When researching the first of different types of schools during the medieval period it is natural to start with the type of schools which was the most common and to which a considerable number of pupils had access. The study of these portrays an image of what kind of knowledge was provided at the lower stages and what kind of knowledge was expected from the applicants when proceeding to higher stages of education. Song Schools were the first educational facilities attached to monasteries and churches which were supposed to teach young boys how to sing in churches during services. These song schools were considered to be of a lower level of education because they did not give lectures in Latin or English grammar but merely required pupils to learn the basics of Christianity by heart often without a proper understanding of the content of the texts. Therefore in spite of the fact that the education was one-sided in this respect they fulfilled the requirements the church services in Latin had on their performers.
Song Schools did not expect pupils to gain excessive knowledge but rather to get used to the services in the Church and to prepare those who would continue with their studies at the Grammar Schools which represented the second level of education. The most important parts of curriculum were considered the Ten Commandments and Seven deadly sins, also known as capital vices or cardinal sins, which are lust, gluttony, greed, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Other essential texts were Psalter, which is defined by Michelle Brown as a collection of Psalms serving as the main prayer-book for the celebration of the Divine Office, covering 150 psalms of David, Moses, Asaph, and others, whereas in medieval times it also included “ancillary texts such as calendar, Canticles, creeds, a litany of the saints, and prayers” (Brown, internet source). The Service books and mattins were among the literature young pupils had to read and they represented one of the primary sources of education. The contents of any text needed to be learnt by heart because as already mentioned, books were in Latin and the grammar of this language was not taught at Song Schools. In order to understand what they were reciting the pupils had to depend merely upon what they were told by their masters or on any little knowledge of vocabulary and grammar they could get from more learned students of the grammar schools, which were sometimes, although this was not a rule, part of the monasteries as well.
The Canterbury Tales by Geofrey Chaucer is a one of the most fundamental English works from the medieval period. There are some mentions of the methods and quality of education at Song schools. In “The Prioress’s Tale” the author writes:
“A heap of children come of christian stock
Received their early schooling year by year
And the instruction suited to their ear,
That is to say in singing and in reading” (Chaucer 194)
The practice of sending children to schools from the early age was sufficiently spread, so they could learn how to sing. Reading, as Orme states was considerably different from today. Boys were taught to recognize the words and pronounce them, however without the proper understanding of their meanings (Orme 59).
In the next stanza the reader is told about a seven-year-old little boy, the son of a widow, who was a “ chorister” (Chaucer 194). The meaning of the word relates to the subjects he was taught – namely singing. It also mentions the hymn Ave Maria which is Hail Mary in English and it can thus be concluded that the boys in the school were taught prayers and hymns in Latin and not in English. The little boy has a habit of kneeling down when he sees the picture of Christ’s Mother, the Virgin Mary, who in Christian belief, particularly in the Catholic one, is a significant figure. The school was thus most likely attached to a church or monastery, because the boy frequently sees the pictures of the Virgin Mary which were an indispensable part of the church decorations, states and window-panes. Later in the tale the boy hears other children singing and learning the book of antiphon by heart. He is drawing nearer and nearer to hear them and keeps listening until he himself knows the first verse by heart. The boy does not try to write the antiphonal hymn down; he rather listens and learns it by heart. In the end the boy asks an older boy about the meaning of the hymn but is told the following answer: “I can learn singing, but my grammar’s slow.” (Chaucer 195) The little boy also reads his primer, which was a little board with the alphabet on it and was used usually to one-to-one teaching. Another possible way was to write the alphabet on a white wall for all children to see it and use it as a reference point while a schoolmaster was explaining it.
The normal age for boys to start their education was somewhere between six and eight years of age. They needed to be independent because a large part of education was based on individual work. Also, a certain level of proper behavior was demanded. Christopher Hibbert gives a very comprehensive picture what kind of behavior was expected and by what ways and means it was enforced. Schoolboys were not allowed to speak during church ceremonies and they were to stand still without watching other people or making noise. Similar strict rules were applied while in school or in dormitories. According to Hibbert, beating of children was thought of as an indispensable daily part of bringing them up, “when young, most were regularly beaten, girls as well as boys, in accordance with the advice given in books written for the guidance of parents in the upbringing of their offspring (…) Even if they were not beaten at home they could certainly expect to be whipped at school” (112, 113). Obviously in the medieval times, and long afterwards, corporal punishment was supposed to be part of a decent education and could by no means be absent. Needless to say teachers and masters had also other methods of keeping discipline in groups of relatively small children. It was not only the birch, i. e. corporal punishment which ensured proper behavior of the pupils, threatening by hell as the main part of Christian belief did an equally good job. The fear of eternal damnation was immensely strong. Of course, this was a feature shared by all Christians, not only school boys. Taking into consideration that boys were educated in the Scripture they had quite a good idea what these words meant and they also knew how important it was to abide by the Ten Commandments and avoid the Seven Deadly Sins. Thorough knowledge of these should have minimized the inclination of the pupils towards bad behavior and certainly “these means of education” were used very frequently by school masters to abash pupils. In one of the latter stanzas of “The Prioress’s Tale” the author again describes that to the seven-year-old “chorister” abundant beating was familiar: “Thought they should scold me when I cannot say/ My primer, thought they beat me thrice an hour” (Chaucer 195)
Song Schools continued to teach choir singing well to the fourteenth century but the literacy of the people reached higher levels than when Song Schools were first established. Their task to teach reading was taken over by parents, tutors, or university students who gladly used this opportunity to raise their income. Teaching singing for the needs of the Church service was then taken over by Cathedral Schools (Orme 64).