In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Schools in Medieval Britain

  • Introduction
  • Historiography
  • Regional Studies
  • Learning to Read and Sing
  • Business Studies
  • Jewish Education
  • Literacy

Medieval Studies Schools in Medieval Britain
Nicholas Orme
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0029


Schools are here defined as places where literary skills are taught to children and adolescents up to about the age of eighteen. As self-contained institutions, they are recorded in England from about 1100, a little earlier than universities, which are examined in a separate article. Schools existed in the Middle Ages in a variety of forms and in large numbers. Except at an elementary level, where there was teaching for girls, medieval schools were virtually restricted to boys and youths, to whom all the items in this article should be assumed to relate unless otherwise stated. The works cited here are also chiefly limited to the process of schooling, rather than to the knowledge and writing of literary works, but there is a concluding section on the history of literacy. Medieval schools may be classified in various ways. One is by their teaching. Reading schools taught the alphabet and a simple ability to read; this was often learned informally at home in literate families and was the only education open to most girls. Song schools taught plainsong, an elementary subject, and, by the 15th century, polyphony, a more advanced one. Grammar schools taught how to understand, compose, translate, and speak Latin, but sometimes included an elementary class learning reading and song. There were also specialized schools. One group (particularly associated with cathedrals and the religious orders) taught logic, philosophy, canon law, and theology, generally at a level below that of the universities, while another group offered training in business studies, including French. Another way of distinguishing schools is by their locations and constitutions. In the first respect, there was teaching in homes, churches, the great households of kings and the nobility, religious houses of all kinds, and freestanding schools—both private and public. Most schools charged fees and had endowments, but from the late 14th century a class of endowed schools developed that offered teaching free of fees. School education in medieval Britain, particularly England, has been intensively studied since the late 19th century, in terms of both the institutions and their curricula, and the following lists could be extended with many more citations.


Medieval schools first drew the attention of historians in Britain in the second half of the 17th century. Nicholas Carlisle (Carlisle 2002) revived the subject in 1818, but its modern history dates from the late 19th century. A pioneer in England in this respect was A. F. Leach (died 1916), a prolific author of general works and local studies: Leach 1911 and Leach 1916. Unfortunately, his work was weakened by a prejudice against religious houses (monasteries and friaries) and their schools and by a failure to investigate what schools taught as compared with their organization. The 20th century saw a revaluation of education in religious houses and a substantial advance in understanding school curricula, summarized in Orme 2006. Today, the topic may be studied more fully than ever before, in all its variety.

  • Carlisle, Nicholas. A Concise Description of the Endowed Grammar Schools in England and Wales. 2 vols. Edited by C. Stray. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes, 2002.

    A work first published in London, 1818, describing the endowed grammar schools existing at that date, some of which were medieval in origin. It helped to establish the view of later 19th-century politicians and of scholars such as A. F. Leach that these were the most important schools to protect by law and to study historically.

  • Leach, A. F. Educational Charters and Documents, 598–1909. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1911.

    Leach’s best and most judicious work: a collection of documents with translations, chiefly from the Middle Ages, although the texts have often been better edited and dated since he wrote.

  • Leach, A. F. The Schools of Medieval England. 2d ed. London: Methuen, 1916.

    Leach’s culminating work on medieval English schools, vitiated like much of his writing by slapdash research and opinionated views, especially in his prejudice against monks and friars. Its value now lies only in its historiographical importance in stirring controversy, and it is no longer an acceptable account of its subject.

  • Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    The introduction (pp. 3–11) surveys the historiography of the subject in relation to England from the 17th century to the beginning of the 21st.

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