Unlike today when the law says that all children must be educated, not everyone in medieval England learned to read, let alone to write or do maths. Anyone was allowed to send their children to school if they could afford it or could find a free school, but serfs had to get permission from their lords and pay a special fee for this so most of them did not.
Everyone in fifteenth-century England knew someone who could read and who would be able to help them if they needed to understand a contract or a letter. Reading was always done out loud so it was much more of a shared skill than it is today. Writing was a much less common skill. Although English was the spoken language of common people, the law courts, the Church and government used French or Latin, which meant that most people were not able to take part in these area of life without an advanced education.
Most education happened in people’s homes, especially for girls. There were also many different sorts of school which children might attend from the age of seven. Some schools were very small and were run by a parish priest or (very occasionally) a schoolmistress in their own house. Some were in monasteries or nunneries where the children might board. Others were attached to cathedrals and trained children in singing and music.
Increasingly there were free-standing schools in towns run by professional schoolmasters. From the late fourteenth century wealthy people started founding schools to educate boys for free to prepare them for careers in the clergy, or administration, as lawyers or merchants. A world-famous school was founded in 1440 by Henry VI: Eton College to provide free education to 70 boys (King’s Scholars), which is still the case today when other pupils at Eton pay enormous fees for the same education.
Sometimes children in wealthier families were as young as four when their parents or a tutor started teaching them to read. They would usually use prayer books called primers (pronounced primmers) to teach from and so these often had the alphabet written at the front in the form of a prayer.
Children from peasant families did not need to read in order to follow in their parents’ work and they would have started to help with looking after crops and animals from about the age of seven. Girls would learn skills including cooking, spinning and sewing while boys learnt carpentry, metalwork, fishing and hunting. From the age of twelve or fourteen (and sometimes younger) all boys of every social class were expected to learn archery. Battles in the fifteenth century involved thousands of longbow archers drawn from all over England and Wales. This required years of training to develop the shoulder and arm muscles to shoot arrows as far as 300 metres.
The alphabet was not quite the same as today: it was based on the alphabet used in Latin so there was no ‘j ‘and usually no ‘w’ even though these were used in writing, but there were two types of ‘r’ and ‘s’. Sometimes there were also letters called ‘thorn’ þ and ‘yogh’ ȝ which we no longer use.
Most of the prayers in these books were in Latin which must have made it a lot harder to learn to read than it is today because although children learned how to say the words they did not know what each word meant. Only a very small number of children (most of them boys) actually learned Latin. Rather more learned French.
The copyright for the manuscript images on this page belongs to the British Library who have placed them in the public domain. You can find out more about the original manucripts in their Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.