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To What Extent Was Education Confined to the Schoolroom in Early Modern Europe?

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Published: 23rd Sep 2019 in History

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To What extent was Education confined to the schoolroom in early modern Europe?

Early modern Europe, education was not confined to the schoolroom.  Renaissance thinking about education began to influence teaching in 1500 England. The introduction of printing by Johannes Gutenberg along with the Reformation which implied every Christian should be able to read the bible, made reading accessible.  During the Reformation, literacy grew significantly due to the wider availability of printed materials and the proliferation of printing presses, which made books much cheaper. The Reformation spread first among craftsmen and merchants who had learned to read.  With economic expansion during this period, literacy became useful skills for trade beneficial for commercial needs.

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Learning was a lifelong process.  Local communities and home life were major areas of learning and for gaining knowledge.  Historians have explored education within the community using a personal account from English shepherd Thomas Tyron.  Thomas was sent to school at 5 years old, but school life was unsuccessful and he was removed and sent to work learning to manage and keep sheep.  By 13 years old he wanted to read thinking it would be a useful skill, he taught himself to read ‘imperfectedly’ (Tyron ,1705).  Thomas wanted to further his education by learning to write and was ‘deserious to learn to write’ (Tyron, 1705).  Within the community Thomas found a young lame man to teach him.  Offering the man one of his sheep, in return for teaching him to write.  The community was important in the process of literacy acquisition.  In time Thomas Tyron ‘attained to write well enough for common use’ (Tyron, 1705).

Robert Campbell discusses in his book 1747 ‘The London Tradesman’, ‘that all trades from bricklaying to making hoop-petticoats require basic reading and writing skills and that those skills should be learned by children before they are apprenticed to a trade’ (2016, p143). Lower class citizens like a farmer were thought to need just a basic education, however, a gentleman would need at least a grammar-school education (2016, p145). Robert Campbell also felt it necessary for children to learn literacy skills before they were ‘apprenticed to a trade’ (2016, p143).

In 1600’s Sir John Boys gave Orders for the Foundation of Jesus Hospital Petty School, the 20 boys taught were not to be ‘lame, blind, diseased with contagious or infectious diseases’ (Cathedral Library) and their parents had to be members of the parish for a minimum of 4 years.  These children were classed as poor men’s children having to learn about God and be trained up in labour and made decent members of the public.  Sir John Boys felt that poor men’s children were brought up to be lazy and thieves (Cathedral Library).

Elementary schools taught basic literacy, most children only attended this lowest level of education.  Boys from middle-class families were able to attend Latin and Vernacular grammar schools.  There were also more ‘commercial schools’ (2016, p145) where boys would learn vernacular reading, writing and commercial arithmetic, a practical education designed to equip them for future careers.  Social status depended on how a boy was educated, boys would only be educated to the level of their chosen career. Boys were more likely to get a formal education than girls, the chances of formal educational opportunities increased ‘if you lived in an urban rather than a rural area’ and if ‘you were rich rather than poor’ (2016, p150).

The sons and daughters of higher levels of society were often educated at home by tutors, however, this practice decreased in the 17th century.  High society boys began to attend grammar schools and universities.  The few girls allowed to higher levels of education in the 16th and 17th century, learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew were taught at home.  Middle-class women could be highly educated and pass knowledge onto their daughters so that they would be better able to run their own households (2016, p150-156).

Humanist Spaniard Juan Luis Vives believed women should study wisdom so they could lead moral and religious lives.  He placed limits on their learning suggesting women did not need to study ‘eloquence’, as this would not enhance their ‘morality or piety’ (2016, p152).  Vives did stress that women’s education should be ‘a private activity and not publicly demonstrated’ (2016, p152).  The education of wisdom ‘will enrich not only women’s lives, but those of their children’ (2016, p 512). Uneducated peasant women wouldn’t have been foolish, she would need to be able to make sensible purchases, her life would be full of calculations of bartering and debts, would all have to be calculated in her head, an impressive feat of mental maths and memory.

The early modern period woman enjoyed a greater measure of freedom and in spite of the awareness of girls educational needs and of the enhanced role of books, a tension lingered between the conviction of the worthiness of the written word and the mistrust it caused.  The act of reading outside the realm of strictly religious literature posed a serious threat to such a young female audience, for whom ignorance was synonymous with innocence, the most valued of their attributes.  Not only did many books transmit knowledge that was potentially detrimental to girls’ innocence, but they also introduced a new relationship to knowledge.  The written word became a mediator that could not always be controlled.  The heightened awareness of young women’s educational needs and faith in the power of print, prefaces offered a dramatic insight into the frustrations of those who wanted to change the social role of the woman without overstepping the boundaries of propriety.

Desiderius Erasmus reported ‘that the wealthier a person is, the less he cares for the education of his children’ (Erasmus, 1529) He felt that wealthy men did not care to have their children educated in skills that they needed to make future business decisions.  They failed to understand that increasing their sons’ education could increase their future wealth. Humanist thinkers, Desiderius Erasmus, Juan Luis Vives, and Sir Thomas Moore thought it essential to form good citizens who would serve their country, which was based on their occupational vocation.  Humanists failed to consider ‘that educating people beyond their occupational status, would raise people above their existing social rank’ (2016, p149).

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The coffee house was invented in the 17th century and became central in English culture and commerce, it provided an alternative to rowdy public houses and rivalled the church.  The coffee house became a new space for people to meet as it offered a wide selection of newspapers, pamphlets and periodical journals.  They also become known as ‘Penny Universities’ (2016, p163) because of the cheap print. Coffee houses allowed conversation among people which caused debates, sparked by the information and ideas in the cheap print read there.  Politics, philosophy, science, and religion were all topics of conversation.  Coffee houses were where men went to meet one another. Often these men were complete strangers.

It was London coffee houses of the 17th and 18th Century that were the engines of creation that helped drive the intellectual and cultural history of Enlightenment. Coffee houses were a different sphere, supplementary to the university. Renaissance, humanism and Enlightenment thinking shared a belief in the socially improving power of education, as appropriate to an individual’s status in life (2016, p150).

From the community to the schoolroom, teaching and learning were everyday activities in early modern England and were not limited by the walls of educational institutions. Knowledge and education were conducted formally or informally, from workshops to schoolrooms and printing houses to coffee houses. Who learned what, from whom, and where? what did it mean to be educated, to be skillful, in a rapidly changing society? What were the educational cultures of early modern England? Approaches were to examine the ways in which the children of the poor were represented in relation to attitudes in class politics, to initiatives in charity and education, and to opinions on the value of children as an investment for the future. The poor were much needed in society they provided essential services for the upper and middle-classes. Deep-seated prejudices within elite society had long been reflected, putting poor children to work and offering them only limited education.  Emphasis tended to be placed on children from upper-class families

In the 18th century Denis Diderot and Jean Jacques Rousseau emphasized ‘improving the importance of education’, the concept of appropriate education for status was still important (2016, p150).  As philosopher Bernard de Mandeville wrote in 1723 ‘Reading, writing and Arithmetick are very necessary ….. but where peoples’ livelihood has no dependence they are very pernicious to the poor’ (2016, p150).

 Part 2 – Summary

Local communities and home life were major areas of learning and gaining life skills.  By the end of the early modern period, more people could read, had access to school and had access to print.  Through printing, people had access to the ideas and knowledge within the prints, from the rich who could afford books to those further down the social ladder.  The growth of print, education, and literacy brought profound change to the way that learning circulated during this period.  Who learned what, for whom and where? And what did it mean to be educated in a rapidly changing society?


  • Allen, G (2016) ‘Chapter 12’: Literacy, Learning and the printed word, Renzi de, S and Brunton, D. (eds), Communities, activities and places, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp135-176.
  • Breton, N (1618) The Court and Country, Or a Briefe Discourse Dialogue-wise Set Down Betweene A Courtier and a Country-man, London. Online session 12.1, The purpose of Education (Accessed 9th January 2019).
  • Canterbury Cathedral Library, MS. U32. Fos. 21-3 reversed. Online session 12.1, The purpose of Education (Accessed 9th January 2019).
  • Erasmus, D. (1990 {1529}) On the Education for Children, in Rummel, E. (ed) The Erasmus Reader, Toronto, University of Toronto Press. Online session 12.1, The purpose of Education (Accessed 9th January 2019).
  • Kumin, Beat. (2018) The European World 1500-1800, An Introduction to Early Modern World, (3rd ed), Milton Park, pp 17-405.
  • Tryon, T. (1705) Some memoirs, London, pp. 7-8, 13-16. Reading 12.2, Thomas Tyron (Accessed 3rd January 2019).


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