Early Medieval Monastic Education, Continued

This post builds on my previous post on the topic and is most definitely a work in progress… There are probably a number of changes that I need to make ranging from points of fact to broader issues of structure.


Basic grammar was taught through the study of Donatus, the pagan grammarian who instructed the young Jerome. While Donatus might be studied directly, many of the authors of the English church produced grammars of their own, mostly working off Donatus. We have grammars written by Tatwine (around 700), Alcuin, the missionary Boniface (around 716), and other anonymous English authors. Ælfric himself wrote an English-language grammar based on Donatus and an excerpted edition of Priscian that covers topics like the cases and endings of Latin nouns and verbs and the various parts of speech. As with other Christian authors, he frequently provides examples of Latin usage directly from the Psalms and liturgy. For instance, his discussion of adverbs is reinforced by the phrase “But thou, O Lord, have mercy on me and raise me up” which is simultaneously a quotation from the Psalms (VgPs 40:11) and the response to the readings in the Night Office.

As the young oblates learned the grammar of the texts that they were singing in choir, they were instructed in the music they were singing as well. The Cluniac customaries from the time of Ælfric and in the century after lay out the heavy liturgical demands on the oblates:

[They] pronounce the versicles of each psalm at all the canonical hours, intone the antiphons on ferial days, and intone whatever is sung at the morning mass, unless it is a major feast day; at Lauds and Vespers, they sing a responsory and say the versicles; in the summer at Matins they say the single short lesson; they always read in chapter, never in the refectory.[1]

In a time when music notation was still in the process of development, the chief mode of learning was still oral. Monastic customaries from Cluny during the period describe the oblates sitting in the chapter house, learning the chant from a teacher singing it to them. These records also describe the cantor coming by and checking up on the learning process. Each day, he would listen to the oblates to be sure that they had learned the music correctly from their instructor before they sung in the services, and he was the one responsible for disciplining the boys if they made any errors in the singing as well. If learning the psalms was a long and complicated affair, learning all of the music was even moreso; Guido of Arezzo mentions that it took roughly 10 years to master the entire musical corpus of the Mass and Office.

Memorization of the psalter and its music leads naturally into the study of its meaning. As the students gained literacy, they would not only grasp the meaning of the Latin words, but would begin to pick up insights about what the text meant to them and for them. As the marginal interpretive glosses in the Regius Psalter indicate, monastic students usually began their search for meaning through the commentary of Cassiodorus.

Cassiodorus was a fifth century monastic teacher who achieved a synthesis of Classical and Christian edification at his Southern Italian monastery, the Vivarium.  This synthesis is reflected in his commentary. On one hand it draws from traditional Christian readings of the psalms, predominately from St Augustine’s sermons. On the other, he takes care to point out the figures of speech and thought as he sees them, demonstrating that—as he saw it—David prefigured the schoolmasters’ flowers of rhetoric and that sound rhetorical knowledge was an advantage in mining the deeper meanings of Scripture. While Augustine’s On Christian Teaching recommends a knowledge of these techniques, the African saint does not offer it there; what Augustine failed to convey, Cassiodorus provides. Thus, the schemes and tropes of Classical wisdom are important for true monastic literacy because of their primary function in making the meaning of Scripture—and particularly the Psalms—more available.

Once the Psalter was well in hand, other works would be added. Ælfric’s Colloquy would have been part of this late primary education. By describing the world and society about them, the young monks were gaining a facility in describing events and activities for which the Psalms offered no vocabulary. While the psalms speak wonderfully about the soul’s various emotions towards God or about the travails of the Israelites, the vocabulary for negotiating an average medieval day in the monastery was lacking and required this additional supplement.

In addition, the students were now ready for the five core texts of the Anglo-Saxon monastic curriculum: the pseudepigraphal Distiches of Cato, Prosper of Aquitaine’s Epigrams,  Juvencus’s Books of the Four Evangelists, Caelius Sedulius’s Paschal Song, and Arator’s On the Acts of the Apostles.[2]

The proverbs ascribed to Cato are not explicitly Christian, but contain brief wise sayings reminiscent of the biblical book of Proverbs. Prosper’s work was similar, but explicitly Christian. Prosper of Aquitaine was a dedicated student of Augustine, and his epigrams are brief distillations of Augustinian thought in a neatly packaged, easily memorized format.  The glosses written into the surviving editions of these works from the Anglo-Saxon period are largely grammatical—helping to identify what part of speech various words are or clarifying what a clause refers to—showing that these books were still used relatively early in the learning process.

The other three books are poetic paraphrases of New Testament Scripture. Juvencus was a Spanish Christian poet of the fourth century who wrote the earliest surviving paraphrase of the Gospels in Latin epic verse. His treatment is a fairly straightforward harmonization of the four Gospels in metered hexameter verse. Caelius Sedulius likewise composed a Latin epic in hexameters based on the Gospels and the life of Christ, but where Juvencus stays fairly close to his source material, Caelius Sedulius goes farther afield. Sedulius uses miracles and the miraculous power of God as the orienting theme of his work. Of the five books of the Paschal Song, the first describes miracles from the Old Testament that either point to or show the power of Christ before launching into the story of Christ with a particular focus on his miracles in the other four books.

The readings from the Gospels in the Mass and the Night Office are disjointed; they appear in the form of brief several-verse excerpts that are arranged to follow the liturgical year and its cycles, not the narrative stream. As a result, Juvencus was probably a monastic student’s first presentation of the whole story of the Incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus. Sedulius, then, would be a student’s first introduction to the interpretation of the Gospels.

Just as Sedulius issued an improved and interpreted edition of what Juvencus wrote, Arator’s epic treatment of Acts is itself an imitation and elaboration of Sedulius. Arator’s central focus is the mystical interpretation of the events of Acts; he weaves allegorical interpretation and moral exhortation in to the fabric of his paraphrase. Again, this text would have been an early example for monastic students on the art of the spiritual reading of the Bible.

Doubtless other Scripture would be studied at this point. The youths of the monastery participated within its liturgical life as soon as they were able, and once they were ordained to the grade of lector were expected to read in the services and refectories. As a result, the young students would begin to be exposed to a variety of Scripture texts as they were able to read them.

A look into further learning comes through a more advanced set of colloquies. Ælfric’s own Colloquy is clearly intended for introductory students gaining basic fluency in Latin. We also possess intermediate and advanced colloquies from one of Ælfric’s students named Ælfric Bata. While the master’s colloquy presents us with a scene of several village boys sitting at the feet of their master learning, Ælfric Bata provides a colorful set of colloquies that walk through the monastic day with a rambunctious set of boys who alternately cheat on their homework, get threatened with beatings by their angry teacher for failing their lessons, and break monastic rules in a variety of ways. Indeed, one dialogue consists almost entirely of Latin words for the different kinds of agricultural manure used as insults traded between master and teacher!

For this point, it becomes more difficult to trace the direction of monastic instruction. We can say for certain that works like Aldhelm’s On Virginity in both its prose and poetic form were studied at centers of learning like Winchester,  but whether monks at smaller houses would have encountered it is another story altogether. The question has to shift from what was read to what was available. When we picture a medieval monastic library in our mind’s eye, we probably think of a building or tower filled with books—like the great library depicted cinematically in Name of the Rose. The reality, though, was far more basic. The library of the average monastery of the time contained no more than fifty books. Instead of a building, or even a set of large rooms, we should picture a modestly sized cupboard. The great libraries of Benedictine Reform England—like Winchester and Ramsey—probably had twice that number. As a result, the state and shape of intermediate to advanced education depended entirely upon situation and placement of the monastery.

Working from surviving booklists  and manuscripts, there seems to have been a core of roughly 20 titles from the Church Fathers that served as the heart of the monastics’ theological education grouped around four central figures: Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, Forty Gospel Homilies, Morals from Job, and the Pastoral Care; Isidore of Seville’s On the Church Offices, On the Nature of Things, Etymologies, and Synonyms; Jerome’s Letters and Commentary on Matthew; and Augustine’s City of God, On the Trinity, Narrations on the Psalms, Enchiridion, and selected Letters and Sermons. Additionally John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences, Benedict’s Rule, and Rufinius’s translation of Eusebius’s Church History rounded out the list.[3]

It’s only after considering the realities of what the monastics did and didn’t have that the true importance of the homiliaries can be appreciated. By excerpting sermons and homilies from a wide range of orthodox teachers, homiliaries like that of Paul the Deacon played an essential role as a patristic anthology, and exposed the monastics to a breadth of Christian thought and teaching that would have been otherwise

[1] Susan Boynton, “Training for the liturgy as a form of monastic education,” pages 7-20 in Medieval Monastic Education, edited by George Ferzoco and Carolyn Muessig (London: Leicester University Press; 2000), 8.

[2] For a much deeper discussion of these five works and their use in Anglo-Saxon England, see Michael Lapdige, “The Study of Latin Texts in late Anglo-Saxon England,” pages 99-140 in Nicholas Brooks, ed., Latin and the Vernacular Languages in Early Medieval Britain, (Leicester University Press, 1982).

[3] Lapidge’s work on Anglo-Saxon libraries lays out the evidence for these conclusions and should be consulted for a honest appraisal of the state of monastic book collections.


5 thoughts on “Early Medieval Monastic Education, Continued

  1. David

    It’s surprising that in monasteries of this period Scripture seems to have been encountered directly only in the context of the liturgy. For a modern-day Episcopalian, it’s natural for Scripture to have it’s primary home in the liturgy — but I would have expected a monk to encounter the full narrative of the gospel (and the rest of Scripture) by reading it directly before turning to the sources you mention. I realize lectio was probably a much later development, but is there a reason the Bible (or at least a collection of some of the Scriptures) was not one of the 20 or so books in the monastic library?

  2. Derek Olsen

    Yes, there probably will be more—but I’ve been on vacation! :-) We’re following around the US Pro Challenge (cycling tour of Colorado) and post will continue once we get back home.

  3. Dale Crakes

    A bit off topic but have you done any further work on posting from back when?
    Formation and the Ecclesia Anglicana

    Posted on December 8, 2010 by Derek Olsen

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