[Editor’s Note: This is the 12th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present.]
The Middle Ages, also called the “Dark Ages,” took place between the fall of ancient Rome in 476 CE and the beginning of the 14th century. It was a time filled with war, pestilence, and especially ignorance. While education continued in other parts of the world, the Europeans had little regard for ancient philosophy or learning and made few advances in science and art. What little education existed was reserved for the clergy, who used their knowledge to subjugate the illiterate masses to the Church’s will.
That changed, though, around 1300 in Italy, followed by the rest of Europe. It was a time of new art, new thought, and the pouring of a society’s fundamental principles and values into a formal system of education.
Until the early 20th century, those who enjoyed an elite education knew that everyone so educated would read the same books, would hold the same artistic skills, and would be able to converse easily in both Latin and Greek. The prevailing belief was that you could do or be anything you wanted provided you had the knowledge of the ancient “great” thinkers and writers, as well as good, correct Latin style.
Initially, boys in the elite classes were taught at home by tutors, who were extremely respected individuals. At about age five, boys were introduced to basic Latin grammar. Grammar as a concept always referred to Latin. The vernacular of a language wasn’t taught at all, as people believed you would naturally learn your native tongue at home, through your nurse, household conversations, and interactions with friends. Latin grammar was taught because Latin was expected to be an alternate first language. It was part-and-parcel of the general approach to life and was the language with which boys communicated with those of equal rank. Society viewed it as the most subtle and appropriate language for high thought and high activity.
The standard Latin grammars from ancient Rome, including those of Donatus and Priscian, were used to educate Renaissance boys a thousand years later. These texts offered a collection of phrases, sentences, and words that could then be applied to other disciplines as the boy developed his vocabulary and style. Early texts used were books like Caesar’s Commentaries — still one of the basic texts to teach Latin today — and the Vulgate, St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible.
When the boy could handle the basic texts relatively easily, the tutor would add more difficult ones. These were often poetic, such as Virgil’s The Aeneid. This work was regarded as more than just a poem; it also represented a mythological history of the Italian people, the foundation of Rome, and a connection with the ancient Trojans. Some of the simpler prose orations of Cicero were also introduced.
By the time a student became a young teenager, the tutor would up the ante again, introducing very difficult Latin texts such as those of the historian Sallust. The reasoning was that difficulty of style and the complexity of the ideas would force the student to think more deeply about those ideas — an introduction to critical thinking, a concept very much at the heart of our modern American education system.
When the boy reached an age where he could make some form of moral distinction, the tutor added the morally ambiguous authors. The most important author was probably Ovid, whose Metamorphoses was one of the most-read books of the Middle Ages as well as the Renaissance.  His stories were easy to learn and provided a frame of reference for mythological ideas that revolutionized art and fired up the imagination.
By the mid-15th century, educators introduced Greek into the curriculum, which was seen as necessary because so many of the ancient Latin authors were dependent upon, and spoke, the language. Cicero, as an example, not only referred to Greek texts frequently in his work, but he actually spoke in Greek. Greek, then, became an important educational tool because it was a foundation for the idea of Classical wisdom.
When the boy reached about 12, the tutor introduced other subjects; some are part of a modern education, but they were presented from a very different perspective. Science, as an idea, wasn’t stressed during the Renaissance, but it was taught because the ancients were interested in science. Every boy was given Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, which contained wonderful stories about science and geography, as well as everything from the making of papyrus to the nature of the inhabitants south of the equator, where the Romans hadn’t gone. Boys in mercantile cities like Florence and Venice were also taught arithmetic, because they would grow up to be merchants and had to know how to balance their accounts. Basic abacus use was also taught so complicated sums could be done fairly quickly.
Geometry was taught as well, but for two different reasons. First, it was viewed as a practical subject; boys who aspired to be military commanders would be able trace a cannonball’s trajectory, could make diagrams of a battlefield, and could estimate the distances from one part of his army to another. Second, it was viewed as an important abstraction. Geometry represented an absolute truth, something that could reflect God’s plan for humanity because the truths of geometry are absolute, just as the truths of religion were seen to be.
Many boys learned astronomy, too, for three reasons. First, astronomy was necessary to understand astrology, something of a Renaissance obsession. The ancients believed you could learn something about yourself and perhaps even about the future by studying the stars, so Renaissance scholars, who adored the ancient cultures, also adopted this idea.
Second, astronomy’s influence on astrology was important for understanding classical poetry, where many allusions were based on astrological images. And third, astronomy was valued for its own sake. By the early 16th century, Nicholas Copernicus published De Revolutionibus — On the Revolution of the Celestial Bodies. His book provided the foundations for Galileo, who in the next century determined the sun, not the earth, had to be the center of the universe. Copernicus’ ideas came from a relatively sophisticated knowledge of how the heavens moved, itself a product of a Renaissance education.
Next week: The American Educational System: An Overview
To read part 1: Introduction, click here.
To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.
To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.
To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.
To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.
To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.
To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.
To read part 8: China, click here.
To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.
To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.
To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.
 History.com staff. (April 4, 2018). “Renaissance.” Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/renaissance/renaissance.
 Bartlett, Kenneth PhD. (December 15, 2016). “Education in the Renaissance.” Wondrium Daily. Retrieved from https://www.wondriumdaily.com/education-in-the-renaissance/.