Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-888d5979f-zxcqg Total loading time: 0.148 Render date: 2021-10-25T15:28:59.228Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2021

Sarah B. Lynch*
Department of History, Angelo State University, San Angelo, Texas
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


This article examines the nature of school days and school years in later medieval Western Europe and considers the societal functions of the temporal cultures that emerged. The forms of the school day and year in elementary and grammar schools—alongside school- and youth-centered festivals—were replete with meaning and possessed utility beyond simple responses to environmental factors such as seasonal and meteorological changes. School authorities—whether ecclesiastical or municipal—saw the temporal cultures of medieval schools as a means to socialize children and to create and maintain collective community identities. By exploring a range of different traditions and regional variations, it is clear that the experience of the passage of time was imbued with meaning and social significance for medieval schoolchildren and their communities.

Copyright © History of Education Society 2021

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Levine, Robert, A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently (New York: Basic Books, 1997), xxGoogle Scholar.

2 Thompson, E. P., “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past & Present 38 (Dec. 1967), 5697CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 I find Avner Wishnitzer's definition of “temporal cultures” very useful in my research. “The term ‘temporal culture’ is here used to denote a historically created system of time-related practices, conventions, values, and emotions that structures the temporal dimensions of social life and fills it with meaning.” Wishnitzer, Reading Clocks, Alla Turca: Time and Society in the Late Ottoman Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 7.

4 Martin Camargo, “Grammar School Rhetoric: The Compendia of John Longe and John Miller,” special issue, New Medieval Literatures 11 (2009), 91–112; and Manfred Kraus, “Grammatical and Rhetorical Exercises in the Medieval Classroom,” special issue, New Medieval Literatures 11 (2009), 63–69.

5 Paul F. Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Learning and Literacy, 1300–1600 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 17–18.

6 For more discussion on the imprecise terminology used for medieval schools, see Sarah B. Lynch, Elementary and Grammar Education in Late Medieval France: Lyon, 1285–1530 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017), 11, 108–19.

7 Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 34.

8 The boy bishop festivals that emerged from the central Middle Ages involved selecting one of the choirboys or other boys associated with a cathedral chapter on a particular holy day near Christmas. The boy bishop would then be treated with the reverence due their adult counterpart, often presiding over feasts or even the liturgy for one day. See later discussion under “School-Centered Festivities and Rituals.”

9 Mokyr, A Culture of Growth, 37.

10 The mutability of temporal cultures has been a subject of study in the fields of psychology and sociology for some time. Some authors approach “temporal cultures” as reactive to particular local forces but also see them as self-sustaining processes, simultaneously creating and maintaining individual cultures. See Robert H. Lauer, Temporal Man: The Meaning and Uses of Social Time (New York: Praeger, 1981); and Levine, A Geography of Time.

11 Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do (New York: Free Press, 2009).

12 Wishnitzer, Reading Clocks, Alla Turca, 94.

13 Wishnitzer begins examining the construction of this new “temporal culture” in Ottoman schools by reflecting on a short story detailing a dispute between school friends as to whose pocket watch is more accurate. Wishnitzer, Reading Clocks, Alla Turca, 94–96.

14 For a full and insightful overview of the scholarship on medieval communities, see Tjamke Snijders, “Communal Learning and Communal Identities in Medieval Studies: Consensus, Conflict, and the Community of Practice,” in Horizontal Learning in the High Middle Ages: Peer-to-Peer Knowledge Transfer in Religious Communities, eds. Micol Long, Tjamke Snijders, and Steven Vanderputten (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019), 17–46. This article owes a debt to Snijders's chapter for helping to clarify my arguments regarding the medieval school year and community formation.

15 For a discussion of medieval prescriptive literature regarding the organization of the school day, see Sarah B. Lynch, Medieval Pedagogical Writings: An Epitome (Leeds, UK: Kismet Press, 2018), 51–60.

16 Jacques Le Goff, “Au Moyen Age: Temps de l'Eglise et temps du marchand,” Annales 15, no. 3 (1960), 417–33; Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” 56–97; and Wishnitzer, Reading Clocks, Alla Turca, 1–15.

17 For school statutes relating to the provision of candles, see David Sheffler, Schools and Schooling in Late Medieval Germany: Regensburg, 1250–1500 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 145n237. The cost of candles was a typical expense pupils and their families shouldered in England. Nicholas Orme, Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 134.

18 A Latin exercise from a school in fifteenth-century London indicates that 6 a.m. was a normal time for school to begin. “It was displeasing to the master at six o'clock to find so very few [boys] sitting in school, who came from distant places while truants who dwell nearby were lying in bed.” Nicholas Orme, English School Exercises, 1420–1530 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013), 227.

19 For similar approaches in central Italy to scheduling the school day, see Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy, 34–35.

20 Lynch, Elementary and Grammar Education, 84–85. Recordationes, or repetitions, were a common feature in a medieval educational context. Bernard of Chartres held one in the evenings at his famous school in the early twelfth century, while the educational structures associated with the Brethren of the Common Life in Deventer also stipulate a repetition at the end of the school day. John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon: A Twelfth-Century Defense of the Verbal and Logical Arts of the Trivium, trans. and ed. Daniel D. McGarry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955), 1–24. Annemarieke Willemsen, Back to the Schoolyard: The Daily Practice of Medieval and Renaissance Education (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008), 280.

21 For a full discussion of the differing opinions on when music instructions should take place, see Lynch, Medieval Pedagogical Writings, 52–53.

22 For a discussion of the measurement of time (and its primacy as an area of study) in early medieval monasteries, see Charles W. Jones, “An Early Medieval Licensing Examination,” History of Education Quarterly 3, no. 1 (March 1963), 19–29.

23 Boys who were neither choristers nor intended for clerical careers were often found in monastic and cathedral schools. Documents from Lincoln Cathedral in 1407 differentiate between the choirboys and the “commoners” who boarded with them and received lessons alongside them. A. F. Leach, The Schools of Medieval England (New York, Barnes & Noble, 1969), 236–37. Robert de Garennes, Lord of Saugis, placed his two sons under the personal care of Gilles Mureau, master of the cathedral school at Chartres, in 1478. There is no indication that either of these two boys were on a path to becoming clerics. Chartres Cathedral had long asserted a monopoly over grammar instruction in its environs, meaning that all boys who wished for such instruction had to attend the school there—regardless of their future career plans. Alexandre Clerval, L'ancienne Maîtrise de Notre-Dame de Chartres du Ve siècle à la Révolution (Paris: Poussielgue & Picard et Fils, 1899), 66–67.

24 Though it can be argued that the Divine Office was itself shaped by natural considerations, such as sunrise and the need for rest when the sun was at its zenith.

25 Orme, English School Exercises, 68–116.

26 Le Goff sees “the time of the merchants” as an evolutionary step beyond a society that revolved around “the time of the church.” The placement of municipal clocks in spaces shared by ecclesiastical institutions suggests an element of challenge to church authority. Le Goff, “Au Moyen Age,” 425–26. For a detailed critique of any adversarial relationship between “merchant's time” and “church time,” see Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 226–32.

27 For example, in 1499, elementary teachers employed directly by the Commune of Lucca were required to begin school at prime (6 a.m.) and remain in the school until the Ave Maria (the ringing of the bells for the Angelus at 6 p.m.). This varied with the time of year, but the timetable is still mapped onto the Divine Office. Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy, 35.

28 “The Commendation of the Clerk,” in University Records and Life in the Middle Ages, trans. and ed. Lynn Thorndike (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 223–24. Though Thorndike believed the author to be anonymous, the “Commendation” is an excerpt from Conrad of Megenberg's Yconomica.

29 Le Goff argues that medieval merchants found their opportunities in similarly difficult and competing circumstances and discovered that time, though it could not be overcome, was still “pliable.” Le Goff, “Au Moyen Age,” 427. For more discussion on this point, see the conclusion.

30 Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 145.

31 Archives municipales de Lyon, France, CC 538, Comptabilité communale (1499), Pièces justificatives dépenses par Jacques de Baileux. Dépenses pour l'entrée du Roi Louis XII, fol. 45 v.-46. For more on municipal funding of schools in Lyon, see Lynch, Elementary and Grammar Education, 62. The municipal government of Regensburg also gave 1 pound annually to one local school for heating. Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 145–239.

32 Orme, Medieval Schools, 134.

33 Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 145–239.

34 “Commendation of the Clerk,” 223–24.

35 Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 145–46. Spring was also seen as a good time to begin school in medieval Jewish traditions. According to Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah of Worms (c. 1160–1230), boys should begin studying the Torah—that is, begin their formal instruction—at Shavuot, which fell between mid-May and mid-June. Ivan Marcus, Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 26–28.

36 The school was an irregular space in the medieval world. Mosques, synagogues, and churches were all used, as well as spaces attached to them, like porches, rooms over porches, and cloisters. Barns and rented rooms were common, up to and including the dwellings, even the very bedchambers, of the teacher. Guibert of Nogent recalled with distaste the classes his elementary master gave in the teacher's own lodgings. John F. Benton, ed., Self and Society in Medieval France: The Memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent, trans. C. C. Swinton Bland (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 67. Ibn ‘Aldun objected strenuously to the use of his neighborhood mosque as an elementary school or kuttab, “due to the tendency for children's clothes and shoes to be grubby and so soil the mosque.” Amira Bennison, The Almoravid and Almohad Empires (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 150. Only well-endowed institutions could have a dedicated school, such as the school attached to the Cathedral of Saint-Jean in Lyon, where the schoolboys enjoyed their own building, complete with a classroom, dormitory, storerooms, and a cloister, from the early 1390s. Sarah B. Lynch, “The Children's Cloister: Choirboys and Space in Later Medieval Cathedrals,” Bulletin of International Medieval Research 19 (2013), 44–61.

37 Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 147–245.

38 Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 146–47.

39 The city government complained that “very long vacations do more harm than good.” Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy, 34.

40 Orme, Medieval Schools, 155.

41 Willemsen, Back to the Schoolyard, 26.

42 Even in the modern world, segments of student bodies are regularly not present at school because of agricultural work. Growing up in rural Ireland, many of my own schoolmates would miss class during lambing season. Furthermore, attendance would be noticeably lower during the ploughing championships and the now-defunct Spring Show. Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 147.

43 This information was kindly provided by Ad Tervoort (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam) from as yet unpublished research on the medieval school at Gouda. Tervoort calculates that perhaps only 30 percent of pupils attended school year-round.

44 It is possible that children were still required to leave the classroom and tend to agricultural duties, even in an urban Italian context. Grendler states that the traditional beginning of the academic year in northern Italy was the Feast of St. Luke (October 18), much later than the traditions in the north of Europe—Michaelmas (September), Midsummer Day (June), or even in the spring in some German regions. While this later start may have simply been a continuation of early traditions, I contend that it may have allowed for a break just when extra labor was needed in the vineyards. Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy, 34. Willemsen also places the beginning of the academic year in October in Flanders, the Netherlands, and Northern France, after the harvest. Willemsen, Back to the Schoolyard, 26.

45 Orme, Medieval Schools, 156. In a classroom exercise from Exeter from around 1450, it is clear that the boys who frequented that school did not engage in agricultural work:

“One of our fellow scholars who used to study with us, sitting in the school which is strewn with green rushes, now spends his time in the country tilling the land with oxen, horses, and both yoked together.”

There is no expectation of the boys engaging in both school and farming. These are divergent paths. Orme, English School Exercises, 5.82.

46 “Preparent missam crucis et beate Marie,” Archives départementales du Rhône, Lyon, France, Saint-Jean, Actes capitulaires, register au net 1361–1374, 10 G 76, f. 115.

47 Archives départementales du Rhône, Lyon, France, Saint-Jean, Actes capitulaires, register au net 1400–1401, 10 G 80, f. 12v.

48 The boys who served as choirboys at Saint-Jean came from a range of social and economic backgrounds. Many were noble, some were the sons of masons and coppersmiths, and others were the sons of episcopal servants. Lynch, Elementary and Grammar Education, 146–49.

49 The master is highly suspicious of the boys’ claim that they had permission from the gardener. Anglo-Saxon Conversations: The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata, ed. by Scott Gwara, trans. David W. Porter (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1997), 155–56. This aligns with the idea that children and youths were often involved in harvest work in an illicit manner, filching apples and other fruit. Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 187. Physical labor done in the monastery tended to be domestic rather than agricultural in nature. Mayke De Jong, In Samuel's Image: Child Oblation in the Early Medieval West (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1996), 148.

50 Orme, Medieval Schools, 156.

51 Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 146–241.

52 Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy, 34.

53 Judith Bennett's re-creation of the life of the peasant woman Cecilia Penifader paints a particularly vivid picture of Christmas celebrations, when food and drink was consumed in large quantities and people sang, danced, and played games. Judith M. Bennett, A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock, c. 1295–1344 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999), 55.

54 For more on the recognized need for recreation, see Lynch, Medieval Pedagogical Writings, 57–60.

55 Hutton states that they emerged in Germany by the early tenth century, while Max Harris sees the Feast of the Holy Innocents—as well as the Feast of Fools and “Herod games”—emerging in Germany and France in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as part of the liturgical innovations associated with the reforms of the eleventh century and the twelfth-century renaissance. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997), 100; and Max Harris, Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), 1–7, 41–47, 72–73.

56 Virtually every work on medieval schools and society discusses this ritual, but for the greatest detail see Shulamith Shahar, “The Boy Bishop's Feast: A Case Study in Church Attitudes towards Children in the High and Late Middle Ages,” in The Church and Childhood, Studies in Church History, ed. Diana Wood, vol. 31 (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994), 243–60; Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 100–104; and Willemsen, Back to the Schoolyard, 282–86. The most thorough reflection on medieval liturgical festivities at Christmas is Harris's Sacred Folly.

57 For an overview of cathedral schools, see Lynch, Elementary and Grammar Education, 34–35.

58 Cathedral chapters acquired special rings, capes, and miters to dress their boy bishops. Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 100.

59 As quoted from Arnpeck's Chronica Baioariorum in Harris, Sacred Folly, 181–82.

60 For an examination of the discrete spatial spheres occupied by children attached to religious institutions, see Lynch, “Children's Cloister.”

61 Harris, Sacred Folly, 72–73.

62 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 100–101.

63 This is the principal argument of Harris's Sacred Folly. According to him, the various Christmas festivals were neither pagan in origin nor were they oppositional or satirical in nature. They were developed in conjunction with cathedral authorities and enjoyed lengthy support between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries.

64 Epiphany rituals and traditions are discussed in detail in Bennett, A Medieval Life, 55; and Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 15–18.

65 Willemsen, Back to the Schoolyard, 282–83.

66 Willemsen, Back to the Schoolyard, 283.

67 Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy, 34.

68 Bennett, A Medieval Life, 55.

69 A school exercise from Bristol around 1427 laments a lack of pancakes: “I have not eaten half my fill of pancakes and of fritters, and therefore no thanks to our cook who should have prepared enough, having flour and lard enough ready with him in the kitchen.” Orme, English School Exercises, 69–118.

70 Orme, Medieval Schools, 157.

71 The master of Jean Rolin, Heures d'Adélaïde de Savoie (1460–1465), MS 76, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France. For further discussion of the educational iconography in this and other late-medieval manuscripts, see Willemsen, Back to the Schoolyard, 283–84.

72 Orme, Medieval Schools, 157.

73 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 153–54. Hutton notes that football was considered a public danger and that Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV all attempted to ban the sport in England.

74 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 151.

75 One school exercise from London, c. 1450–1470, says, “Having license yesterday to play after cock-fighting was finished, it is likely that we will not go to play for these many days, because few of the boys present here in relation to the [whole] multitude have paid their debts according the usage of the school.” Orme, English School Exercises, 233.

76 Barbara Rosenwein, “Problems and Methods in the History of Emotions,” Passions in Context: Journal of the History and Philosophy of the Emotions 1, no. 1 (Jan. 2010), 11.

77 For a British perspective, see Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 151–68.

78 Willemsen, Back to the Schoolyard, 286–87.

79 I myself grew up helping my parents to cut the “May Bush”—a branch of hawthorn that had not yet leafed out or flowered—and decorating it with daisy chains and cowslips. Ben Parsons, Punishment and Medieval Education (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2018), 93. See also Bennett, A Medieval Life, 58.

80 Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 153.

81 By 1559, the processions had gotten a little too loud in Regensburg, and the city fathers had to ban the playing of wind and string instruments as well as dancing. Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 153.

82 Parsons, Punishment and Medieval Education, 93.

83 Sheffler, Schools and Schooling, 153.

84 Parsons, Punishment and Medieval Education, 93.

85 One has to wonder if the pupils gathering the rods ultimately worked in their favor. They were in charge of selecting the switches and could ensure that they were pliable and smooth and less likely to cause real damage to hand and buttocks.

86 Leidulf Melve, “‘The Revolt of the Medievalists’: Directions in Recent Research on the Twelfth-Century Renaissance,” Journal of Medieval History 32, no. 3 (2006), 244.

87 Brian Stock, Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 146.

88 Melve, “‘Revolt of the Medievalists,’” 244.

89 Snijders, “Communal Learning,” 28.

90 Harris, Nurture Assumption, 158.

91 Rosenwein, “Problems and Methods,” 11.

92 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 95–111.

93 Rosenwein was not only innovative in formulating the idea of “emotional communities” but does an excellent job of explaining and expanding on Susan Reynold's concept of the intersectional nature of communities. Rosenwein, Barbara, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 24Google Scholar; and Reynolds, Susan, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900–1300, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

94 Dohrn-van Rossum, History of the Hour, 43.

95 “Although the merchant's time was measurable, and even mechanized, it was nevertheless also discontinuous, punctuated by halts and periods of inactivity, subject to quickenings and slowings of its pace. These were frequently connected with technical backwardness and the inertia of natural factors: rain and drought, calm and stormy weather, which had great influence on prices. Debts came inexorably to term, and yet time was pliable, and it was in this pliability that profit and loss resided. This was where the merchant's intelligence, skill, experience, and cunning counted.” Jacques Le Goff, “Merchant's Time and Church's Time in the Middle Ages,” in Le Goff, Time, Work, & Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980), 37. While Dohrn-van Rossum disagrees with Le Goff's inherently oppositional division between secular and ecclesiastic temporal cultures, they do agree that medieval people were sensitive to their ability to determine their experience of time.

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Marking Time, Making Community in Medieval Schools
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *