Accounts of Medieval Literacy and Education, c. 1090-1530
Memory & Writing
Plato, Phaedrus, c. 380 BCE
If men learn writing, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to
exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance
no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks; what you have discovered
is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder....
Eadmer, Historia, c. 1125
Those favoring the side of the Archbishop Anselm then maintained that credence
should be given to all those documents signed with the pope's seal and not to the
uncertainty of mere words. However, those favoring the side of the king replied that they
preferred to rely on the words of three bishops than on the skins of sheep blackened with
ink and weighted with a little lump of lead....
From The Liber Magistri Hugonis Sancti Victoris, c. 1130
To fix something in the memory, it is of great value when we are reading to take
pains to imprint on the memory through the imagination not only the number and order of
the verses or sections in books, but also at the same time the color, shape, position, and
placement of the letters: where we saw this written down and where that; in what part and
in which place we saw it positioned---whether at the top, in the middle, or near the
bottom; in what color we discerned the shape of a particular letter or the ornament on the
surface of the parchment. I think there is nothing so effective for exciting the memory as
meticulously paying attention to the surroundings of things, to those features which can
occur accidentally and externally. Knowledge is a treasury, and your heart is its
Master Thomas, The Romance of Horn, c. 1160
Lords, you have heard the lines of parchment...
From The Estoire de Waldef, c. 1190
In anyone wants to know this history let him read the Brut, he will hear it
From Lectio, c. 1200
"Are you a scholar? What do you read?" "Yes, but I do not read, I
listen." "What do you hear?" "Donatus or Alexander, or logic or
From The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, 1279
The king disturbed some of the great men of the land through his judges wanting to know
by what warrant they held their lands, and if they did not have a good warrant, he
immediately seized their lands. Among the rest, the Earl Warenne was called before the
king's judges. Asked by what warrant he held, he produced in their midst an ancient and
rusty sword and said: "Look at this, my lords, this is my warrant! For my ancestors
came with William the Bastard and conquered their lands with the sword, and by the sword I
will defend them from anyone intending to seize them. The king did not conquer and subject
the land by himself, but our forebears were sharers and partners with him!"
Hieronimo Squarciafico, Memory and Books, 1477
Already abundance of books makes men less studious; it destroys memory and enfeebles
the mind by relieving it of too much work.
John of Salisbury, Policraticus, 1159
All those who are ignorant of the Latin poets, historians, orators, and
mathematicians should be called illiterati even if they know letters.
Philip de Harvengt, De Institutione Clericorum, c. 1175
A usage of speech has taken hold whereby when we see someone litteratus,
immediately we call him clericus. Because he acts the part that is a cleric's, we
assign him the name ex officio. Thus if anyone is comparing a knight who is litteratus with a priest who is ignorant, he will exclaim with confidence and affirm with an oath
that the knight is a better clericus than the priest...This improper usage has
become so prevalent that whoever gives attention to letters, which is clerkly, is named clericus....When
we meet a monk of humanity and charity, we ask him whether he is a clericus. We
don't want to know whether he has been ordained to perform the office of the altar, but
only whether he is litteratus. The monk will therefore reply to the question by
saying that he is a clericus if he is litteratus, or conversely a laicus if
he is illiteratus.
The Book of Walter Map, c. 1200
This knight, as a boy, was a paragon of virtue and was educated among us and by us;
yet he was not litteratus, which I regret, although he knew how to write any series
of letters whatever.
Reginald of Durham, Life of St. Godric, c. 1200
Therefore he chose not to follow the life of a peasant, but rather to study, learn and
exercise the rudiment of more subtle conceptions.
From The King's Mirror, c. 1200
The man who is to be a merchant will have to brave many perils....Finally, remember
this, that whenever you have an hour to spare you should give thought to your studies,
especially to the law books; for it is clear that those who gain knowledge from books have
keener wits than others, since those who are the most learned have the best proofs for
their knowledge. Make a study of all the laws....And if you wish to become perfect in
knowledge, you must learn all the languages, first of all Latin and French, for these
idioms are most widely used....Learn arithmetic thoroughly, for merchants have great need
Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, c. 1387
With him there was his son, a youthful squire...He could make songs and words thereto
read, joust, and dance too, as well as sketch and write....; A monk there was, one made
for mastery....What? Should he study as a madman would upon a book in cloister cell?....;
A clerk from Oxford was with us also....For he would rather have at his bed's head some
twenty books, all bound in black and red, of Aristotle and his philosophy...; There was a
franklin in his company...At county sessions was he lord and sire, and often acted as a
knight of shire. He had been sheriff and been auditor....; With us there was a doctor of
physic...Well read was he in Aesculapius, And Deiscorides, and in Rufus, Hippocrates, and
Hali, and Galen, Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicenna, Averroes, Gilbert, and Constantine,
Bernard and Gatisden, and John Damascene. It's no libel to say he read but little in the
Bible....There was a good man of religion, too, a country parson, poor, I warrant
you...But in all teaching prudent and benign....
The Art of Writing
Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History, c. 1090
I was visited on that day by Anthony, a monk of Winchester, who showed me a copy of
a life of St. William. I wished to have a copy too, but in truth, since the bearer was in
haste to depart, and the winter cold prevented me from writing, I made a full and accurate
abbreviation on tablets, and now I shall endeavor to entrust it summarily to parchment.
Guibert de Nogent, Autobiography, c. 1120
For I made no notes in my tablets for the composition and writing of this or any
other of my works, but committed them to the written page without alteration, as I thought
From The Life of Christina of Markyate, c. 1140
I could not pollute the wax by writing how scandalously the cleric had behaved who had
been commended to Christina as here companion by Thurstan, Archbishop of York.
Vacarius, Liber Pauperum, c. 1150
First I put particular passages in order for the text and then I perfected the book by
sprinkling other passages into the space for the gloss. By this means, brevity was served
and the result was a book published at the lowest price and readable in a short time.
Robert de Melun, Exemplaria, c. 1150
The "masters of the glosses," for this is the name they have now attained,
lack understanding of their glosses as much as of the text, even if they can distinguish
the glosses and separate them through punctuation marks and assign each one to the text it
John of Salisbury, Letter to Peter, Abbot of Celle, c. 1159
While I was writing this, the scribe was moved to laughter by the greeting at the head
of this letter, that the greeting was ridiculous, and he refused to write further though I
wished to continue writing nonetheless.
Richard Fitz Neal, Dialogue of the Exchequer, c. 1177
The scribe must be careful not to write anything of his own in the roll, but only what
the treasurer has instructed.
From Layamon's Brut, c. 1190
At Arley, on the river Severn, there Layamon read books. In order to write one of
his own, he traveled widely, and procured those noble books which he took as his
exemplars; these were three in number---in English, Latin, and French. Then Layamon laid
these books out and turned over their leaves. He beheld them lovingly; may God have mercy
on him! He took quills in his fingers and applied them to parchment and he set down
together the truer words and he compressed those three books into one.
Guibert de Nogent, Autobiography, c. 1120
Put, therefore, to my book [age six], I had learnt the alphabet, but hardly yet to
join letters into syllables, when my good mother, eager for my instruction, arranged to
pass me on to grammar [age seven].....Even on Sundays and Saints' Days I had to submit to
the severity of school exercises; on no day, and hardly at any time, was I allowed to take
holiday in fact, in every way and at all times I was driven to study. Meantime I was
pelted almost every day with a hail of blows and hard words, while he was forcing me to
learn what he could not teach. With him in this fruitless struggle I passed nearly six
years, but got no reward worth the expenditure of time....I went to my mother's knees
after a more severe beating than I had deserved. And when she, as she was wont, began to
ask me repeatedly whether I had been whipped that day, I, not to appear a tellntale,
entirely denied it. Then she, whether I liked it or not, threw off the inner garment which
they call a vest or shirt and saw my little arms blackened and the skin of my back
everywhere puffed up with the cuts from the twigs. And being grieved to the heart by the
very savage punishment inflicted on my tender body, troubled, agitated and weeping with
sorrow, she said: "You shall never become a clerk, nor any more suffer so much to get
learning." At that I, looking at her with what reproach I could, replied: "If I
had to die on the spot, I would not give up learning my book and becoming a clerk."
William FitzStephen, A Description of London, c. 1190
On Shrove Tuesday, boys from the schools bring fighting-cocks to their master, and
the whole forenoon is given up to boyish sport; for they have a holiday in the schools
that they may watch their cocks do battle. After dinner all the youth of the city goes out
into the fields to a much-frequented game of ball. The scholars of each school have their
own ball, and almost all the workers of each trade have theirs also in their hands. Elder
men, and fathers, and rich citizens come on horseback to watch the contests of their
juniors, and after their fashion are young again with the young....The schoolboys dispute,
some in demonstrative rhetoric, others in dialectic. Some "hurtle enthymemes,"
others with greater skill employ perfect syllogisms. Boys of different schools strive
against one another in verse or contend concerning the principles of the art of grammar,
or the rules concerning the use of past and future. There are others who employ the old
art of the crossroads in epigrams, rhymes, and meter.
Robert Holcot, Observations, c. 1310
When boys are first instructed they are not able to learn anything subtle, but only
simple things. So they are first taught with a book of large letters affixed to a piece of
wood, and progress afterwards to learning letters from a more advanced book, a parchment
leaf on which appears the alphabet, decorated with red paragraph marks, and fixed to a
board, covered over with a transparent piece of horn.
From Piers Plowman, c. 1370
For schoolboys, my sire said so to me, and so did my mother, that the livelier the
child, the more it behooves one, and Solomon said the same, that Wisdom made Qui parcit
virge, odit filium, the English of this Latin is, whoso will it know, whoso spares
the sprig, spoils his children.
Chaucer, The Prioress' Tale, c. 1387
A little school for Christian folk there stood, down at the farther end, in which there
were a many children born of Christian blood, who learned in that same school, year after
year, such teachings as with men were current there, which is to say, to sing well and to
read, as children do of whatsoever creed. Among these children was a widow's son, a little
choir boy, seven years of age, who went to school as days passed one by one, this little
child, his little lesson learning, sat at his primer in the school, and there, while boys
were taught the antiphons, kept turning, and heard the Alma redemptoris fair..."Now truly I will work with diligence to learn it all ere Christmas sacrament,
though for my primer I take punishment and though I'm beaten thrice within the hour, yet
will I learn it by Our Lady's power!"
William Kingsmill, Dialogues, c. 1410
When riding one day into Oxford, a traveler I know put up at "The Mill on the
Hoop" in Northgatte Street. After inquiring from his hostess about board and
accommodation, she presented her son, around ten years old, and he questioned him thus:
"My child, have you been to school?" "Yes, sir," he said, "by
your leave." "At what place?" he asked. "Sir, at the house of William
Kingsmill, scrivener." "Fair child, how long have you been dwelling with
him?" he asked again. "Sir, for less than a quarter of a year," was the
reply. "That is only a short while, but what have you learnt there during that
time?" asked the traveler. "Sir, my master has taught me how to write, to read,
to count, and to speak French."
Thomas Beckington, Bishop of Bath & Wells, Statutes for the Choristers,
Schoolboys who refuse to learn their lessons are first to be warned kindly; secondly,
if they neglect these warnings, sharply to be rebuked; and thirdly, if necessity arise, to
From A Fifteenth-Century School Book, c. 1500
As soon as I am come into the school, this fellow goes to make water and he goes
out to the common draft. Some after another asks if he may go drink. Another calls upon me
that he may go home. These and other such lies my schoolboys give for excuse that they may
be out of the way.
John Stow, Survey of London, c. 1530
I myself in my youth have yearly seen on the eve of St. Bartholomew's Day [August 23]
the schoolboys of different grammar schools repair to the churchyard of St. Bartholomew's
Priory in Smithfield, where upon a bank boarded about under a tree some one scholar has
stepped up, and there has apposed and answered, >till he were by some better scholar
overcome and put down, and then the overcomer taking the place, did like as the first, and
in the end the best apposers and answerers had rewards, which I observed not but it made
both good schoolmasters and also good scholars, diligently against such times to prepare
themselves for the obtaining of this garland.
Selected and Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof.
Arkenberg has modernized the text.
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© Paul Halsall, August 1998