Tag Archives: high school

Okay, only some people read

I’ll show myself out…

Let’s take a breath. This flowering of learning and culture wasn’t for everybody. Literacy—reading and writing—was doing fantastic in the monasteries, schools, colleges and universities. Outside those buildings, the literacy rate for regular shmoes was depressingly low. Mediæval Europe had a rigid class system—feudalism—with 3 classes: nobility, freemen and serfs. The economy was all about land. The nobles owned land; the freemen rented land (or lived in a town); the serfs farmed someone else’s land (in exchange for protection and a portion of the harvest).

Most people didn’t know how to read or write. The schools I talked about earlier were for the sons of nobles, or freemen who made a nice living. The nobility were either knights (military) or clergy (church). Clergy definitely needed to read and write to understand the Bible. Of the well-off freemen, merchants learned how read, write and do math because they needed to keep records of merchandise bought and sold, like the Phoenicians did. Lawyers and doctors needed to read and write. But most people—low-income freemen and serfs—couldn’t afford literacy. Papyrus is cheap but doesn’t last very long away from the desert. Parchment is expensive. Books written by hand are expensive. If you were a serf, forget about going to school. The very last thing nobles wanted was their cheap labor going to school to learn stuff. They even made it illegal. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/parliament-rolls-medieval/november-1391


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Higher education

Colleges popping up!

These things don’t happen all at once. First schools—colleges—popped up, to teach the trivium and quadrivium (the liberal arts). Next, there were specialized schools that taught medicine or law or divinity. In late eleventh-century Bologna (that’s in Italy) somebody got the idea to gather together schools that taught specialties and the liberal arts under one philosophical roof and call them a university. ‘University’ comes from the Latin word universitas that means ‘whole, the sum of all things.’

Side bar: these terms for higher learning institutions are used differently in different countries. In Spain, ‘college’ sounds a lot like their word for high school. In Italy, ‘liceo’ (lee CHAY oh) means high school, but in Great Britain or the US, a lyceum is a hall where people give lectures or concerts.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.