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Medieval Sourcebook:
Accounts of Medieval Literacy and Education, c. 1090-1530

Memory & Writing

Plato, Phaedrus, c. 380 BCE

If men learn writing, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks; what you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder....

Eadmer, Historia, c. 1125

Those favoring the side of the Archbishop Anselm then maintained that credence should be given to all those documents signed with the pope's seal and not to the uncertainty of mere words. However, those favoring the side of the king replied that they preferred to rely on the words of three bishops than on the skins of sheep blackened with ink and weighted with a little lump of lead....

From The Liber Magistri Hugonis Sancti Victoris, c. 1130

To fix something in the memory, it is of great value when we are reading to take pains to imprint on the memory through the imagination not only the number and order of the verses or sections in books, but also at the same time the color, shape, position, and placement of the letters: where we saw this written down and where that; in what part and in which place we saw it positioned---whether at the top, in the middle, or near the bottom; in what color we discerned the shape of a particular letter or the ornament on the surface of the parchment. I think there is nothing so effective for exciting the memory as meticulously paying attention to the surroundings of things, to those features which can occur accidentally and externally. Knowledge is a treasury, and your heart is its strong-box....

Master Thomas, The Romance of Horn, c. 1160

Lords, you have heard the lines of parchment...

From The Estoire de Waldef, c. 1190

In anyone wants to know this history let him read the Brut, he will hear it there...

From Lectio, c. 1200

"Are you a scholar? What do you read?" "Yes, but I do not read, I listen." "What do you hear?" "Donatus or Alexander, or logic or rhetoric."

From The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, 1279

The king disturbed some of the great men of the land through his judges wanting to know by what warrant they held their lands, and if they did not have a good warrant, he immediately seized their lands. Among the rest, the Earl Warenne was called before the king's judges. Asked by what warrant he held, he produced in their midst an ancient and rusty sword and said: "Look at this, my lords, this is my warrant! For my ancestors came with William the Bastard and conquered their lands with the sword, and by the sword I will defend them from anyone intending to seize them. The king did not conquer and subject the land by himself, but our forebears were sharers and partners with him!"

Hieronimo Squarciafico, Memory and Books, 1477

Already abundance of books makes men less studious; it destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work.



John of Salisbury, Policraticus, 1159

All those who are ignorant of the Latin poets, historians, orators, and mathematicians should be called illiterati even if they know letters.

Philip de Harvengt, De Institutione Clericorum, c. 1175

A usage of speech has taken hold whereby when we see someone litteratus, immediately we call him clericus. Because he acts the part that is a cleric's, we assign him the name ex officio. Thus if anyone is comparing a knight who is litteratus with a priest who is ignorant, he will exclaim with confidence and affirm with an oath that the knight is a better clericus than the priest...This improper usage has become so prevalent that whoever gives attention to letters, which is clerkly, is named clericus....When we meet a monk of humanity and charity, we ask him whether he is a clericus. We don't want to know whether he has been ordained to perform the office of the altar, but only whether he is litteratus. The monk will therefore reply to the question by saying that he is a clericus if he is litteratus, or conversely a laicus if he is illiteratus.

The Book of Walter Map, c. 1200

This knight, as a boy, was a paragon of virtue and was educated among us and by us; yet he was not litteratus, which I regret, although he knew how to write any series of letters whatever.

Reginald of Durham, Life of St. Godric, c. 1200

Therefore he chose not to follow the life of a peasant, but rather to study, learn and exercise the rudiment of more subtle conceptions.

From The King's Mirror, c. 1200

The man who is to be a merchant will have to brave many perils....Finally, remember this, that whenever you have an hour to spare you should give thought to your studies, especially to the law books; for it is clear that those who gain knowledge from books have keener wits than others, since those who are the most learned have the best proofs for their knowledge. Make a study of all the laws....And if you wish to become perfect in knowledge, you must learn all the languages, first of all Latin and French, for these idioms are most widely used....Learn arithmetic thoroughly, for merchants have great need of that.

Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, c. 1387

With him there was his son, a youthful squire...He could make songs and words thereto read, joust, and dance too, as well as sketch and write....; A monk there was, one made for mastery....What? Should he study as a madman would upon a book in cloister cell?....; A clerk from Oxford was with us also....For he would rather have at his bed's head some twenty books, all bound in black and red, of Aristotle and his philosophy...; There was a franklin in his company...At county sessions was he lord and sire, and often acted as a knight of shire. He had been sheriff and been auditor....; With us there was a doctor of physic...Well read was he in Aesculapius, And Deiscorides, and in Rufus, Hippocrates, and Hali, and Galen, Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicenna, Averroes, Gilbert, and Constantine, Bernard and Gatisden, and John Damascene. It's no libel to say he read but little in the Bible....There was a good man of religion, too, a country parson, poor, I warrant you...But in all teaching prudent and benign....

The Art of Writing

Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History, c. 1090

I was visited on that day by Anthony, a monk of Winchester, who showed me a copy of a life of St. William. I wished to have a copy too, but in truth, since the bearer was in haste to depart, and the winter cold prevented me from writing, I made a full and accurate abbreviation on tablets, and now I shall endeavor to entrust it summarily to parchment.

Guibert de Nogent, Autobiography, c. 1120

For I made no notes in my tablets for the composition and writing of this or any other of my works, but committed them to the written page without alteration, as I thought them out.

From The Life of Christina of Markyate, c. 1140

I could not pollute the wax by writing how scandalously the cleric had behaved who had been commended to Christina as here companion by Thurstan, Archbishop of York.

Vacarius, Liber Pauperum, c. 1150

First I put particular passages in order for the text and then I perfected the book by sprinkling other passages into the space for the gloss. By this means, brevity was served and the result was a book published at the lowest price and readable in a short time.

Robert de Melun, Exemplaria, c. 1150

The "masters of the glosses," for this is the name they have now attained, lack understanding of their glosses as much as of the text, even if they can distinguish the glosses and separate them through punctuation marks and assign each one to the text it serves.

John of Salisbury, Letter to Peter, Abbot of Celle, c. 1159

While I was writing this, the scribe was moved to laughter by the greeting at the head of this letter, that the greeting was ridiculous, and he refused to write further though I wished to continue writing nonetheless.

Richard Fitz Neal, Dialogue of the Exchequer, c. 1177

The scribe must be careful not to write anything of his own in the roll, but only what the treasurer has instructed.

From Layamon's Brut, c. 1190

At Arley, on the river Severn, there Layamon read books. In order to write one of his own, he traveled widely, and procured those noble books which he took as his exemplars; these were three in number---in English, Latin, and French. Then Layamon laid these books out and turned over their leaves. He beheld them lovingly; may God have mercy on him! He took quills in his fingers and applied them to parchment and he set down together the truer words and he compressed those three books into one.


Guibert de Nogent, Autobiography, c. 1120

Put, therefore, to my book [age six], I had learnt the alphabet, but hardly yet to join letters into syllables, when my good mother, eager for my instruction, arranged to pass me on to grammar [age seven].....Even on Sundays and Saints' Days I had to submit to the severity of school exercises; on no day, and hardly at any time, was I allowed to take holiday in fact, in every way and at all times I was driven to study. Meantime I was pelted almost every day with a hail of blows and hard words, while he was forcing me to learn what he could not teach. With him in this fruitless struggle I passed nearly six years, but got no reward worth the expenditure of time....I went to my mother's knees after a more severe beating than I had deserved. And when she, as she was wont, began to ask me repeatedly whether I had been whipped that day, I, not to appear a tellntale, entirely denied it. Then she, whether I liked it or not, threw off the inner garment which they call a vest or shirt and saw my little arms blackened and the skin of my back everywhere puffed up with the cuts from the twigs. And being grieved to the heart by the very savage punishment inflicted on my tender body, troubled, agitated and weeping with sorrow, she said: "You shall never become a clerk, nor any more suffer so much to get learning." At that I, looking at her with what reproach I could, replied: "If I had to die on the spot, I would not give up learning my book and becoming a clerk."

William FitzStephen, A Description of London, c. 1190

On Shrove Tuesday, boys from the schools bring fighting-cocks to their master, and the whole forenoon is given up to boyish sport; for they have a holiday in the schools that they may watch their cocks do battle. After dinner all the youth of the city goes out into the fields to a much-frequented game of ball. The scholars of each school have their own ball, and almost all the workers of each trade have theirs also in their hands. Elder men, and fathers, and rich citizens come on horseback to watch the contests of their juniors, and after their fashion are young again with the young....The schoolboys dispute, some in demonstrative rhetoric, others in dialectic. Some "hurtle enthymemes," others with greater skill employ perfect syllogisms. Boys of different schools strive against one another in verse or contend concerning the principles of the art of grammar, or the rules concerning the use of past and future. There are others who employ the old art of the crossroads in epigrams, rhymes, and meter.

Robert Holcot, Observations, c. 1310

When boys are first instructed they are not able to learn anything subtle, but only simple things. So they are first taught with a book of large letters affixed to a piece of wood, and progress afterwards to learning letters from a more advanced book, a parchment leaf on which appears the alphabet, decorated with red paragraph marks, and fixed to a board, covered over with a transparent piece of horn.

From Piers Plowman, c. 1370

For schoolboys, my sire said so to me, and so did my mother, that the livelier the child, the more it behooves one, and Solomon said the same, that Wisdom made Qui parcit virge, odit filium, the English of this Latin is, whoso will it know, whoso spares the sprig, spoils his children.

Chaucer, The Prioress' Tale, c. 1387

A little school for Christian folk there stood, down at the farther end, in which there were a many children born of Christian blood, who learned in that same school, year after year, such teachings as with men were current there, which is to say, to sing well and to read, as children do of whatsoever creed. Among these children was a widow's son, a little choir boy, seven years of age, who went to school as days passed one by one, this little child, his little lesson learning, sat at his primer in the school, and there, while boys were taught the antiphons, kept turning, and heard the Alma redemptoris fair..."Now truly I will work with diligence to learn it all ere Christmas sacrament, though for my primer I take punishment and though I'm beaten thrice within the hour, yet will I learn it by Our Lady's power!"

William Kingsmill, Dialogues, c. 1410

When riding one day into Oxford, a traveler I know put up at "The Mill on the Hoop" in Northgatte Street. After inquiring from his hostess about board and accommodation, she presented her son, around ten years old, and he questioned him thus: "My child, have you been to school?" "Yes, sir," he said, "by your leave." "At what place?" he asked. "Sir, at the house of William Kingsmill, scrivener." "Fair child, how long have you been dwelling with him?" he asked again. "Sir, for less than a quarter of a year," was the reply. "That is only a short while, but what have you learnt there during that time?" asked the traveler. "Sir, my master has taught me how to write, to read, to count, and to speak French."

Thomas Beckington, Bishop of Bath & Wells, Statutes for the Choristers, 1459

Schoolboys who refuse to learn their lessons are first to be warned kindly; secondly, if they neglect these warnings, sharply to be rebuked; and thirdly, if necessity arise, to be flogged.

From A Fifteenth-Century School Book, c. 1500

As soon as I am come into the school, this fellow goes to make water and he goes out to the common draft. Some after another asks if he may go drink. Another calls upon me that he may go home. These and other such lies my schoolboys give for excuse that they may be out of the way.

John Stow, Survey of London, c. 1530

I myself in my youth have yearly seen on the eve of St. Bartholomew's Day [August 23] the schoolboys of different grammar schools repair to the churchyard of St. Bartholomew's Priory in Smithfield, where upon a bank boarded about under a tree some one scholar has stepped up, and there has apposed and answered, >till he were by some better scholar overcome and put down, and then the overcomer taking the place, did like as the first, and in the end the best apposers and answerers had rewards, which I observed not but it made both good schoolmasters and also good scholars, diligently against such times to prepare themselves for the obtaining of this garland.



Selected and Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall, August 1998

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