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News > Memories > Archery, Latin, and Cockfighting

Archery, Latin, and Cockfighting

Parent and writer, Corinne McKenna researched how life in schools would look in the 15th Century, and applying her knowledge has written about how life at Oswestry could have been, 614 years ago.
9 Jul 2021
Corinne McKenna
Corinne McKenna

Life at Oswestry School 600 Years Ago

When I first saw the date 1407, I knew Oswestry School was where I wanted my two boys to spend their school days.  I entertained the romantic idea of my children walking a path that had been taken by hundreds of Old Oswestrians over 614 years.  And alongside my joy at being able to send my children to a place so steeped in history has been a desire to understand what life at Oswestry School was like for the many souls who have gone before them.

Attempting to explain the daily life of an Oswestry School pupil in the 1400s is a difficult task as the archives relating to that time are silent.  Therefore, I have had to rely on accounts related to contemporary schools operating in the 15th century to piece together a picture of what a child at Oswestry School might have experienced.  I must point out that I am not a trained historian; however, from a lifelong love of medieval English history and a fair amount of reading, I hope the below provides a flavour of a typical school day at Oswestry School 600 or so years ago.

“Back when I was a lad….”

Most of us have a grandparent (or parent) who heartily believes that every person under 40 years is a character-lacking snowflake.  But for Oswestry School pupils in the 1400s, the idea of pastoral care and consideration for a child’s physical and mental wellbeing would have been deemed absurd.  According to Nicholas Orme¹, a school day in a typical 15th century grammar school was long and arduous, beginning at 6am (sometimes earlier in the summer months) and ending 12 hours or so later.  Lessons were taught before breakfast, which was taken between 8am and 9am, then continued until midday and again from two to six.  

Students in the 1400s could not expect the two-course fare enjoyed by children today and they were probably taught in one single classroom.  Archives show that over 100 scholars attending Winchester and Eton received their lessons in one room with the boys sitting on long wooden benches².

The curriculum

As with other grammar schools across England, Latin was the principal subject taught, along with logic and some English grammar and mathematics.  The curriculum was likely based on Donatus’s Ars Minor composed in question and answer form in the fourth century³.  

Masters taught orally as opposed to visually and any textbooks used would most likely have been written in verse.

According to Christopher Hibbert:

“The lower forms began with attempts to translate sentences from English into Latin, simple sentences, often intended to amuse and known as ‘vulgaria’ : ‘The blind eateth many a fly’ or ‘His nose is like a shoeing horn’.  Then the pupils progressed to disputations, stylized debates conducted in Latin, and, ideally, to the composition of Latin verse : fourteenth century pupils at Bredgar in Kent were not considered fit to take part in the chapel liturgy until they could ‘read, sing, constru and compose twenty-four verses in a single day.⁴’”

Given that the English longbow originated in the Welsh Marches and the almost continuous state of warfare that haunted the country during the 1400s, there is little doubt that archery would have been a core part of an Oswestry School scholar’s curriculum⁵.

Fees and admissions

Despite the hardships, entry into Oswestry School did not come cheap.  Being a ‘free school’ simply referred to the fact that David and Guinevere Holbache founded the institution independent of the church, and that the governors were predominantly laymen.  According to Christopher Symons⁶:

“Originally, there was a fee of 6d⁷, unless you chanced to live in Oswestry or David’s own locality of St Martin’s, which earned a discount of 2d!  Besides this signing on fee, there were yearly fees, paid quarterly (‘quarterage’) which, coupled with the rents handed over from the Trust lands, financed the schoolmaster.”

Children may have entered Oswestry School as early as eight years old; however, the age of first-year grammar school students at the time was typically between ten and eleven years.  Pupils would have been expected to have a basic knowledge of reading and writing before they came to board at the school judging from a directive given to parents entering their child into St Paul’s School:

“If your chylde can rede and wryte Latin and Englysshe sufficiently, so that he be able to rede and wryte his owne lessons, then he shall be admitted into the schole as a scholer.”⁸  

Not exactly the 11+ but it is an indication of the standards expected of prospective students in an age where a vast majority of the population were illiterate⁹.

Despite the long days and the fees charged, few children achieved high standards of literacy and Latin grammar.  This was not helped by the fact the upper classes looked down on learning, generally believing it was for clerks rather than those of noble birth.  At one medieval dinner party

"there happened to be present one of those we call gentlemen, who always carried some horn hanging at their backs, as though they would hunt during dinner.  He, hearing letters praised, roused with sudden anger, burst out furiously with these words, “A curse on these stupid letters!  All learned men are beggars!...I swear by God’s body I’d rather my sons should hang than study letters.  For it becomes the sons of gentlemen to blow the horn nicely, to hunt skillfully and elegantly carry and train a hawk.  But the study of letters should be left to the sons of rustics¹⁰”.

Judging from the above tirade, one could never accuse a medieval father of being a helicopter parent.

Unfortunately, sons of rustics rarely got an opportunity to attend a school like Oswestry.  Although feudalism was making its way out during the 1400s, wealthy upper-class landowners had no intention of losing cheap labour to the church via education.  Up until the 15th century serfs could not send their children to school unless they paid for an expensive licence, dispensed by…you guessed it… their lord.  

However, Parliamentary Rolls of 1406 state:

“Provided always that every man or woman, or whatever status or condition they may be, shall be free to send his son or daughter to learn letters at any school within the kingdom.¹¹” 

Despite this early form of anti-discrimination law, anyone wanting to attend Oswestry School still had to come up with the fees.  Considering the average daily wage between 1420-39 was less than 5ds and wheat prices hovered around 6.5ds (in good years and bread was the staple food for most people) a grammar school education would have been far beyond the reach of most parents unless they received a charity place¹².

Leisure time

Time to play would have been scarce at a 15th Century grammar school.  Aside from feast days, every day, including Sunday, involved learning¹³.  However, in those rare, snatched moments of free time, Oswestry School boys’ play would not have been out of place at modern-day Bellan House.  Boys fashioned toy soldiers, made horses from sticks, and spears from plant stems¹⁴.  The delightful laughter of small children playing tag, swimming, and engaging in ball games would have also been heard by those walking by, praying, or selling their wares around the looming beauty of St Oswald’s church.

Crime and punishment

Any teacher who looks into the history of their profession will be struck by two things; a) the extraordinary regularity of the beatings administered to pupils for the smallest of infringements, and b) how little student behaviour has changed over the centuries.  For example, the 13th century rules of Westminster almonry school provides a glimpse of how much the birch was relied on to keep control of children and how unruly they were regardless.  In the morning, the boys were obliged to say their prayers

“without shouting and confusion; if anyone neglects these good things, let them be punished…whether they are standing or sitting in choir let them not have their eyes turned aside to the people, but rather towards the altar; not grinning or chattering or laughing aloud; not making fun of another if he does not read or sing psalms well; not hitting one another secretly or openly or answering rudely if they happen to be asked a question by their elders.  Those who break the rules will feel the rod without delay…likewise if anyone who knows Latin does speak English or French with his companion or any clerk, for every word he shall have a blow with the rod.  Likewise for rudeness in word or deed anywhere or for any kind of oath, let not the rod be spared…Again whoever at bedtime has torn to pieces the bed of his companion or hidden the bedclothes, or thrown shoes or pillows from corner to corner, or roused anger, or thrown the school into disorder, shall be severely punished in the morning.”

Before we condemn 15th century schoolmasters and pupils (for they were just as quick of temper and fists) we must, to borrow the wise words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, “climb into his [a 15th century Oswestry School pupil’s or master’s] skin and walk around in it”.  People in the Middle Ages were witness to a level of brutality that is unimaginable to us today.  We worry about our children playing violent video games; an Oswestry School pupil and schoolmaster are likely to have witnessed violence and death regularly throughout their (usually short) lives.  Medieval people were not squeamish, as evidenced by their delight in cockfighting (which would have been attended by Oswestry School pupils) and their relish in viewing public executions.  One example that illustrates how different our attitudes to suffering and violence are today compared to the Middle Ages is that of the execution of Thomas of Eldersfield in 1221.  Sentenced to hang, at the last minute he was instead given the ‘lesser’ punishment of being blinded and castrated.  According to records of the day, “the eyes were thrown to the ground and the testicles used as footballs, the local lads kicking them playfully at the girls¹⁵”.

Given the culture and normalisation of violence and war and the valour attached to the latter, it is easy to imagine that rather than feeling guilty for beating pupils, an Oswestry School master would have believed that to ‘spare the rod’ would be an act of cruelty as he would have been failing in his duty to impart the lessons of respect for God and elders onto the boys he had been charged with instructing.

Wrapping up

Sitting in my warm, comfortable study, surrounded by books, having had a good dinner, any romantic ideas I had about life at Oswestry School in its earliest days have been well and truly put to rest.  Unlike my present situation (and most likely yours, dear reader) those first small boys would probably have been almost always cold, hungry, tired, and sore from regular thrashings and have witnessed the death of at least one of their immediate family members and been present at scenes of extreme suffering and violence concerning both animals and humans.  Yet like the pupils of our school today, these boys attended their lessons, worked hard, played games we would recognise with their friends, and dreamt of a future beyond the school building.  It is comforting to think that perhaps their spirits are watching over current pupils, gently letting them know that whatever happens, they will be just fine.

Corinne McKenna

¹  English Schools in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen, 1973.
²  Christopher Hibbert, The English: A Social History 1066-1945.
³  Christopher Hibbert, The English: A Social History 1066-1945.
⁴  Ibid
⁵  Christopher Symons, A History of Oswestry School, 2007.
⁶  A History of Oswestry School, 2007.
⁷  d was an abbreviation for penny, taken from the Latin word 'denarius'.
⁸  Ibid
⁹  It is important to note that I am using the term ‘illiterate’ in the modern sense.  As explained in Eliot & Rose (eds) A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 205):

"it was a commonplace of medieval schoolroom practice that legere (meaning 'reading' in the sense of pronouncing the text correctly) preceded intellegere (meaning 'understanding' the text through grammar and vocabulary). Children might learn 'reading' at home from their parents using a primer, but they could only achieve 'understanding' in a grammar school– and these schools were restricted to boys. Because women got no schooling in grammar (which meant Latin), they missed out on learning to write as well, since writing was taught by copying out the alphabet and Latin vocabulary. Even though signatures (instead of seals) were increasingly being required from women as men to authenticate legal documents, the numbers of women who could write in 1500 may have been as low as 1 percent of the population.

"Inability to write contrasts with the large numbers who might have been able to read, at least in the restricted medieval sense of legere. Derek Brewer estimates that in England 'probably more than half the population could read, though not necessarily also write, by 1500.' . . . This estimate depends on the number who might have been instructed–in the home rather than at school–in the basics of the reading primer. Certainly by 1500, and probably as early as 1200, writing had become familiar to the whole medieval population: as noted above, 'everyone knew someone who could read.". . . 

¹⁰  Nicholas Orme, English Schools in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen, 1973
¹³  Christopher Hibbert, The English: A Social History 1066-1945
¹⁴  Sean McGlynn, Pueri Sunt Pueri: Machismo, Chivalry, and the Aggressive Pastimes of the Medieval Male Youth, Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, Vol. 42, No. 1, Special Issue: Gender and Status in the Medieval World (SPRING 2016), pp. 88-100

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