly.


By one of those curious twists, though, the contents of what was taught became increasingly religious. The Bible replaced classical authors as the means and goal of literate education. The tide turned again only in the Renaissance, with its resurgent interest in classical literature and, in Protestant England, the increasing inclination to read the Bible in the vernacular.

We learn that education was surprisingly extensive. At least some of the rebels in the Peasants’ Revolt could read Latin; and the Lollards — not by any means all university men — met to read vernacular texts.

Orme has put together a wealth of fascinating material on his subject. The admittedly long text does not need to be read from cover to cover, though the expert in medieval social or ecclesiastical history will doubtless want to do so, and will do so with great profit. The arrangement allows the reader to dip in at will. An excellent index makes for easy discovery of details about particular schools and towns. All in all, it is a fascinating and handsome book.

Dr Richard Cross is Tutorial Fellow in Theology at Oriel College, Oxford.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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