Back to School in the Dark Ages

It’s the first week of September, and back to school fever has gripped the land. My Facebook feed is full of “first day of…” photos, and everywhere kids big and small are getting back into the routine of teachers, classes, and new friends.

So, I thought this might be a good week to talk about what “school” looked like in the Dark Ages….specifically, of course, in Britain in the 7th century, as that is when my book is set. However, to a greater or lesser degree most of what I will write here will be typical of most of life in Anglo-Saxon England in the early Middle Ages (5th – 10th century AD), and even to a point for those in Celtic Britain at that time as well.

You might be surprised to learn that there even was something such as “school” way back then. I mean, everybody in the Dark Ages was pretty much ignorant and illiterate, weren’t they? A bunch of peasants who had to spend all of their days scrabbling out a meagre existence while fighting off hordes of Vikings and barbarians. They didn’t have time for school!


Mostly wrong, anyway. Hopefully some of the previous posts I have done on life in the early Middle Ages in Britain will have given you some cause to be skeptical about those statements. However, there is actually some truth mixed in with the myths there.

First of all, was everyone in the Dark Ages ignorant and illiterate? My answer to that would be yes and no. Certainly most people would not know how to read, making them illiterate. But ignorant? Hm….

The schools during the 7th century were run by the Church. This is because Christianity is a religion very much based on a book, and in order for people to be able to understand and, more importantly, teach the religion to others, they had to know how to read. So from the very beginning the Church had a strong emphasis on literacy, and schools were quickly established along with the monasteries and cathedrals which began to flourish after Augustine came to Britain (to Canterbury, in Kent) with forty monks in 597 AD to evangelize the island.

Just a quick note here…the British/Celtic parts of the island (roughly Wales, Ireland and some parts of modern-day Scotland) didn’t exactly need (nor want, for the most part) Augustine’s help. The Church there was going strong, in an unbroken line from the days of Roman Occupation, which had come to a halt some two hundred years before. That was because those areas had never really been conquered by Rome, and so when the troops left to defend the Empire against the barbarian hordes and the rest of the island fell into chaos, vulnerable to the Germanic and local barbarians who came a-callin’ on all those rich, Romano-British estates and villages, the Celts sailed merrily along as they had been all along, Christian churches (and their schools) and all.

I don’t want to give the impression, however, that little Ecgfrith and Egbert were trotting off to school each day with an apple for the teacher and books slung over their shoulders. A lagre part of the population were peasants, working hard to survive (but not fighting off the Vikings. They came later. They had to deal with warring kings and raids from nasty people, though). Schooling was, for the most part, for the privileged few. The schools weren’t exactly large, with probably less than a dozen or so pupils each. These were oblates (children gifted to the Church as an act of piety), or, children of high-ranking nobles or kings whose families could afford the fee the Church charged for this service (grants of land, sheep, cows, whatever…).

But if you were one of the lucky ones and got to go to school, from all accounts the education you received was of a very high standard, to the point where by the end of the eight century the English schools which had produced such scholars such as Bede and Alcuin were seen as some of the finest in all of Europe.

It’s worth pointing out, as well, that it was not only boys who got to attend these schools. The double monasteries such as Hild’s at Whitby or Brigid’s at Kildare also educated the women in their care, many of whom would become able administrators of double monasteries of their own. As a matter of fact, both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures gave women more freedom and rights than what came after the Norman Conquest. The Normas brought with them the Roman Continental ideas about the place of women in society which prevailed until well into the 20th century. Gee, thanks, William….

So what were the students studying in those schools? Keeping in mind that the main point of the schools was to educate Christian leaders who then could spread the Gospel, one of the main focuses was, of course, to teach the Christian faith. As mentioned previously, in order to do that, they needed to read the Bible. And in order to do that, they had to learn Latin, for at this point there were no Anglo-Saxon translations of the Bible available. So a pretty rigorous study of Latin was a large part of the curriculum. The young oblates were first given the task of memorizing the psalter (the Book of Psalms), followed by the Wisdom books (Wisdom, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the Book of Job*).

The students would use wax tablets for practicing their letters, which could be “erased” fairly easily and was much less expensive than paper!

As the students got more proficient in Latin, more difficult pieces would be tackled, classical works from both Christian-Latin poets as well as other classical poets such as Horace or Vergil. In fact the schools mainly followed the course of study set out in classical Latin education. This was broken up into the trivium, which included grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and the quadrivium, made up of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony/musical theory. The quadrivium was not as thoroughly covered, it seems, as the trivium, although one of the subjects definitely taught would have been the tricky subject of computus. 

Computus was the method by which one determined when the movable feasts of the Church would fall in the calendar year. Most particularly they were concerned with Easter, as it is dependent on the moon’s cycle. I tried to find a short description of the difficulties of this, but honestly I’m not sure I understand it well enough to describe it. For example, here’s part of the explanation from Wikipedia:

In principle, Easter falls on the Sunday following the full moon that follows the northern spring equinox (the paschal full moon). However, the vernal equinox and the full moon are not determined by astronomical observation. The vernal equinox is fixed to fall on 21 March (previously it varied in different areas and in some areas Easter was allowed to fall before the equinox). The full moon is an ecclesiastical full moon determined by reference to a lunar calendar, which again varied in different areas.

Er, ok. Bede used a perpetual calendar, an Easter table, tables for finding the moon’s age and the weekday, arithmetic tables, instructions for calculating and documents related to the history of the calendar in order to write his two textbooks on computus. It rather boggles the mind, doesn’t it? In fact, one could argue that this need to figure out exactly when Easter would fall each year was a major impetus for the study of astronomy.


This is Byrhferth’s Diagram, from the Thorney Computus, an volume dedicated to texts and graphics explaining computus, made in the 10th century. This image is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in the description it says this diagram shows “the harmony of the twelve months and four elements, of time and the material world. The tables on the opposite page show a series of diagrams used for determining lunar cycles, days of the week, and divination diagrams based on numerical values assigned to the letters.” Alrighty then. 



Of course if you didn’t have all those charts and whatnot handy, medieval scholars invented a manual method to calculate Easter (you never know when the King might need to know, after all….). One would use your hand to counting on the fingers (but not the thumbs, apparently!) and around the palm, allocating each joint and finger specific pieces of information such as the months, seasons, etc. Image from Voynich Imagery

So. Not just “Dick and Jane”, but computus, mathematics, classical Latin poets, and the Bible. And maybe a sprinkling of geometry or music. Those Anglo-Saxons who could afford to be educated (or who were plopped in the monastery by their parents) had a pretty vigorous education indeed, don’t you think?

Just be glad you don’t have to help your Grade 5 student with computus or conjugating Latin verbs!

*Astute readers may note that this list contains some books of what Protestants now call the Apocrypha. That is because these books, at that time, were accepted parts of the canon of Scripture. They weren’t taken out of Protestant Bibles until 1647, and some Catholic Bibles still include them.






2 thoughts on “Back to School in the Dark Ages

  1. sdorman says:

    from beginning to end, fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Timely, and very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s