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19.03.10 Lynch, Medieval Pedagogical Writings

The Medieval Review

19.03.10 Lynch, Medieval Pedagogical Writings

Sarah Lynch's slim book on medieval education sets out a circumscribed goal, but accomplishes it well. Part of Kismet Press' Epitomes series, Medieval Pedagogical Writings: An Epitome is an accessibly written introduction to some of the issues and texts connected to elementary pedagogy in the Middle Ages. It is intended to be approachable and a starting point for further study. Accordingly, the book is clearly written and organized, generous with basic information, and of manageable length. Kismet Press has made the volume available in cheap print and eBook editions, and free to read online. The book provides a valuable gateway to a field in which plenty of research has been published, but much more remains to be done.

Chapter 1, "Authors and Works," is the longest single chapter and perhaps the most useful. In it, Lynch offers brief descriptions and summaries of a number of ancient and medieval educational treatises, ranging from Quintilian's Institutio oratoria at one chronological end to the works of Jean Gerson and Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini at the other. Given the deliberately restrained genre of this book, it is perhaps somewhat churlish to complain about the texts it does not cover. Lynch, author of the monograph Elementary and Grammar Education in Late Medieval France: Lyon, 1285-1530 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017), understandably spends more time with late medieval works in French and Latin. Still, given her attention to classical and late antique educational writing, her coverage of the early middle ages seems sparse, limited as it is to the fascinating--but not necessarily representative--Ælfric Bata. Newcomers to the field might have benefited from introductions to Alcuin, Dhuoda, Aldhelm, and Bede alongside Philippe of Navarre and Pierre Dubois. That said, Lynch's selection still provides ample material for the curious student or scholar seeking new research directions. Particularly interesting is Pierre Dubois' fourteenth-century De recuperatione Terrae Sanctae, a proposal for an educational program that would train up European Christian children for the cultural and military conquest of the Holy Land. Other texts, such as the anonymous fourteenth-century De commendation cleri, show a more realistic grasp of the issues involved in quotidian education.

Subsequent chapters briefly cover other themes relating to early education in the period. Chapter 2, "The Beginning and End of Elementary and Grammar Education," offers a quick survey of opinions on the age at which formal education should begin, and when the grammar curriculum ought to be completed. This may seem trivial, until one observes the vast range of ages at which formal instruction begins internationally even today. What comes out in Lynch's discussion is the sense early writers on education had that certain topics were best begun as early as possible, but also that it was important not to alienate pupils by burdening them too much. Chapter 3, "Organising the School Day and Schoolroom," discusses some of the schedules proposed by educationalists, though offers less on the layout of the schoolroom itself. Again, Lynch shows that ancient and medieval writers on pedagogy were sensitive to the needs of children for relaxation, unstructured play and games both educational and freeform. Lynch's discussion once again challenges stereotyped views about medieval education and childrearing in her excellent chapter 4, on Corporal Punishment. Here, she provides a nuanced survey of medieval opinions on physical discipline, tracing both the reasons given in support and the limitations in its educational use already recognized by medieval theorists.

In Chapter 5, "Natural Ability," Lynch discusses the now-obvious understanding that different children have different abilities, and therefore require individualized teaching methods. Fascinating, if not a little dispiriting, is the observation that medieval teachers looked to a child's physical constitution as well as to their intellectual capacity to judge their aptitude for schooling. Chapter 6, "Morals and Religion," covers the greatest hits of the medieval grammatical curriculum. Religion, in this context, refers exclusively to Christian learning. Again, while recognizing the difficulty of coverage in the epitome genre, it might have been nice at least to acknowledge that education was also a Jewish and Muslim concern during the middle ages, even if limiting one's scope to what is now Europe.

Chapter 7, "Being a Teacher," covers some of the issues surrounding instructors. Lynch discusses the importance placed on the moral rectitude of teachers, but also notes how different real circumstances often were when compared to the idealized pedagogues in educational treatises. Finally, in Chapter 8, "Education of Women," Lynch points out that the teaching of women was often not discussed in medieval treatises either because they were intended to guide the professional development of all-male groups, or because their theories were not gender specific. She carefully argues against the notion that the education of girls was primarily moral in nature, seeing it rather as a normal part of the broader constellation of medieval pedagogical practice.

Lynch is to be commended for covering the basics of medieval education while consistently avoiding pat generalizations about the topic. Even given that she could only treat a select group of texts, her discussion reveals the diversity of medieval thought and practice in a number of areas. She is careful to contextualize most of the treatises she draws on, judging their recommendations in light of genre and purpose rather than assuming they were meant for all situations. This would be an excellent guidebook for scholars of education in later fields looking for an intelligent introduction to medieval sources, as well as for anyone interested in the history of childhood. Medievalists, too, will find many interesting tidbits and provocations to further reading in these pages.