Medieval School-Sanctioned Social Cohesion: Nerds, Cool Kids, and “Being Sound”
This blog accompanies Sarah B. Lynch’s History of Education Quarterly article Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools
Sarah Lynch was a nerd. Or at least, she self-deprecatingly describes her teenage years as nerdy. Lynch grew up in rural Ireland in the 1990s, where she attended a secondary school in Athboy, Co. Meath. She liked to read Agatha Christie novels and listen to classical music. The cool kids smoked cigarettes, listened to electronic punk like The Prodigy, and drank vodka before junior night at the town disco. Despite the cultural chasm separating nerds and cool kids, Lynch remembers her years attending the small, co-ed, Catholic-sponsored high school with fondness. There were few cliques. Nerds and punk rockers got along quite well. There was social cohesion.
Social cohesion is a theme in Lynch’s article, “Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools.” In an attempt to create social cohesion, medieval European schoolmasters harnessed “youthful rebelliousness” during annual rituals so that a “modicum of order could be maintained.” However, the teachers did not always maintain control of the festivals. In Regensburg, for instance, the 1357 Boy Bishop festival resulted in the death of a townsperson. The commune of Volterra, Italy, decreed that any boy seen with a mask and drum outside of the designated festival days would be fined. In 1314, schoolboy rowdiness during the Shrovetide festival made London authorities so nervous that they banned cockfighting and football games.
Lynch identifies a balance that teachers had to maintain. On the one hand, they needed to allow a release of pent-up youthful energy. On the other hand, they needed to maintain order. Lynch discusses the relevance of theory, employing Joel Mokyr’s work on vertical, horizontal, and oblique socialization. Oblique socialization, the type where outsiders to the family such as teachers try to shape young people, seems the most relevant here. Lynch argues that even though the goals of the teachers were not always explicit, the socialization rituals within medieval schools were indeed intended “to construct identities, hierarchies, and emotions.”
A similar dynamic played out in Lynch’s own adolescence. Her school administrators attempted but failed to cultivate social cohesion through school rituals like team sports. For instance, Lynch’s school in Athboy sponsored “Sports Day” each May. On Sports Day teenagers ran the “merciless mile” on the football pitch and played “hurling” in which they hit the “sliotar” (the ball) with the “hurl” (a flat club). The day culminated with the sixth-years versus faculty basketball game. Just like her medieval research subjects, Lynch’s classmates were supposed to bond over a school-sanctioned release of pent-up energy. However, as Lynch recalls, the real cohesion occurred in ways that the adults did not intend.
Actual social cohesion occurred when the students “created our own social dynamics and formed our own space to do that.” In between events on Sports Day, the students talked about which teachers they disliked, which were “being w*****s,” and “who was shifting who.” It was an opportunity for the teenagers to figure out who amongst their peers was and who wasn’t “sound,” the highest compliment one could earn in Athboy. To be sound meant you were “chill,” that you might be a nerd, but you were not an informant. Young Sarah Lynch was indeed sound.
I, on the other hand, did not interpret Lynch’s article from the perspective of a sound teenager. As a high-school history teacher, I related to the bad guys in the story, the 14th-century schoolmasters who valiantly tried to channel the rebelliousness of youth as school-sanctioned social cohesion. I’m a bit more cynical than Lynch. In my opinion, our efforts—whether in the 1350s France, 1990s Ireland, or the 2020s U.S.—are more about control than cohesion.
I’m not alone in my Foucault-inspired cynicism. The theme of using school rituals as a means of control is ubiquitous in education journals. In 2005, History of Education Quarterly published Patrick J. Ryan’s article on the use of extracurriculars in Cleveland’s late-nineteenth-century high schools. Citing Foucault, Ryan noted that student newspapers “fabricated reality” in their description of high school sports, reinforcing neo-liberal notions of the rugged individual overcoming adversity. In 2011, Michael Bowbridge and Sean Blenkinsop turned their Foucauldian lens towards the newer fad of outdoor education. For Bowbridge and Blenkinsop, team-building activities like trust falls or camping trips were actually efforts on the part of authority to create “docile bodies.” In 2017, Holly Link, Sarah Gallo, and Stanton E.F. Wortham noticed that second-grade teachers employed pep rallies to motivate students before their first standardized test.
Lynch’s article neither contradicts nor diminishes any of this earlier scholarship. The tension between social cohesion versus social control is a false binary. Life in schools is complex, and Lynch captures much of that complexity. Perhaps a signal contribution of her research is to remind those of us working in secondary schools to take a deep breath. Mistrust between schoolmasters and students has been going on for quite a while. So, the next time I witness a pep rally turn ugly, I will turn to my school’s nervous assistant principal and reference Dr. Lynch’s work. It has always been thus, I will point out, and this too shall pass. My guess is that the school administrator will then roll her/his eyes and get back to the work of regaining control of the masses.
Listen to Sarah Lynch discuss her History of Education Quarterly article in the HEQ&A podcast
 All references to Lynch’s childhood come from our Zoom interview.
 Sarah Lynch interview with Wade Morris, Zoom, June 30, 2021.
Sarah B. Lynch, “Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools,” History of Education Quarterly 61, no. 2 (May 2021), 161, 175.
 Lynch, “Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools,” 171, 173,175.
 Lynch, “Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools,” 160-161.
 Lynch, “Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools,” 159.
 Sarah Lynch Interview.
 Lynch assures me that “shifting” is not as erotic as it sounds. Shifting, in the lingo of 1990s Ireland, was as innocent as kissing.
 Sarah Lynch interview.
 Patrick J. Ryan, “A Case Study in the Cultural Origins of Superpower: Liberal Individualism, American Nationalism, and the Rise of High School Life, A Study of Cleveland’s Central and East Technical High Schools,” History of Education Quarterly 45, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 71-72, 93.
 Michael Bowbridge and Sean Blenkinsop, “Michel Foucault Goes Outside: Discipline and Control in the Practice of Outdoor Education,” Journal of Experiential Education 34, no. 2 (2011): 149-63.
 Holly Link, Sarah Gallo, and Stanton E.F. Wortham, “The Production of Schoolchildren as Enlightened Subjects,” American Educational Research Journal 54, no. 5 (October 2017): 851-53. Other scholars have noticed how principals used pizza parties and pep rallies in an effort to increase collective test scores. See Liz Hollingsworth, David Dude, and Julie K. Shepherd, “Pizza Parties, Pep Rallies, and Practice Tests: Strategies Used by High School Principals to Raise Percent Proficient,” Leadership and Policy in Schools 9, no. 4 (2010): 462-78.
Sarah B. Lynch, “Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools,” History of Education Quarterly 61, no. 2 (May 2021).
Main image: Images of youths playing a stick game, from the section covering the liturgical calendar for February. Source: The master of Jean Rolin, Heures d’Adélaïde de Savoie (1460-1465), Musée Condé, Chantilly, France. MS 76, f. 2 v, BVMM – CHANTILLY, Bibliothèque du château, 0076 (1362), f. 002v – 003 (cnrs.fr).