Education and Learning

Education and Learning
   Traditionally seen as the "Dark Ages," the early Middle Ages were not without their cultural and intellectual achievements. Although these achievements were modest in comparison with the great accomplishments of the ancient world as well as the later medieval world, education and learning did not disappear in barbarian Europe. Even in the worst of times, during the collapse of the Roman Empire and the invasion of various barbarian peoples, education continued, even if only in the monastery schools. Indeed, the monasteries remained the great centers of learning throughout the early Middle Ages and were responsible for preserving many of the great works of antiquity. Moreover, under Charlemagne's direction, a "renaissance" in learning and literature emerged in the late eighth and ninth centuries. Although once thought to have been a shining moment in an otherwise dark time, the Carolingian Renaissance was only the most dramatic example of cultural activity in the early Middle Ages.
   The various barbarian peoples that entered the Roman world had their own traditions of education, of course, but these did not focus on the written word. Indeed, theirs was a practical education that emphasized those things necessary for success in tribal society. Many of their educational practices continued even after they settled in the Roman Empire and created their own kingdoms. Boys were taught how to ride, hunt, and use weapons. Girls were taught how to spin and weave wool and how to use the distaff and spindle. These customs continued, but the successors of the Romans also borrowed from the educational practices of the ancient world.
   The practices of classical education had a long history in Greece and Rome before the arrival of the barbarians in late antiquity. Education was for boys only and involved the skills necessary for success in the public arena. Consequently, the focus of classical education was on grammar and rhetoric. Boys studied the various parts of speech, grammar and syntax, and rhetoric in order to speak eloquently and persuasively. Their models were Cicero, Caesar, Quintilian, Seneca, and others, some of whom continued to be the focus of learning after the end of Roman rule in the west. Although it suffered decay as a result of the entry into the empire of various Roman peoples, the classical tradition was preserved. And in the sixth century important transitional figures emerged who embodied the traditions of the past and laid the foundations for later learning. Among the more important figures were two from the early sixth century, Boethius, discussed in his entry, and, especially, Cassiodorus, who compiled two works on sacred and profane letters that encapsulated the best of the Roman and Christian tradition. His work on sacred letters remained at the heart of education for centuries after his death.
   Although an important body of learning and pedagogical techniques survived the so-called fall of the Roman Empire, the ancient schools did not. As a result, a new center of education emerged in the early Middle Ages, the monastery. Even though the primary purpose of the monastery was spiritual, education and learning remained an important component of the religious life. Indeed, it was recognized that a good education in Christian letters was essential to the success of the religious life, and monks were required to select a book from the monastery library at least once a year. Consequently, monasteries were centers of book production, as the monks needed to copy the books so that members of the community could read. One of the greatest contributions of the monks was their preservation of many important ancient Christian and pagan classics. They also established schools in the monasteries, based on ancient patterns, to instruct the young boys who were enrolled in the various communities by their parents. It was not only Christian letters that were taught, but classical as well, since the greatest writers of Latin-the language of learning and the Church-were pagan Romans. The most important books of grammar, by the fourth-century grammarian Donatus and the early sixth-century grammarian Priscian, contained a fair sampling of the works of the great classical Roman poets. The traditions of education and learning, therefore, were preserved in the monastic communities of barbarian Europe, and some monasteries, such as Jarrow and Wearmouth in England, were recognized as great centers of learning.
   Although he was not the only ruler to promote education and learning, Charlemagne, in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, is perhaps the most noteworthy and influential proponent of learning in the early Middle Ages. He himself, as his biographer Einhard notes, tried mightily to learn to read and write. Another biographer, Notker the Stammerer, noted that the great king would often visit the schools to watch over the progress of the students and would take time to encourage the studious and chastise those who were less than diligent. Moreover, he made learning the center of the reform and renewal of religious life in his great kingdom, issuing the capitulary Admonitio Generalis and the Letter to Baugulf to improve learning and the knowledge of Scripture throughout his kingdom. He mandated the construction of schools at monasteries and churches throughout his realm so that the bright young boys of the realm could learn to read and write. His legislation thus encouraged the monks and clergy of the kingdom to teach children who were not members of their religious communities. Charlemagne also encouraged the monasteries to continue their practice of copying important works of Christian and classical Roman literature. Although his renaissance was only marginally successful, his efforts to improve the standard of education and learning in his kingdom demonstrate the importance of education to early medieval rulers.
   See also
 ♦ Dutton, Paul, ed. Carolingian Civilization: A Reader. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1993.
 ♦ Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.
 ♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500 to 900. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.
 ♦ McKitterick, Rosamond, ed. Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century. Trans. John Contreni. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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