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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Saturday October 15 2016

I’ve already given you Rod Green’s Dangereuse.  Here’s another, longer bit from his book about Magna Carta, a bit which he entitled “Boys and Men” (pp. 61-66) I was especially struck by the part near the end, about people who could pronounce Latin words but who didn’t know what they meant.  Sounds horribly familiar:

Not so long ago, it was widely assumed that the concept of “childhood” simply didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The view was that the kind of life led by a modern child - where good health, play and education experienced as part of a loving family environment is seen as the norm - was in stark contrast to the lives of children 800 years ago, who were treated as a burden to be tolerated until they were old enough to be of some use.

Recent research, however, shows that this may not have been entirely the case. Studies of toys from the period have shown that children were encouraged to play. The toys may have been homemade in many cases, but models of mounted knights made out of metal would have been bought or specially commissioned, showing that some parents cared enough about their children’s play time to lavish gifts on them.

Children do not feature prominently in illustrated manuscripts, paintings or tapestries doing anything more than emulating their parents, but in some cases they can be seen playing games like tag or “king of the castle” and riding on hobby-horses. They were, it seems, encouraged to play and enjoy an active childhood, although their lives were set on a predetermined course at an early age.

In the early thirteenth century, a child surviving the first year of life had a reasonable chance of fighting off disease long enough to acquire the strength needed to survive in the harsh and unhygienic medieval world. In fact, 25 per cent of those born to wealthy parents and up to 50 per cent of those born to the poor did not. A whole host of infectious
diseases for which we now have myriad names would then simply have been classed as “fever” or “food poisoning”.  Life expectancy was only around 30 years, although anyone from the ruling classes who made it, strong and healthy, to the age of 21, might well have had another 40 years to look forward to.  In the fourteenth century, the Black Death was to reduce life expectancy dramatically.

In the days of King John, however, a fit young boy born into a noble family could expect to live in his parents’ grand house or castle until he was about seven years old.  He would then be sent off to live in another castle, most likely in the house of a nobleman a rung or two up the feudal ladder from his own parents, perhaps even in one of the king’s
own residences.

Here he would serve first as a page, running errands and generally waiting on the lords and ladies of the household.  However, he would also learn how a large house functioned and how people interacted with one another, as well as learning about customs and proper manners. He might also be taught how to read and understand Latin and, if it were not already his native tongue, the version of French spoken by the Norman nobility.

A young boy would also learn how to ride and, if he showed promise, he might, when he was around 14 years old, become apprenticed to a knight as a squire. They had to train hard to learn the art of combat, which included lifting heavy stones to build muscle, throwing the javelin, fighting with a quarterstaff, archery, wrestling, acrobatics and sword fighting.  Swordsmanship was taught using a blunted sword and a buckler, a small shield the size of a pot lid. This trained the would-be knight how to parry sword thrusts and how to use his shield as an offensive weapon without the novice having to start off with a full-sized, cumbersome shield. Similarly, the blunted sword was used against heavily padded protective layers, although the dull blade could still inflict painful wounds.

The squire would learn how to clean and prepare the knight’s armour and weapons, although major repairs had to be undertaken by a blacksmith or armourer.  He would also need to help his knight put on his armour, which meant more than simply helping him to dress - the various elements of the heavy steel all had to be strapped into place in the correct sequence to make sure that they overlapped and allowed for movement in the right way.

This, of course, meant that the squire went with his knight to compete in tournaments. He would eventually get the chance to compete in his own right, even before he became a knight, as there were special contests organized solely for squires.

Whether a squire lived in his knight’s house, or whether he lived in a baron’s castle where landless knights also lived as part of the baron’s permanent military force, he would have regular chores to perform, which would include acting as a servant when his masters sat down to eat.  Squires were expected, for example, to learn the correct way to carve meat at the table.

The squire’s apprenticeship would last until he was around 21 years of age, at which point he might expect to be knighted himself. However, he might want to avoid that happening - a squire could be made a knight either by his local lord or by the king, but it wasn’t an honour that everyone could afford. The squire’s family, whom he may have visited only a couple of times a year since he was sent away as a seven-year-old, would have to pay for the costly armour, weapons and warhorse that a knight required, as well as funding any forays he might make to tournaments far and wide. Being a knight could be prohibitively expensive, especially if a second, third or fourth son, who might not inherit any part of his father’s estate when he died (the bulk of property often being bequeathed to the first-born).

Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, there was a growing “middle class” of merchants, tradesmen and professionals, particularly in the new cities and busy ports.  Trade with continental Europe had expanded enormously since the Norman Conquest, although Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurs are known to have traded extensively with partners as far away as Russia. Clauses 41 and 42 of Magna Carta make special mention of such merchants.

The son of a merchant would live an entirely different life from that of a boy born into the nobility. From a very young age, he would learn about the family business, in order to play a full part as soon as he was old enough. A boy might also become apprenticed to another merchant or tradesman, a privilege for which his family would have to pay, and be sent away from home to live with his new master.

Merchants, especially those dealing in foreign trade, had to be able to speak and read Latin, which was the international language of commerce, the legal profession and the Church. The sons of the middle classes learned Latin either through private tuition or at one of the new schools that were beginning to appear.

Merchants donated money to set up schools in the most important trading towns and boys would be sent to school to learn arithmetic and Latin grammar, the institutions becoming known as grammar schools. The schools were allied to a particular trade, making them private schools, although fee-paying schools would later be established that were open to anyone who could pay, such establishments being termed “public” schools.

There would have been few if any books in schools.  These were hugely expensive, hand-written items - the first printed books didn’t begin appearing until the mid-fifteenth century. Boys learned their lessons verbally, repeating their Latin phrases time and time again, and earning themselves a beating if they got anything wrong.

Some might learn mathematics or become proficient in the use of an abacus, but few would continue their formal education beyond a basic level or contemplate attending one of the new universities.

As the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford University had been growing in stature since the latter part of the eleventh century and the colleges of Cambridge University can trace their history back to around the same time.

Peasants, still by far and away the largest portion of the population, could not afford to send their sons to school.  A peasant boy was expected to do chores as soon as he was old enough to learn how to feed chickens or help to herd livestock. When he was strong enough, he would help with the back-breaking work in the fields and perhaps spend some time working in the local landowner’s house or castle, if such was required by the terms of his family’s tenure.

The Church played a major role in everyone’s lives and even the most lowly peasants attended church on a regular basis.  However, all services were conducted in Latin, so most people couldn’t understand what was being said - sometimes not even the priest.  Despite being the most educated man in the village, while the priest might be able to pronounce written Latin, the chances are he did not understand it.  For a lucky few, a well-educated priest might teach boys how to read, but even as late as the fourteenth century it has been estimated that 8 out of 10 adults in England were unable even to spell their own names.