Aristocratic Education in Europe

In order for a person to play an aristocratic role in society, education is of tremendous importance. The Shakespearean figure Orlando in As You Like It (1599-1600) is bitter in his grievance that his brother, Oliver, has undermined his gentility by training him as a peasant. Aristocrats since Homeric times have been men of honor who want to be the best and keep well ahead of the others; they must be educated to be strong and able to play a prominent role in the world. Our knowledge about the education of kings and noblemen begins to become coherent in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which saw the emergence of the important genre of didactic courtesy books giving advice on etiquette as well as treatises addressing the education of children in general.

The Middle Ages

The European aristocrats of the Middle Ages were the landowning nobility, whose members were privileged by fiefs from the king in return for services in war. Although their prestige was increased by the deeds they exercised as armored knights on horseback, their honor as nobles was thought to be hereditary. In the eleventh century and especially in the twelfth, the upper nobility gained power at the expense of the lower and developed a refined set of manners and lifestyle with which to stage their prestige in great halls and at the kings' courts. Court life became the model of good behavior, and the word courteous came into the language.

Aristocratic children were brought up to be courteous knights and chatelaines–even aristocrats who became ecclesiastics learned to handle weapons. Parents made great efforts to organize the education of children by choosing masters, mistresses, and servants and planning marriages and careers. Babies had wet nurses, who fed them, and dry nurses, who took care of them in other ways–for example, rockers to rock the cradles. Aristocratic parents often had a noble lady who surveyed the upbringing of the infants. Royal children could have their own courts governed by noble persons appointed by the king. As soon as they could speak, children were introduced to the adult code of good manners and morality. In the great halls they listened together with the adults to tales about King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table with their ideals of virtue, bravery, loyalty, comradeship, courage, and determination to sacrifice life for something higher, pride deriving from acknowledgment of proven superiority as well as competition among themselves to exceed the greatest deeds. The children learned proper table manners along with dancing, singing, and playing music. Games were a feature of daily life for both children and adults. Playing chess seems to have been used for educative purposes. Some children were raised by relatives, a custom which strengthened kinship, or they were sent to nobles of higher rank or if possible to the royal court, which gave them opportunities to learn more refined manners and to be educated by more erudite masters.

When children were six or seven years old a transition occurred. They continued to progress in the earlier mentioned topics, but the boys got male tutors, who taught them reading and writing as well as some Latin. Only a few nobles continued their studies at the university. Girls also learned to read and write, but their teaching was less formal and intensive. Boys began to participate in the prestigious sport of hunting, where they learned horsemanship and the management of weapons. Between the ages of twelve to fourteen they began the necessary physical training to become knights, learning to wear armor, handle swords and lances, and joust at tournaments. At age eighteen they entered knighthood. Girls did not learn to fight, but they learned to ride. Mistresses taught the young girls housekeeping and how to sew, weave, and spin. Needlework by aristocratic women, including exquisite embroideries and tapestries, was appreciated all over Europe.

Renaissance and Early Modern Times

During the sixteenth century armored knights lost their military significance, and kings and princes began to rely on mercenaries with firearms. At the same time, Renaissance humanism challenged the nobles' notion of inherited superiority and proclaimed the idea of a spiritual aristocracy deriving from a more refined control of bodily instincts as well as extensive literary skills. Aristocrats therefore needed a better education in order to compete with the learned bourgeois in obtaining the influential offices at the king's government. The image of the knight was still a symbol of nobility as shown in the persistent use of coats of arms and armored portraits, and knightly games continued in derivative forms such as riding at the ring. However, the physical exertions of the aristocratic male were formalized as these were transformed into a ceremonialized lifestyle that culminated in the Baroque and Rococo periods in an emphasis on look and manner, such as the donning of powder and wigs. It became a matter of extreme honor to act in accordance with the correct manners at court. In Il cortegiano (1528) the Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione put words to the new aristocratic ideals: the outer refined and carefully choreographed staging of the courtier reflected true inner nobility.

These new features influenced education. Dance, for example, became increasingly significant and attracted the interest of educational writers. Good dancers were more easily taught the look, the posture, and the gait necessary for success in aristocratic life. Music education continued, but now attention was also given to drawing and painting, which developed the visual sense. Aristocratic children continued to be brought up in the manor houses of their parents, by other noblemen, or at court. The formal literary education of boys was upgraded and now led by professional schoolmasters; such teaching became an occupation regulated by clock time and distinct from everyday life. Latin was the subject given most attention; some boys learned Greek and even Hebrew. As Italian and, later, French succeeded Latin as the lingua franca, it became important to learn these languages.

Boys also began to frequent educational institutions where they mixed with the bourgeoisie. Some, mostly in England, attended LATIN SCHOOLS, and aristocratic boys extended their presence at the universities as well. However, from an aristocratic point of view, universities could not teach the important qualities of honor, virtue, and taste. In 1594 Antoine de Pluvinel opened an académie d'équitation in Paris. Here young aristocrats learned horsemanship and fencing but also good manners, playing the lute, painting, mathematics, classical as well as modern languages, poetry, literature, and history. The academy emphasized the teaching of the mind as well as development of the body, which was to be hardened as well as refined according to aristocratic norms. Pluvinel's initiative attained royal support, and when aristocratic academies during the seventeenth century spread throughout Europe they were often founded by kings and princes. Most of the academies were boarding schools and taught Pluvinelian subjects to which later in the eighteenth century were added economics, agriculture, and Staatswissenschaft (statecraft). Schoolmasters were competent and sometimes called in from foreign countries.

Another feature of aristocratic education was the grand tour, during which a young man and his tutor traveled around Europe for some years studying at academies and universities. By associating with foreign members of their own rank young men learned refined cosmopolitan manners, eloquence, and languages. When they returned they were able to serve the state as officers, ambassadors, chancellors, counselors, governors, and judges.

The literary education of girls was also expanded. In addition to reading and writing they were now taught Italian and French. Many sixteenth-century writers presented such famous women of learning as Plato's Diotima and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra as models for contemporary women and urged the parents of girls to let their daughters study Latin and Greek as well as literature. Some women became famous in Europe for being learned, but in general the teaching of girls was still second to that of boys; the main emphases were still housekeeping and needlework.

The Decline of Aristocratic Education

The romantic-naturalistic educators who emerged in the eighteenth century saw the polite behavior of the aristocracy as fraudulent, without true virtue. The ideal was that infants should be brought up according to what was explained as their own inner natures. Thus they should not be polished by courteous manners. As the bourgeoisie took over power in society in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, its culture obtained a position of hegemony, and the old aristocratic education became ridiculous and eroded away. Stories from eighteenth-century Eton about well-born children fighting each other with a strong sense of honor were made fun of by the Victorians, and bourgeois ideals also took over at the aristocratic academies. In the patriotic and nationalistic education of the people, however, some fragments of aristocratic values did survive, such as the ideas of virtue, deeds, heritability of honor, and determination to sacrifice oneself for a higher purpose.

See also: Education, Europe; Infant Rulers.


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