Learning in the Middle Ages, learning from the Middle Ages

Gepubliceerd op 27-11-2021 , laatst bijgewerkt op 29-11-2021.

Think about schools and learning in the Middle Ages for a moment. Chances are that a stern, older master comes to mind, standing in front of a classroom, strictly keeping order and instructing a group of boys from a big book. Something like the illustration on the right perhaps? That picture is a detail from a 14th-century illumination in the Grandes Chroniques de France and is supposed to represent a group of medieval students being taught at the famous Parisian university of Sorbonne.

However, medieval learning was not always like this. Not all of it took place in top-down ways and in formal or hierarchical settings – much, of course, depends on the kind of knowledge or skills you are looking at. Medieval monastic life presents a particularly interesting case. Prior to the advent of schools and universities in Europe, roughly from the late 11th to the 13th century, abbeys and cloisters were the most important providers of anything resembling a school education, both for religious insiders and lay outsiders. People, especially the elite, sent their children - sons more often than daughters - to monasteries to get basic education.

And yet, monks and nuns themselves also needed to learn many things which were not found in a book or taught in a classroom. For example, the twelfth century abbot Peter the Venerable, a renowned intellectual of his day, recalls how his mother Raingard, upon becoming a nun in the female monastery of Marcigny, had to learn how to cook because as a well to do noble woman she never had done it herself! To learn, Raingard benefitted from the help of more experienced fellow nuns, just as they benefitted from her guidance in other matters. This is just one example of the existence of « informal »  and « shared » ways of learning in medieval monasteries. Other practical skills that were often acquired in this way include farming and gardening, but also staying awake during the night office, fasting and even appropriately managing one’s emotions.

To better understand how and why these types of learning worked even a millennium ago, it is useful to look at modern social sciences, most notably anthropology and educational studies. An important theory is that of the « community of practice », formulated in 1991 by Jean Lave and Étienne Wenger to describe various learning communities, from Mayan midwives to Alcoholics Anonymous. According to this model, newcomers in a community participate in its learning activities first in a limited and « peripheral » way, for example, by observing and imitating. After a while, they become increasingly more active, until they are able to behave exactly like long-time members and are able to transfer knowledge. At this point, they are ready to help new recruits to learn what they need in order to adapt to life and customs in the community. Therefore, everyone played a role in instructing and integrating newcomers. In a nutshell: it takes a village to train a newbie.

Even though in medieval monasteries authority, obedience and hierarchy were very important, there was room for reciprocal help between community members, peculiar individual gifts were often acknowledged, and because of the value attributed to humility, even abbots admitted to learning from their subordinates. For example, abbot Bernard of Clairvaux stated that his biological brother Gerard – who was a monk in the same monastery – helped, comforted, encouraged and even admonished him when he needed it. Bernard recalled that while he wanted to be his brother’s teacher, he realised that he often learned a lot himself when engaging in conversation.

This approach of learning as a part of everyday social interaction allows us to better understand the complexities of social and cultural life in places like a medieval monastery. To be sure: knowledge in the Middle Ages was hierarchized - not everyone was allowed the same level of access to information - and some things were traditionally school-trained. And yet, even in monasteries much knowledge was not simply transmitted top down but rather shared and jointly processed by all the members. Across monastic rules and denominations, each monk or nun could ideally share their knowledge, skills and talents with others. Learning also often had a reciprocal dimension because people could learn and benefit themselves while teaching and helping others. Therefore, we can speak of « learning interaction », which could be top-down but also bottom-up and horizontal. Medieval communities such as monasteries were doing peer-to-peer learning before it was a buzzword.

There were obviously many variations and differences through the ages. Yet if anythIng, historical research shows the almost perennial importance of good social relations when "doing learning”. Just like medieval monks and nuns helped each other out by imitating, correcting, encouraging and comforting each other, so all kinds of students and teachers today engage in countless informal exchanges, learning a lot along the way.

About the author

This blogpost was written by Dr. Micol Long, a specialist of the high medieval monastic world, now at the University of Padua. The blog is based on her research at Ghent University between 2014 and 2018 (project Learning as shared practice. Towards a new understanding of education in monastic communities of the High Middle Ages). This project was funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO). Among its most notable outputs are the Open Access volume Horizontal Learning in the High Middle Ages and the recently published book Learning as Shared Practice in Monastic Communities, 1070-1180. Dont forget to follow the author on Twitter!