Convent Schools (Cathedral Schools)

Convent schools (also called monastic schools) emerged in Europe during the Early Middle Ages (c. 500–1000). With the disappearance of classical Roman culture in western Europe, monasteries became sites for education. Oblates, boys of six or seven handed over to the care of the monastery by their parents and intended to become monks, were trained in reading and writing. According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, teenage novices, who were candidates for the monastic profession, had to receive instruction for at least a year before committing to monastic life. The novitiate, a separate part of the monastery with its own master and program of schooling, combined education in the liturgy and spiritual texts with acculturation in a monastic community.

The Early Middle Ages

One of the great early medieval figures in the attempt to heighten educational standards in monasteries was Hilda (614–680), the abbess of Whitby, a double monastery with separate wings for men and women in Yorkshire. She gathered books for an outstanding library and saw to it that both male clerics and nuns had an excellent knowledge of Latin language and literature. Centuries later, one of the first women's colleges at Oxford University was called Saint Hilda's.

Carolingian figures such as Alcuin of York (c. 732–804) tried to build on Hilda's efforts. Alcuin became the unofficial schoolmaster of the court of Charlemagne at Aachen, and he sponsored efforts to found cathedral schools all over the empire. Viking invasions quickly ended such dreams, however.

With the rebirth of European culture in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, new reform efforts again encouraged learning. Church councils attempted to ensure the presence of cathedral schools, primarily for teaching candidates for the priesthood. Monastic and cathedral schools thus became the first GRAMMAR SCHOOLS, teaching the rudiments of reading and writing. All instruction was in Latin, the international language of learning at the time. Meanwhile, wandering scholars were tramping across Europe in search of good teachers who were well-connected and could place them in lucrative jobs.

The High Middle Ages

Throughout this period, monastic institutions were being reformed and regularized, especially after the beginnings of a new monastic order that arose from the monastery at Cîteaux, founded in Burgundy in 1098. The Cistercians refused to accept oblates and imposed a minimum age of eighteen for novices. At the same time they placed more emphasis on what was to be learned in the novitiate. They expected their recruits to monastic life to have a background in Latin, often gained from parish priests or cathedral schools.

Grammar, rhetoric, and logic were the foundations of medieval education (the trivium, as they were called). Many a schoolboy had to spend painful hours in learning vocabulary and grammatical constructions by heart. Those who failed their lessons could be beaten, for the classical ideal of education left no mercy for the slow pupil. Eleventh-century monastic reform, however, gave rise to a debate about whether corporal punishment was a good idea. One great monastic philosopher and educator, Anselm (1033–1109), insisted on treating his novices with care and circumspection. He thought that they would learn more if they were motivated by love of the subject and of their teacher.

The end of the twelfth century saw the rise of a specialization of higher education in the new universities at Paris and Oxford. Boys of fourteen would enter these institutions after their trivium educations in parish, monastic, or cathedral schools. Religious orders such as the Cistercians at first stayed away from the universities, but around 1240 the order founded its own college at Paris and sent its intellectually brightest monks there. The new orders of friars, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, also produced members who became professors in the Paris schools.

Women did not have the same educational opportunities in the High Middle Ages (1000–1300) as they had been given in the double monasteries of the Early Middle Ages. But monasteries for women did provide instruction in reading and writing. In the twelfth-century in France, Heloïse (1098–1164), perhaps the most learned woman of her time, founded a convent for women and imposed high intellectual standards.

At the same time there was continuing pressure on cathedral schools to improve standards and educate people other than potential priests. In the growing towns of Europe, rich citizens began to found their own schools for boys, but these almost always had clerical teachers. At the end of the fourteenth century a secular priest and theologian named Jean de Gerson (1363–1429) headed the cathedral school of Notre-Dame in Paris. In a treatise entitled On Bringing Children to Christ, Gerson recommended a combination of strict discipline and humane treatment. He also worried that some teachers might sexually abuse their pupils, so he tried to make certain that boys would never be alone with their teachers–or with each other.

The Reformation

In the sixteenth century enormous changes were made following the Protestant and Catholic reformations. A new religious order in Catholic Europe, the Jesuits, placed great emphasis on education (especially of the nobility) in order to gain political influence and win over to the Roman Church areas of Protestant Europe. The Jesuits were firm disciplinarians and educational innovators in applying the classical humanist learning of the Renaissance to their schools.

The desire of women to form religious communities and obtain an education was also affected by the Catholic Reformation. The Ursulines began in northern Italy as a lay religious movement. The group did social work and opened schools, but the regimentation of reform at the Council of Trent in the mid–sixteenth century required the Ursulines to seclude themselves from the world and live a semicontemplative life. Some nuns, however, were allowed to teach girls, and the Ursulines became an educational success in Italy and France, with up to 12,000 sisters in 320 institutions in the seventeenth century.

Another French educational reform movement, the Brothers of the Christian Schools (known as the Christian Brothers) was founded by John-Baptist de La Salle (1651–1719). As canon at Rheims, La Salle had begun to found schools for poor boys, and he soon headed a religious community that specialized in teaching. He also avoided clericalization by forbidding priests to join. The order spread throughout France and opened many teacher training colleges.

La Salle left a monument to his educational ideas in his Conduct of Christian Schools. Like his medieval predecessors he saw education as an integral part of a Christian upbringing. Schools existed to fashion devout Christians, but teenage boys were also given an opportunity to understand the intellectual and historical foundations of their faith.

Convent Schools in the United States

The ideals and practices of the Ursulines and the Christian Brothers were exported to America in the convent and PAROCHIAL SCHOOLS of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of the finest achievements of medieval civilization thus became available to new generations of young people. Catholic educational culture, with its emphasis on celibacy and a chronic suspicion of women and SEXUALITY, has had to face many problems and conflicts in modern education. At its best, however, this orientation has emphasized humanistic learning, an international outlook, and a dialogue between teacher and pupil.

See also: Early Modern Europe; Education, Europe; Latin School; Medieval and Renaissance Europe.


Leclercq, Jean. 1979. Monks and Love in Twelfth-Century France. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

McGuire, Brian Patrick. 1996. "Education, Confession, and Pious Fraud: Jean Gerson and a Late Medieval Change." American Benedictine Review 47: 310–338.

Mullett, Michael A. 1999. The Catholic Reformation. New York: Routledge.

Nicholas, David. 1992. The Evolution of the Medieval World, 312–1500. London and New York: Longman.