Literacy during the Middle Ages

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Master Jarvis
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Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Master Jarvis » Fri Oct 30, 2009 6:11 pm

Good evening all!
I would like to hear your opionions upon the concept of literacy during the medieval period- or rather the prevalency of it.
Much modern literature takes the line that almost everyone apart from members of the clergy and the very rich were illiterate- it cost both money and time to learn to read and write, and these were things that the poor did not have.

Is this, however, the truth? What about the clerks and acountants to the great families; record-keepers need to be able to write, but surely in order to take a post such as this cannot have been well off. Equally, secretaries must have been literate but must presumably have come from a humble background.

How can this discrepancy be explained? We end up with clerks that must be able to write in order to do their jobs but, because of the jobs they do, obviously too poor to have been taught.

Answers? Opinions? Any thoughts upon the subject of literacy?


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Jenn » Fri Oct 30, 2009 10:05 pm

I would love to know which modern literature this ! It is first much easier to learn to read than to write and a modern idea that you must do both together (and why is it expensive -? you surely just need a literate person and some resources- these can of course be infinite be could be a stick and some sand)
Of course only a small percentage of people go to school but depending when you mean in the medieval period the percentage of people who could read changes - the huge amount of churchwarden accounts, merchants accounts; manorial accounts/court records and professional men within a city could read to judge from the books that were bought by them and maybe twenty percenty of other tradesmen were literate
Probably less in country areas 5/10 percent
Theres is also the rise is the number of the books of hours purchased by the 14/15th cent -many owned by wealthy middle class trades people see marking the Hours by Eamon Duffy
If you are buying them presumably you can read them



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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Master Jarvis » Fri Oct 30, 2009 11:27 pm

A tradition of literacy would be, of course, easy to continue; learning could be passed down through the family, learning using a stick and some sand, as you say. That many 'middle class' people (tradesmen, merchants and the like) could read and write in the late middle ages cannot be disputed. On the other hand, how did this tradition of literacy come about in the first place? Schooling or tutorage are expensive, not neccessarily because of the direct costs involved (as you say these could be minimal) but because the teaching/learning process requires both teacher and student to take time from their payed work. This loss of earnings is the real killer- what peasant family can afford for both a full wage-earning adult and a usefully-employable child to be absent from their work?

One theory that I thought of was that, as wages increased, (perhaps due to social factors or even deppopulation due to the Black Death) people- especially those already employed in a profitable trade- could afford to have 'free time' to devote to teaching or learning. What do you think?

By the way, my use of the term literature was probably misleading- I ment to refer not to academic literature but to generally published media for popular consumption- and I intended to question the accuracy of this viewpoint. I apologise for any misunderstandings.


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby gregory23b » Sat Oct 31, 2009 10:59 am

Literacy in teh classical sense meant knowing Greek and or Latin, knowing how to read and or write English another skill.

We know from existing records that more people wrote, people from humble, ie common backgrounds, this included peasant landlords, shoemakers, tailors, bargemen, many people in the mysteries.

It makes sense from a commercial POV to be literate, especially if you are dealing with trade, plus we know from apprenticeship agreements that many masters were expected to continue the apprentice's literacy or start it, again makes sense for the wider viability of the trade.

As Jenn says, to what level of expertise were people writing, ie either functional literacy or at higher levels of vocabulary and grammar, again this difference in skill is evident from the record.


"what peasant family can afford for both a full wage"

Do not confuse the term peasant with something that always resembles a dirt poor landgrubber, many peasants were very wealthy, they were peasants because of their social class not because of their wealth or otherwise, so in many, many cases peasants could well afford to send their kids of to apprenticeships, they cost money in the first place, yes dirt poor people would have found it more difficult.

Also the term 'middle class' is somewhat misleading as it confers a status that was not quite as we see it from our use of the word, merchants were still commoners as were peasants and people in trade and mysteries, unless of course socially elevated. Yes, wealthy merchants could pay off the fines for sumptuary laws if applied, they could be very wealthy indeed more so than some minor nobility, but were not a 'class' as we see it today, if such a term is applicable any more.

You also factor the mobility of people, the practice of sending children to live with other relatives to learn other skills and network.


I can thoroughly recommend Barbara Hanawalt's :
Growing up in Medieval London
The Ties That Bound

The Paston Letters - Norman Davies

Mark Bailey's - Medieval Suffolk

for starters


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Stuart Quayle » Sat Oct 31, 2009 11:27 am

"Literacy in the classical sense meant knowing Greek and or Latin, knowing how to read and or write English another skill".
I think gregory23b has 'hit the nail on the head' with the above statement. It was only with the likes of JohnTrevisa and Geoffrey Chaucer the great translators of Latin/Greek into the venacular English that popular learning by the lower classes become accessible and let's not forget tranlation of the Bible into English, a truly groundbreaking achievement in the late 1300's.

It is interesting to note that in 1391 the Commons petitioned King Richard II to ban serfs and low born commoners from putting their children into school to advance them by clergy (learning), and this in maintainance and saving of the honour of the freemen of the realm'. The Freemen commoners in this case meant wealthy Burgesses and gentry who had a healthy interest in keeping the lower classes in their places.
But, Richard II did nothing to put this into place. It is possible he wanted to encourage learning throughout the realm.



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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Master Jarvis » Sat Oct 31, 2009 12:00 pm

As for the class system, you're saying that there were only two classes- commoner and nobility- but that these were only arbitrarily liked to wealth, ie 'common' merchants could be richer than hard-up 'nobles', and that 'peasant' was not indicative of wealth but of class.
I honest thought that peasant meant grubby serf who was tied to the land and tenant farming for a landlord. You learn something new every day.

As for literacy, I like your idea that the landed gentry tried to prevent 'commoners' from going to the religious schools to learn- they didn't want them to get ideas above their station!

The ability to read and write Latin and Greek was, presumably, a totally different matter. Who would have learnt these? Would it have been only those of the clergy or would it have been taught secularly also?


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby gregory23b » Sat Oct 31, 2009 1:58 pm

"but that these were only arbitrarily liked to wealth,"

By land value, not arbitrarily as such.

If you read Bailey's Suffolk book, you will read accounts of tenants making a lot of money from their leased land, the land use in terms of who had the upper hand had changed remarkably after the Black Death. The Nobility found it harder to make money from rents, so more often than not leased their land out for long terms to specialist farmers, for example to grow crocuses for saffron, or rearing stock for fattening, flax etc, a whole range of land use, whose control went from the landowner to the tenant, subject to maintenance etc.

So the idea of peasants being simply peons is really quite skewed, the Pastons came from humble stock, yet managed within three generations to be elevated to knighthood, a major leap in their social standing.

Given that most people were commoners and most tradesmen and artisans were too, then it stands to reason that there was evident literacy as we know it amongst that group of people, varying with their wealth and influence.

The sheer level of beauracracy in the middle ages is mind boggling, people were writing up indentures left right and centre, for land use, for pawning of late to raise cash, for borrowing money, for use of equipment, receipts and accounts are numerous, not just from the likes of the Howards but of the Pastons and Celys.

"As for literacy, I like your idea that the landed gentry tried to prevent 'commoners' from going to the religious schools to learn- they didn't want them to get ideas above their station!"

But that didn't really work, post 1400 there is a rise in book production then with print on the horizon the scope for learning burgeons, it was not just books that people read, broadsheets and pamphlets were too, they rarely survive of course.

Stuart, I would add caxton to the list of translators, he did that in print rather than manuscript, in England at least. His prologue to the Enid is a gem where it sums up the difficulty in translating a book to a wider audience with differing dialects of the same language.


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Adam R » Sat Oct 31, 2009 5:09 pm

Perhaps it's worth thinking of this from the other side - nowadays illiteracy is a set back because so much of modern day society revolves around the written word. Before the prevalence of literate people society simply worked as it had always done previously - it was not a 'disability' Literacy was a useful tool for clerks and traders and so on. Stories and rhymes were shared orally (more socially!) and counting rhymes (still common till quite recently) were most likely employed day to day where records aren't necessary. But in the day to day process of making a living as a farmer/craft worker and so on - it's not so necessary. It would be interesting to relate the change in literacy rates to the reasons why more people learned to read, identify the chickens and eggs of the process.


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Marcus Woodhouse » Sat Oct 31, 2009 5:21 pm

Actually it was not translating Latin or Greek that made Chaucer so different but his translating Tuscan and French into English.
It was not against Canon law for the bible to be translated in part for private medatations but it was against the Law for it to be used during services, Wycliffe did something so amazing in translating the bible into vernacular Englsih that the church had to retro legislate against it because at the time it happened it was not a problem.
Although my own studies are outside of England various authors have sourced material that points towards as high as 60% of the male poluace being literate in 15th century Florence. Not only literate in their Tuscan but in French and often latin and greek as well. However this is literate in that they were able to read, not write, that remained a preserve of clerks and those with the time to practice. For instance, Lorenzo Medici was one of the most well read men of his generation and also wrote poetry for pleasure, he had however a poor script that suggests that for most of the time he empolyed a professional scribe and then checked and signed the work.
If you look at original copies of the Paston letters you notice that while the women all can read the letters they send are written by clerks in their employ and that the amendements in their own hands hint that they are not as competent or confident at writing.
I'd also recommend Power and the Profit, From Childhood to Chivilry, Magnifico, the biographies of Chaucer and Mallory as being starting points for investigation.


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Colin Middleton » Mon Nov 02, 2009 1:42 pm

MY understanding on this (drawn mostly from Live in a Medieval Village) is that:
- The church had a duty to teach everyone to read, write and count. This doesn't mean that everyone was able to go to school, just that the schools SHOULD have been there.
- Most people could manage enough reading and writing to 'get by'. That is to say that they could count to 5, so follow basic currency transactions, write enough to sign their name and perhaps a few other key words and read enough to have a basic understanding of what they're looking at (bear in mind that this isn't going to require a level of reading anything like the equivalent requirement today).
- Many trades (by the 15th C) required reading and writing, so it was taught to apprentices by the masters.
- One of the test of whether your were under church law was if you could read & write, skills very much associated with the clergy (which included clerks, scribes and accountants).

As to pesants, some people, even in the 13th C owned both pesant land and freehold land. So are they pesants or not?


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Marcus Woodhouse » Mon Nov 02, 2009 1:52 pm

Well until they became enobled the likes of the De La Poles, Tudors, Woodvilles, Pastons were all "peasents" as was Chaucer (who refused a knighthood because he could not maintain it) and these all became important in goverment and war in the late middle ages. Anyone who was not either a member of the gentry or clergy was, by defination a peasent, even if they were de facto leaders of states (such as the Medici).


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Benedict » Wed Nov 04, 2009 1:37 pm

For what it's worth, there seems to have been a steady increase in vernacular literacy from the 800s onwards, demonstrated by increasing numbers (and types) of document appearing in the vernacular. In theory, an English thegn would be able to read his father's will, writs sent by the king (usually addressed to the shire court) and the boundary-clauses setting out the extent of the land he held by charter or lease. He would also have been able to read books of poetry (eg 'Beowulf') and some of his priest's books (sermons and miscellaneous bits on divination, curses etc).

As several people have said, the key thing is the difference between the vernacular (Old or Middle English) and the language of government (Latin). Latin was restricted to the clergy and in England (if not quite in France) it was very much a foreign language. Similarly, reading and writing were separate skills, with no expectation that you would have both.

The pattern seems to have been for individuals to learn to read at a very early age (probably before 14, and perhaps aged 5-7). If it was relevant (ie those in clerical families), you might learn to write in your teens, and also learn Latin. The 'Colloquies' of Aelfric Bata (not to be confused with those of his teacher Aelfric), basically scripted dialogues between a master and pupils in a reformed Benedictine monastery aimed at teaching them Latin vocabulary, dated to the mid-eleventh century, make it clear that the 'boys' (pueri) learning Latin are teenagers rather than children - for example some of them are copying books themselves.

Given that there doesn't seem to be any evidence for 'schools' in England before the Conquest (if anyone knows to the contrary I'd be very interested to hear - I can't find any signs as a role of the Church, either in theory or practice), where did people learn to read? Well, the obvious answer is 'at home'. We know very little about the expectations and experience of young children, and being taught to read would be a useful skill in a logical context. Asser has an anecdote of King Alfred's mother reading her sons a book of poetry and promising it to whoever could memorise it first. Is this a hint of how reading was taught?

I'm no expert in the historiography of literacy in the post-Conquest period, but the sense I have is that central medieval historians are only now appreciating how much literacy and use of writing there was in pre-Conquest government. If I'm being unfair, apologies - I'm going on impressions from a paper I heard Michael Clanchy give. At any rate, in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries I you could expect anyone who owned land to have at least basic reading skills, and would probably have someone in their entourage who could read fluently and probably write as well.

Another of Asser's anecdotes recalls that Alfred insisted that all of his nobles learn to read as a condition of holding royal office. Simon Keynes has suggested that the 'Fonthill letter', a narrative about an estate's convoluted history surviving in its original form, was actually written by Ealdorman Ordlaf in the early 900s - the quality of the copying isn't very good, and it's possible that Ordlaf was one of the nobles who took up the pen late in life in order to keep using his sword for the king.


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Fox » Wed Nov 04, 2009 3:40 pm

Can I expand this in two seperate directions?

First is the idea of Latin as an exlusively church based language.
Would you expect certain types of other profession to require latin, and possibly even greek, for some scholarly, non religious persuits, that require the classics, possibly including the law or medicine?
I know the church have interest in these fields, but I understood [possibly wrongly] not exclusively so.

Secondly, the wearing of spectacles.
Do we think that (and here I think a litte spec-ulation is required [see what I did there?]) the wearing of spectacles would typically indicate someone who needed to read (and probably write) as part of his profession?



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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby gregory23b » Wed Nov 04, 2009 4:47 pm

Greek and Latin used extensively by the medical profession, Latin in the legal, scholars of various philosophies used Greek and Latin also.

Latin was also used in inventories and indentures, legal documents in both cases, but also use of Latin for non-legal accounts, eg receipts, in later middle ages a combination of English and Latin was used.

"the wearing of spectacles would typically indicate someone who needed to read (and probably write) as part of his profession?"

very likely almost certainly plus other close up work, eg fine craft work possibly.


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Karen Larsdatter » Thu Nov 05, 2009 4:21 am

gregory23b wrote:"the wearing of spectacles would typically indicate someone who needed to read (and probably write) as part of his profession?"

very likely almost certainly plus other close up work, eg fine craft work possibly.

See http://larsdatter.com/eyeglasses.htm for several examples of craftsmen wearing eyeglasses.

But also, this is one of those massively generic questions that there is no definitive yes-no answer for. http://medievalwriting.50megs.com/literacy/laity.htm has some notes on this.

There's a section of Einhard's biography of Charlemagne that describes his attempts to learn to write:
Einhard wrote:Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence. He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them. He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning. The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny. He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.



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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby behanner » Mon Nov 09, 2009 1:46 am

Couple things. Before its resurgence c.1450 Greek was quite rare even among the learned.
Before c.1200 learning and education is centered around monestaries and cathedrals so there are few or no institutions that are called schools outside of those.
We have a pretty good idea of literacy rates from the London Diocese for about the last quarter of the 15th century. Numbers for Essex are the clearest given because London numbers themselves aren't given in this study. First number is literate, second is somewhat literate.
20.8%(0.9%) of men with no occupation given were literate
9.5%(4.8%) of men in agriculture profession were literate
100% of clergy were literate.
Numbers from A rural society after the Black Death: Essex 1350-1525 by Poos.



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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Apothecary » Mon Jan 25, 2010 1:52 am

just a quick question on this subject
I noticed that someone mentioned the clergy.....was it not charged to lay brothers by the holy church to start 'Sunday Schools' for the poor, to teach the bible and educate in letters and numbers, but the fact that although they were being paid, the majority of the lay brothers thought it a waist of time and effort so they spent the money of partay-ing? [or so I have read]

I am sure I have read something on this line a long while ago in the early days of research in reenacting,,,,,not quite sure though - think it was somewhere in 1100's to possibly 1300's ? can anyone who knows put me straight please as I feel sure as many do that a certain amount of letters and numbers would have been needed in everyday life - you only have to watch Robin Hood films....the nasty Shire Reeve always posted notes to trees and all the village would turn out to look at 'um and go ooo000ooo! more taxes or reward for Robin Hood - dead or alive (villagers says things like - 'he's a good bloke he is guv' - 'onist as the days long')....BAHHHH not likley to turn 'im in (whilst shaking fists at the poster) then ripping it down and spitting on it - or am i missing something ? - - - could they have read it ???

The only part of society that may have no need to leard would be [cotters] as they only had the stuff they could carry with them and they worked for room & board for poorer farmers and tennant farmers - so for them it made no sence to learn letters and numbers but if even women were literate then surly there must be evidence in some form or other - or is it a case like most of the time - it was common place so no one bothered to take notes as it wasn't that unusual ?

Just thought I'd ask

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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby behanner » Mon Jan 25, 2010 4:16 am

You probably are remembering references to IV Lateran in 1215.
It refers to educating the people in regards to doctrine and preaching but doesn't cover much things like reading.
Lay brothers are parts of orders (monks/friars) and so would have had little place in education.
While you see the continueation of monastic schools you also find chantry schools formed attached to parishes where a clergyman usually a priest was hired by whoever was in charge of the chantry and as part of that to teach a school.

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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Colin Middleton » Tue Jan 26, 2010 1:25 pm

I seem to remember something similar to that from a few years back. Something to do with the church being required to provide a basic education to all the children in the parish who wished it, but most people couldn't aford to have their children in school, rather than working the land, so education spread slowly.

Personally, I reckon that being able to sign your name and count to 5 was probably enough for you to get by in most areas of life for the poor.

Oh and Apothecary, I wouldn't use Robin Hood episodes as historical evidence, no matter how old they are! :roll: :twisted:


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby behanner » Tue Jan 26, 2010 5:44 pm

Colin Middleton wrote:Personally, I reckon that being able to sign your name and count to 5 was probably enough for you to get by in most areas of life for the poor.


One thing to remember is that the less literate a scociety is the less importance literacy is.



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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Apothecary » Tue Jan 26, 2010 8:27 pm

for colin - sorry mate I was joking about Robin Hood honey !!!
and I probably am showing my age - but I remember Richard Green in Black & White ??? God I feel so old now - thanks for that !

but as was stated somewhere above (i think or it may have been another strand - bamn this old brain of mine) when you have peasants who may be land poor - as in rented - but being able to gain small amounts of wealth and Knobles who could be wealthy in land but poor in money - maybe, even though the 'poor' had small amounts of money (if you take today) people seem to want better for their children than they have as parents, so to speak - getting out of the poverty trap......but although there may not be documents to to substantiate my way of thinking, nothing seems to change much, times change, fashion changes people don't, so with that way of thinking surely, it would make sense that even in a small section of the community, more people would be drawn towards letters and counting as a way of escape their lot ! - I know as a mother and parent, I want a better life for both my children then my husband & myself have had, better wages, better conditions and less stress.......but isn't that what everyone wants ?

by the way thanks for the reference on the Schooling......will follow that up

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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Marcus Woodhouse » Tue Jan 26, 2010 9:34 pm

Money was a pre-requisite of education. The pastons are an example of how a family came into some money and used this to educate the sons, the sons were able to enter law and management, made more money and expanded the family capital.
From reading the likes of Childhood to Chivilry and Medieval Childhood I gather that for most people the initial education they recieve was geared towards their intended adult life. If you were a noble you were taught how to be knight, if you were a gentlewoman how to run a household, if you were a ploughman how to lead a plough.
Some people did as they grew either find that their intended career paths changed, Richard of Glous. was possibly being pointed towards the church but the events of the WOTR changed that and he ended up being taught how to be a knight, individuals renounced their worldly life and enterd the church which required them to learn new skills.
Some rare individuals actually took an interest in learning for the sake of learning and took off to read law, study the wisdom of the ancients, argue theology etc even though it would serve them no practical use at all (men such as the Earl of Worcester and Earl Rivers.) These men were extra ordinary because they studied for the enjoyment of studying, the only practical results of their studies were the fact they were visably seen as being learned and wise (and rich enough to swan off to Italy, France and Spain for months at a time.)
Ultimately though most people only learnt what they needed to know to do their job, innovation and "general knowledge" being somewhat frowned upon.


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby narvek » Tue Jan 26, 2010 10:59 pm

Both Deschamp's and Chaucer's sons went to a university, even though their father's modest origin.


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Marcus Woodhouse » Wed Jan 27, 2010 11:52 am

Chaucer was a court official retained by both the Duke of Lancaster and Richard II, he might have been a man of humble origins but also had exceptional talent and he and his wife were well paid.
There are instances of men attending universites and law courts as a result of charitable patrons. The sons of Deschamps and Chaucer also fall into the category of being given the level of education expected of their planned professions. I would expect the son of a lawyer to go to university and study law.
More unusual was the circumstances of the Pastons taking advantage of the shortage in labour and the availbility of land to move from being serf staus to retained lawyers to landed gentry to titled nobility in under two centuries-a feat as impressive as that of the De La Poles.


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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Colin Middleton » Wed Jan 27, 2010 1:29 pm

Apothecary wrote:for colin - sorry mate I was joking about Robin Hood honey !!!


I know, I was being cheeky :$ . I guess the joke wasn't as good as I thought. I know enough of you to know that you wouldn't make that mistake!



I agree that people wanted better for their kids (though that seems to be falling away in the last 20-30 years), but like Marsus said, you needed money to get it. If the church offered an education, it was at a very basic level, basic counting and reading/writing, but you'd have to pay for the next step (grammer schools, I think), which by the 15th C, more people were doing so that their children could work for merchants, landholders and in other 'scholarly' jobs.


Colin

"May 'Blood, blood, blood' be your motto!"

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Marcus Woodhouse
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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby Marcus Woodhouse » Wed Jan 27, 2010 9:18 pm

One of the faults laid at the feet of late medieval clergy was that they were spending too much time teaching the increasingly prosperous lower orders and not enough time offering the sacraments and administering to the needs of their parish.
It was, along with acting as a chantry priest, one of the few methods open to less affluent priests by which they could support themsleves finacially (and even make some capital).
Of course the individuals who were most vocal about this were normally past recepients, it being okay to educate them but not these Johnny come latelys who were threatening the social order.


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behanner
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Re: Literacy during the Middle Ages

Postby behanner » Thu Jan 28, 2010 5:28 am

Well it is important to differentiate between a grammar education and an upper education.

I don't have acess to the books currently but there is reasonable acess to grammar level education by the end of the 15th century, in many places as long as the student had promise schooling was made affordable, some schools were free, or they might end up with a benefactor who would help pay. So a grammar level education was accessable and could be quite useful and open a lot of doors.
Higher edcuation is another matter.




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