The Learning Years of Medieval Childhood

Schooling, University, and Apprenticeship in the Middle Ages

Medieval Festivities
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The physical manifestations of biological puberty are difficult to ignore, and it is hard to believe that such obvious indications as the onset of menses in girls or the growth of facial hair in boys were not acknowledged as part of a transition into another phase of life. If nothing else, the bodily changes of adolescence made it clear that childhood would soon be over.

Medival Adolescence and Adulthood

It has been argued that adolescence was not recognized by medieval society as a stage of life separate from adulthood, but this is not at all a certainty. To be sure, teenagers were known to take on some of the work of full-fledged adults. But at the same time, such privileges as inheritance and land ownership were withheld in some cultures until the age of 21. This disparity between rights and responsibilities will be familiar to those who remember a time when the U.S. voting age was 21 and the military draft age was 18.

If a child was to leave home before reaching full maturity, the teen years were the most likely time for him to do so. But this did not mean he was "on his own." The move from the parents' household was almost always into another household, where the adolescent would be under the supervision of an adult who fed and clothed the teenager and to whose discipline the teen was subject. Even as youths left their families behind and took on increasingly more difficult tasks, there was still a social structure to keep them protected and, to some extent, under control.

The teen years were also the time to concentrate more intensely on learning in preparation for adulthood. Not all adolescents had schooling options, and serious scholarship could last a lifetime, but in some ways, education was the archetypal experience of adolescence.


Formal education was unusual in the Middle Ages, although by the fifteenth century there were schooling options to prepare a child for his future. Some cities such as London had schools that children of both genders attended during the day. Here they learned to read and write, a skill that became a prerequisite for acceptance as an apprentice in many Guilds.

A small percentage of peasant children managed to attend school in order to learn how to read and write and understand basic math; this usually took place at a monastery. For this education, their parents had to pay the lord a fine and usually promise that the child would not take ecclesiastical orders. When they grew up, these students would use what they'd learned to keep village or court records, or even to manage the lord's estate.

Noble girls, and on occasion boys, were sometimes sent to live in nunneries in order to receive basic schooling. Nuns would teach them to read (and possibly to write) and make sure they knew their prayers. Girls were very likely taught spinning and needlework and other domestic skills to prepare them for marriage. Occasionally such students would become nuns themselves.

If a child was to become a serious scholar, his path usually lay in the monastic life, an option that was rarely open to or sought by the average townsman or peasant. Only those boys with the most notable acumen were chosen from these ranks; they were then raised by the monks, where their lives could be peaceful and fulfilling or frustrating and restrictive, depending on the situation and their temperaments. Children at monasteries were most often younger sons of noble families, who were known to "give their children to the church" in the early Middle Ages. This practice was outlawed by the Church as early as the seventh century (at the Council of Toledo) but was still known to take place on occasion in the centuries that followed.

Monasteries and cathedrals eventually began to maintain schools for students who were destined for secular life. For younger students, instruction began with the skills of reading and writing and moved on to the Trivium of the Seven Liberal Arts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. As they grew older, they studied the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Younger students were subject to the corporal discipline of their instructors, but by the time they entered University, such measures were rare.

Advanced schooling was almost exclusively the province of males, but some females were able to acquire an admirable education nonetheless. The story of Heloise, who took private lessons from Peter Abelard, is a memorable exception; and the youth of both genders at the court of twelfth-century Poitou undoubtedly could read well enough to enjoy and debate the new literature of Courtly Love. However, in the later Middle Ages nunneries suffered a drop in literacy, reducing available options for a quality learning experience. Higher education for females depended largely on individual circumstances.

In the twelfth century, cathedral schools evolved into universities. Students and masters banded together into guilds to protect their rights and further their educational opportunities. Embarking on a course of study with a university was a step toward adulthood, but it was a path that began in adolescence.


One might argue that once a student reached university level he could be considered an adult; and, since this is one of the instances in which a young person might be living "on his own," there is certainly logic behind the assertion. However, university students were notorious for making merry and making trouble. Both official university restrictions and unofficial social guidelines kept the students in a subordinate position, not only to their teachers but to senior students. In the eyes of society, it would appear that students were not yet completely considered adults.

It's also important to remember that, although there were age specifications as well as experience requirements to become a teacher, no age qualifications governed a student's entry into a university. It was a young man's ability as a scholar that determined if he was ready to pursue higher education. Therefore, we have no hard-and-fast age group to consider; students were usually still teenagers when they entered university, and legally not yet in full possession of their rights.

A student beginning his studies was known as a bajan, and in many cases, he underwent a rite of passage called the "jocund advent" upon his arrival at university. The nature of this ordeal varied according to place and time, but it usually involved feasting and rituals similar to the hazing of modern fraternities. After a year at school, the bajan could be purged of his lowly status by expounding a passage and debating it with his fellow students. If he made his argument successfully, he would be washed clean and led through the town on an ass.

Possibly due to their monastic origins, students were tonsured (the tops of their heads were shaved) and wore clothing similar to that of the monk: a cope and cassock or a closed-over long-sleeved tunic and overtunic. Their diet could be fairly erratic if they were on their own and with limited funds; they had to purchase what was inexpensive from the shops of the city. Early universities had no provisions for housing, and young men had to live with friends or relatives or otherwise fend for themselves.

Before long colleges were set up to aid the less affluent students, the first being the College of the Eighteen in Paris. In return for a small allowance and a bed at the Hospice of the Blessed Mary, students were asked to offer prayers and take turns carrying the cross and holy water before the bodies of deceased patients.

Some residents proved to be insolent and even violent, disrupting the studies of serious students and breaking in when they stayed out after hours. Thus, the Hospice began to restrict its hospitality to students who behaved more pleasantly, and it required them to pass weekly examinations to prove their work was meeting expectations. The residency was limited to a year, with the possibility of a year's renewal at the discretion of the foundationers.

Institutions such as the College of the Eighteen evolved into endowed residences for students, among them Merton at Oxford and Peterhouse at Cambridge. In time, these colleges began to acquire manuscripts and scientific instruments for their students and offer regular salaries to teachers in a concerted effort to prepare candidates in their quests for a degree. By the end of the fifteenth century, few students lived outside colleges.

Students attended lectures regularly. In the early days of universities, lectures were held in a hired hall, a church, or the master's home, but soon buildings were constructed for the express purpose of teaching. When not at lectures a student would read significant works, write about them, and expound on them to fellow scholars and teachers. All this was in preparation for the day when he would write a thesis and expound on it to the doctors of the university in return for a degree.

The subjects studied included theology, law (both canon and common), and medicine. The University of Paris was foremost in theological studies, Bologna was renowned for its law school, and Salerno's medical school was unsurpassed. In the 13th and 14th centuries numerous universities sprang up throughout Europe and England, and some students were not content to limit their studies to only one school.

Earlier scholars such as John of Salisbury and Gerbert of Aurillac had traveled far and wide to glean their education; now students were following in their footsteps (sometimes literally). Many of these were serious in motive and driven by a thirst for knowledge. Others, known as Goliards, were more lighthearted in nature—poets seeking adventure and love.

All this may present a picture of students thronging the cities and highways of medieval Europe, but in reality, scholarly studies at such a level were unusual. By and large, if a teenager were to undergo any form of structured education, it was more likely to be as an apprentice.


With few exceptions, apprenticeship began in the teens and lasted from seven to ten years. Though it wasn't unheard of for sons to be apprenticed to their own fathers, it was fairly uncommon. Sons of master craftsmen were by Guild law automatically accepted into the Guild; yet many still took the apprenticeship route, with someone other than their fathers, for the experience and training it offered. Apprentices in larger towns and cities were supplied from outlying villages in substantial numbers, supplementing labor forces that dwindled from diseases such as the plague and other factors of city living. Apprenticeship also took place in village businesses, where a teenager might learn milling or felting cloth.

Apprenticeship was not limited to males. While there were fewer girls than boys taken in as apprentices, girls were trained in a wide variety of trades. They were more likely to be trained by the master's wife, who often knew nearly as much about the trade as her husband (and sometimes more). Although such trades as that of seamstress were more common for females, girls were not limited to learning skills they could take into a marriage, and once they married many continued plying their trades.

Youngsters rarely had any choice in which craft they would learn, or with what particular master they would work; the destiny of an apprentice was usually determined by the connections his family had. For example, a young man whose father had a haberdasher for a friend might be apprenticed to that haberdasher, or perhaps to another haberdasher in the same guild. The connection might be through a godparent or neighbor instead of a blood relative. Affluent families had more affluent connections, and a wealthy Londoner's son was more likely than a country boy to find himself learning the goldsmith trade.

Apprenticeships were formally arranged with contracts and sponsors. Guilds required that bonds of surety be posted to guarantee that apprentices fulfilled expectations; if they did not, the sponsor was liable for the fee. In addition, sponsors or the candidates themselves would sometimes pay the master a fee to take on the apprentice. This would help the master cover the expenses of caring for the apprentice over the next several years.

The relationship between master and apprentice was as significant as that between parent and offspring. Apprentices lived in their master's house or shop; they usually ate with the master's family, often wore clothes provided by the master, and were subject to the master's discipline. Living in such close proximity, the apprentice could and often did form close emotional bonds with this foster family, and might even "marry the boss's daughter." Whether or not they married into the family, apprentices were often remembered in their masters' wills.

There were also cases of abuse, which might end up in court; though apprentices were usually the victims, at times they took extreme advantage of their benefactors, stealing from them and even engaging in violent confrontations. Apprentices sometimes ran away, and the sponsor would have to pay the master the surety fee to make up for the time, money and effort that had gone into training the runaway.

The apprentices were there to learn and the primary purpose the master had taken them into his home was to teach them; so learning all the skills associated with the craft was what occupied most of their time. Some masters might take advantage of the "free" labor, and assign menial tasks to the young worker and teach him the secrets of the craft only slowly, but this was not all that common. An affluent craftsmaster would have servants to perform the unskilled tasks he needed to be done in the shop; and, the sooner he taught his apprentice the skills of the trade, the sooner his apprentice could help him properly in the business. It was the last hidden "mysteries" of the trade that might take some time to acquire.

Apprenticeship was an extension of the adolescent years and could take up almost a quarter of the average medieval lifespan. At the end of his training, the apprentice was ready to go out on his own as a "journeyman." Yet he was still likely to remain with his master as an employee.


  • Hanawalt, Barbara, Growing Up in Medieval London (Oxford University Press, 1993).
  • Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986).
  • Power, Eileen, Medieval Women (Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  • Rowling, Marjorie, Life in Medieval Times (Berkley Publishing Group, 1979).
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Your Citation
Snell, Melissa. "The Learning Years of Medieval Childhood." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Snell, Melissa. (2023, April 5). The Learning Years of Medieval Childhood. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "The Learning Years of Medieval Childhood." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).