The Anglo-Saxon School Curriculum

Nathalie Foy

copyright 2000

In 597, when Roman missionaries arrived in England, "there were no schools and no trace of the educational system which had flourished under the Roman empire" (Lendinara 269). Missionary schools were established in order to train clergy so a s to ensure the spread of Latin Christianity, and Lendinara argues that "during the Anglo-Saxon period, English schools were among the finest in Europe" (269).

Education in the Anglo-Saxon period was the exclusive responsibility of the church. Schools could be linked to the monasteries or located in the priest or bishop’s home (Barber 331). Classes were conducted by those who were in holy orders or under th e church’s jurisdiction (Barber 331). The children, collectively called the schola, were taught by a monk, the magister scholae or custos (Blair 356). The purpose of schools was to educate future priests and monks, who needed to kno w how to read and write Latin (Barber 331, Stenton 180), and to educate scribes, who were needed by the bishop for administrative duties (Barber 331), as well as for reproducing manuscripts (Lendinara 266). Not all scribes were literate in Latin, and Len dinara differentiates between scribes and scholars. The former was a craftsman, but not necessarily the possessor of learning (266). Basic education in grammar and rhetoric could lead to a career as a priest, but also served as training for non-religiou s jobs that required basic literacy (e.g. merchants) (Barber 333). It was the role of the priest, in turn, to educate his flock.

Women had the same educational opportunities as men, and there were "double houses" or monasteries for both men and women: "From the time that Christianity came to England men and women shared equally, not only in conversion to the new faith, but in the learning that accompanied it," and Hild made both Hartlepool and Whitby into "places of serious Christian education" (Fell 109). Abbesses would have been in charge of the women’s education, but nuns followed the same curr iculum as monks (Lendinara 270).

The curriculum, therefore, was religious in content and functional. Although Anglo-Saxons had two alphabets (Roman and runic), emphasis was placed on the transmission of Latin Christianity (Blair 311). The method of instruction was by catechism and a lmost entirely oral (Barber 331). Students committed daily prayers and the entire psalter to memory. Because parchment was expensive, students wrote the day’s passage onto a wax tablet from dictation and committed it to memory. The tablet could then be erased and reused (Lendinara 272). (Blair and Stenton make the interesting argument that the Latin that was taught in English schools came to England by way of Ireland rather than continental Europe (313, 178).) Future clergy were taught how to read a nd understand the Bible in Latin and how to perform the liturgy: "the concern of the monasteries was not with Latin learning as an end in itself, but as a means of serving God" (Lendinara 270). Writing was not always part of the curriculum. In "song schools," where the basics were taught, students learned singing (an element of church services), the alphabet, the main prayers and psalms, and a basic grounding in reading Latin. The greater monasteries and churches had song schools as well, but they also taught grammar and writing (Barber 333). Bede writes that in the school at Canterbury, Theodore and Hadrian "gave their hearers instruction not only in the books of holy Scripture but also in the art of metre, astronomy and eccle siastical computation" (Lendinara 271). Stenton provides more detail about the content of their curricula: "It provided an organized body of knowledge, based on the interpretation of scripture, but extending to the sciences which regulated the order of the religious year, the music which was essential in the services of the church, and the metrical rules according to which religious poetry should be composed" (180). Greek was also taught (Stenton 181).

The curriculum was based on the Latin idea of the seven liberal arts: the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Barber argues that the quadrivium was an area for specialists only (334), and Lendinara argues that in the early Middle Ages grammar dominated the curriculum to the virtual exclusion of other disciplines (277). This may, she speculates, be because the Anglo-Saxons were not native speakers of Latin a nd needed to devote particular attention to grammar. The emphasis on grammar, however, became what characterized Anglo-Saxon preeminence in linguistics and their characteristic fascination with linguistic detail, reflected in the use of runic and cryptog raphic alphabets in manuscripts, the study of obscure vocabulary, the use of etymology as a pedagogical device and the fondness for riddles (Lendinara 279).

Although Latin was essential to the spread of Christianity, Bede, among others, "realized that the use of the vernacular might be an effective means of furthering the teaching of Christianity (Blair 329). Although pagan Germanic heroic verse was "either ignored or discountenanced by the founders of English Christian scholarship, ... the bulk of this poetry was addressed to an aristocratic audience, and the English nobility, familiar with the courts of long-descended kings, maintained its int erest in heroic tradition" (Stenton 192, see also Blair 330). The church eventually lost its suspicion of the verse and played an essential part in its transmission:

The English poetry of the heathen age was first written down by Christian clerks, and most of it only survives in texts which are affected by Christian ideas and imagery. At its height, this influence extends to the permeation of an entire poem with C hristian feeling. A poem such as Beowulf, in which aristocratic traditions are enveloped in a Christian atmosphere, is an invaluable record of the intellectual outlook of the men under whose protection Christianity was established in England. (St enton 192)

Much of the Old English verse that survives, then, owes its survival to the Christian influence in learning.

For Further Reading

Barber, Richard. The Penguin Guide to Medieval Europe. London: Penguin, 1984.

See Barber for a discussion of European as well as Anglo-Saxon education. Especially interesting is the discussion of universities and the fact that, because Latin was a common language at all centres of learning, education could be international and students could travel from one pre-eminent school to another. Barber also has an extensive discussion of the history of Oxford and Cambridge.

Blair, Peter Hunter. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

See Blair for a biography of Bede and for an overview of Old English texts.

Fell, Christine, Cecily Clark and Elizabeth Williams. Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066. London: British Museum Publications, 1984.

See this text for biographies and the influence of women scholars.

Lendinara, Patrizia. "The World of Anglo-Saxon Learning" in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Ed Malcolm Godden & Michael Lapidge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. (264-281)

See Lendinara for a detailed discussion of Latin and vernacular texts studied in schools.

Stenton, F. M. Anglo-Saxon England. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947.

See Stenton for biographies of scholars (Bede, Egbert, Alcuin, Aldhelm, Theodore, and Hadrian) and for discussion of the relationship between pagan heroic verse and the Christian tradition.