This semester, I have been teaching a course on “Memory and Identity in the Middle Ages.” One of the topics we cover in this class is medieval pedagogy—that is, the theory and practice of teaching and learning, as understood in the Middle Ages. Education has changed less over the centuries than we might expect. Professors in the Middle Ages were just as passionate about their subjects as their modern counterparts, while medieval students, like students at Mason today, had to study hard while balancing a variety of responsibilities.
As we enter the final, chaotic weeks of the fall semester, I thought it would be helpful to share some time-honored study tips from the world of medieval education.
1. Take advantage of pet therapy.
There’s nothing like a furry friend to relieve the stress of finals week. In the ninth century, one Irish monk wrote a poem about studying with his cat Pangur:
“I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net…
So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.”
3. Start a study group.
In the Middle Ages, reading was often a communal experience. Most people in the Middle Ages read aloud, rather than silently to themselves. Moreover, since literacy was not as common as it is today, people often listened to others read to them, rather than reading books themselves. Today, you can simulate that feeling of intellectual community by listening to audiobooks or podcasts—or, better yet, by studying with friends.
4. But don’t fall in love with your study buddy.
Paolo and Francesca, the famous pair of lovers from Dante’s Inferno, fell in love while reading a book together. For some reason, they thought it was a good idea to pick a romance about a pair of adulterous lovers, Lancelot and Guinevere. The tale starts out like any other adventure story, but eventually the text gets… steamy. Then, as Francesca puts it,
“Some of the things we read made our eyes stray
to one another’s and the color flee
our faces, but one point swept us away.
We read how that smile desired so ardently
was kissed by such a lover, one so fine,
and this one, who will never part from me,
trembling all over pressed his mouth on mine.”
Since Paolo and Francesca appear in Dante’s Inferno, rather than his Paradiso, one can guess how well this turns out. Doubtless they were condemned to hell not for committing adultery (Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother, after all!) but because, as Francesca explains, “That day we did not read another line.” Clearly they should have studied harder: if they had kept reading, they would have realized that things did not end well for Lancelot and Guinevere either…
5. Have confidence in your abilities.
Take some inspiration from one medieval student, who proclaimed himself the best in his class: “I myself and no other will respond to the master and his usher in all the questions propounded in school today, and if I say so it is because I am notable and acknowledged for my grammar in the universities on both sides of the sea—Paris and Orléans, Oxford and Cambridge—in which I have hitherto never set foot, I vouch to God as my witness, by whose testimony the truth is proved.”
How does he know he is world famous, if he has never traveled the world?
Fake it ‘til you make it, as they say.
6. But don’t be afraid to ask for help.
That’s what one medieval schoolboy did. His teacher had assigned him a lesson to study, but since he “was at that tender, undisciplined age, [he] was seduced by his peers into playing games, and forgot both his teacher’s warning and his own lesson. On the following day, when the time for the recitation was at hand, fears of what lay in store for him, for not knowing the lesson, thronged the boy’s mind. But he could not think of any way of saving the situation since he was incapable either of reciting the lesson or of devising a means to avert the schoolmaster’s ire.”
So what did he do? Run away, of course! He fled straight to the shrine of the local saint, who happened to have been a teacher. His schoolmaster angrily chased him down, dragged him back to school, and forced him to recite the lesson. The boy, of course, expected things to go badly. But lo and behold, “when the boy was forced to recite the lesson without looking at his book, not only did he repeat, without stumbling and without assistance, what the master had assigned, but also, to the latter’s amazement, he recited at length and completely from memory what the teacher had been about to give him for the next assignment!” Perhaps the George Mason statue will work the same wonders for you.
7. When it’s all done, celebrate!
Try singing this song, which schoolchildren would belt out before going home for break (the lines originally in Latin have been translated into modern English, while the Middle English is in italics):
“We carry the rod at the end of term;
The usher’s head we shall dash to pieces.
If the master asks us where we shall go,
Shortly we’ll respond, ‘that’s not for you to know!’
O most noble teacher, now we you pray,
That you’ll assent to gyff hus leff to play.
Now we propose to go, withowt any ney,
To dissolve the school, I tell itt youe in fey.”
And rest up to prepare for next semester.
Writing is hard work. As medieval scribes would say, “three fingers write, whilst the whole body labours.” The song I quoted above continues with the students’ sad acknowledgement that “full sor shall we qwake” when they have to go back to school at the end of break. So take advantage of the respite, so that you don’t quake too much at the prospect of returning for next semester.
In all seriousness, though, the world of medieval education offers many useful insights into contemporary pedagogical practice. One of the ideas that students in my “Memory and Identity in the Middle Ages” course find most surprising is the medieval attitude towards memorization. In the Middle Ages, rote memorization—which contemporary pedagogy often considers one of the building blocks of knowledge—was thought to be intellectually shallow. For many medieval scholars, the purpose of learning was to improve one’s ethical character, not to earn a high GPA. Memorizing facts in advance of exams, doing well on the SATs, even winning Jeopardy would not have been considered intellectual accomplishments in the Middle Ages. A person was thought knowledgeable only if she had imprinted upon her heart the lessons she had learned from books. For this reason, medieval teachers would likely be very confused by the contemporary imperative to “teach to the test.” How are students gaining true wisdom, a medieval professor might ask, if they are simply learning how to ace a test, and not how to comprehend the world around them?
We in the modern world cannot put aside GPAs and test scores, of course, nor should we idealize the medieval university in any way, not even as a bastion of learning for learning’s sake. In the Middle Ages, a university education was considered the pathway to a good career, which is still the concern of most students today. However, as the semester draws to its close, the medieval belief in the value of learning offers us a useful reminder to spare some time, once the papers are submitted and the exams taken, to reflect on the deeper wisdom we have gained over the past fifteen weeks.
Special thanks to Erika Harman for sharing the boast and the end-of-term song, and to Anna Lyman for the proverb about writing and the miracle of the schoolboy and the saint.
The translation of “Pangur Bán” is by Robin Flowers.
The translation of Dante’s Inferno is by Michael Palma.
The boast and its English translation are from Nicholas Orme, English School Exercises, p. 156: 5.18.
The story of the schoolboy and the miraculous lesson is from Gordon Whatley, The Saint of London: The Life and Miracles of St. Erkenwald, pp. 103-109.
The song and its translation are from Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children, p. 157.
The proverb about writing is from Collectanea pseudo-Bedae, ed. Martha Bayless and Michael Lapidge, 304.
December 04, 2019