Back to School in the Dark Ages

It’s the first week of September, and back to school fever has gripped the land. My Facebook feed is full of “first day of…” photos, and everywhere kids big and small are getting back into the routine of teachers, classes, and new friends.

So, I thought this might be a good week to talk about what “school” looked like in the Dark Ages….specifically, of course, in Britain in the 7th century, as that is when my book is set. However, to a greater or lesser degree most of what I will write here will be typical of most of life in Anglo-Saxon England in the early Middle Ages (5th – 10th century AD), and even to a point for those in Celtic Britain at that time as well.

You might be surprised to learn that there even was something such as “school” way back then. I mean, everybody in the Dark Ages was pretty much ignorant and illiterate, weren’t they? A bunch of peasants who had to spend all of their days scrabbling out a meagre existence while fighting off hordes of Vikings and barbarians. They didn’t have time for school!


Mostly wrong, anyway. Hopefully some of the previous posts I have done on life in the early Middle Ages in Britain will have given you some cause to be skeptical about those statements. However, there is actually some truth mixed in with the myths there.

First of all, was everyone in the Dark Ages ignorant and illiterate? My answer to that would be yes and no. Certainly most people would not know how to read, making them illiterate. But ignorant? Hm….

The schools during the 7th century were run by the Church. This is because Christianity is a religion very much based on a book, and in order for people to be able to understand and, more importantly, teach the religion to others, they had to know how to read. So from the very beginning the Church had a strong emphasis on literacy, and schools were quickly established along with the monasteries and cathedrals which began to flourish after Augustine came to Britain (to Canterbury, in Kent) with forty monks in 597 AD to evangelize the island.

Just a quick note here…the British/Celtic parts of the island (roughly Wales, Ireland and some parts of modern-day Scotland) didn’t exactly need (nor want, for the most part) Augustine’s help. The Church there was going strong, in an unbroken line from the days of Roman Occupation, which had come to a halt some two hundred years before. That was because those areas had never really been conquered by Rome, and so when the troops left to defend the Empire against the barbarian hordes and the rest of the island fell into chaos, vulnerable to the Germanic and local barbarians who came a-callin’ on all those rich, Romano-British estates and villages, the Celts sailed merrily along as they had been all along, Christian churches (and their schools) and all.

I don’t want to give the impression, however, that little Ecgfrith and Egbert were trotting off to school each day with an apple for the teacher and books slung over their shoulders. A lagre part of the population were peasants, working hard to survive (but not fighting off the Vikings. They came later. They had to deal with warring kings and raids from nasty people, though). Schooling was, for the most part, for the privileged few. The schools weren’t exactly large, with probably less than a dozen or so pupils each. These were oblates (children gifted to the Church as an act of piety), or, children of high-ranking nobles or kings whose families could afford the fee the Church charged for this service (grants of land, sheep, cows, whatever…).

But if you were one of the lucky ones and got to go to school, from all accounts the education you received was of a very high standard, to the point where by the end of the eight century the English schools which had produced such scholars such as Bede and Alcuin were seen as some of the finest in all of Europe.

It’s worth pointing out, as well, that it was not only boys who got to attend these schools. The double monasteries such as Hild’s at Whitby or Brigid’s at Kildare also educated the women in their care, many of whom would become able administrators of double monasteries of their own. As a matter of fact, both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures gave women more freedom and rights than what came after the Norman Conquest. The Normas brought with them the Roman Continental ideas about the place of women in society which prevailed until well into the 20th century. Gee, thanks, William….

So what were the students studying in those schools? Keeping in mind that the main point of the schools was to educate Christian leaders who then could spread the Gospel, one of the main focuses was, of course, to teach the Christian faith. As mentioned previously, in order to do that, they needed to read the Bible. And in order to do that, they had to learn Latin, for at this point there were no Anglo-Saxon translations of the Bible available. So a pretty rigorous study of Latin was a large part of the curriculum. The young oblates were first given the task of memorizing the psalter (the Book of Psalms), followed by the Wisdom books (Wisdom, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the Book of Job*).

The students would use wax tablets for practicing their letters, which could be “erased” fairly easily and was much less expensive than paper!

As the students got more proficient in Latin, more difficult pieces would be tackled, classical works from both Christian-Latin poets as well as other classical poets such as Horace or Vergil. In fact the schools mainly followed the course of study set out in classical Latin education. This was broken up into the trivium, which included grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and the quadrivium, made up of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony/musical theory. The quadrivium was not as thoroughly covered, it seems, as the trivium, although one of the subjects definitely taught would have been the tricky subject of computus. 

Computus was the method by which one determined when the movable feasts of the Church would fall in the calendar year. Most particularly they were concerned with Easter, as it is dependent on the moon’s cycle. I tried to find a short description of the difficulties of this, but honestly I’m not sure I understand it well enough to describe it. For example, here’s part of the explanation from Wikipedia:

In principle, Easter falls on the Sunday following the full moon that follows the northern spring equinox (the paschal full moon). However, the vernal equinox and the full moon are not determined by astronomical observation. The vernal equinox is fixed to fall on 21 March (previously it varied in different areas and in some areas Easter was allowed to fall before the equinox). The full moon is an ecclesiastical full moon determined by reference to a lunar calendar, which again varied in different areas.

Er, ok. Bede used a perpetual calendar, an Easter table, tables for finding the moon’s age and the weekday, arithmetic tables, instructions for calculating and documents related to the history of the calendar in order to write his two textbooks on computus. It rather boggles the mind, doesn’t it? In fact, one could argue that this need to figure out exactly when Easter would fall each year was a major impetus for the study of astronomy.


This is Byrhferth’s Diagram, from the Thorney Computus, an volume dedicated to texts and graphics explaining computus, made in the 10th century. This image is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in the description it says this diagram shows “the harmony of the twelve months and four elements, of time and the material world. The tables on the opposite page show a series of diagrams used for determining lunar cycles, days of the week, and divination diagrams based on numerical values assigned to the letters.” Alrighty then. 



Of course if you didn’t have all those charts and whatnot handy, medieval scholars invented a manual method to calculate Easter (you never know when the King might need to know, after all….). One would use your hand to counting on the fingers (but not the thumbs, apparently!) and around the palm, allocating each joint and finger specific pieces of information such as the months, seasons, etc. Image from Voynich Imagery

So. Not just “Dick and Jane”, but computus, mathematics, classical Latin poets, and the Bible. And maybe a sprinkling of geometry or music. Those Anglo-Saxons who could afford to be educated (or who were plopped in the monastery by their parents) had a pretty vigorous education indeed, don’t you think?

Just be glad you don’t have to help your Grade 5 student with computus or conjugating Latin verbs!

*Astute readers may note that this list contains some books of what Protestants now call the Apocrypha. That is because these books, at that time, were accepted parts of the canon of Scripture. They weren’t taken out of Protestant Bibles until 1647, and some Catholic Bibles still include them.







Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

I find as I do research on the so-called Dark Ages that time and time again, my preconceived notions about what life must have been like have been proven wrong. It’s hard to fight against the popular culture’s perception of the Early Middle Ages, that perception that people’s lives were “nasty, brutish, and short.” The Roman Empire had collapsed, the barbarian hordes had destroyed civilization as we know it, and the world was plunged into a cultural, scientific, and artistic darkness that would last until the Renaissance.

Some of that is true, up to a point. But the more I read about this time period, the more I find ways in which all of those assumptions are challenged.

Take medicine, for example. How did people treat the various diseases or injuries they suffered? I don’t know about you, but what springs to my mind is a muttering priest praying over a patient or a cackling crone stirring up a brew of some entirely unhelpful mix of ingredients, and administering it, along with a spell or two, to the sick.  Mainly, I imagine that people died of things that are easily cured today, and that people then had no idea of how the human body worked or how to fix anything that might go wrong with it.

Well, the truth is skirting around the edges of those ideas, to be sure, but perhaps, like me, you will be surprised to discover exactly how medicine was practiced in those days.

First of all, I have explained before about how the lack of written material from this era makes it hard for us to understand the customs and people of the day. But surprisingly, there are around five hundred leaves of connected medical texts in Old English that survive from this time period. So when you think about how little written material we have, to have this many medical texts surviving gives you a clue that there must have been a lot of medical texts available at the time.

The most important of these texts, called Bald’s Leechbook, presumably owned or named after a physician named Bald, comes to us from the ninth century, but is a copy of a work from about fifty years before. A leech was another name for a physician, because, yes, they did use leeches to treat some ailments (they are surprisingly effective in reducing swelling and bruising after an injury, because they are great at sucking blood out). It is a compilation of the best of medical knowledge stretching back to the Roman and Greek empires, and ultimately back to the celebrated Roman physician, Galen.

This gives us an important clue that the medical knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was not lost in Dark Ages Britain. From references in Bede’s histories, we see that both laymen and clerics were named physicians. And from looking at the remedies prescribed in the Leechbook and from other sources, we can see that a wide variety of cures and treatments for various maladies and injuries were available to the Anglo-Saxon physicians of the time. Most of these were plant-based herbal remedies, made up of both locally available plants and even some exotic ingredients such as cinnamon, pepper, or ginger, that would have been obtained from the far East through Arabic traders into the Continent, finally reaching Britain.

Some of these ingredients were helpful, some neutral, and some harmful. Others, containing ingredients such as garlic, onion, oxgall and copper salts, are very useful indeed against bacterial infection.

Just how useful was proven in 2015. Microbiology experts at the University of Nottingham recreated a recipe that was meant to be an eye salve, for eye infections. At the time, of course, physicians had no idea of bacteria or viruses, but found this recipe effective against eyes that were inflamed and sore. The university scientists recreated the recipe, consisting of crushed garlic and onion, 25 ml of English wine (which they obtained from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury) and bovine salts dissolved in distilled water. Bovine salts consist of dried bile from a cow’s intestine, in case you were wondering (I had to look it up, too!).

They thought it might have some positive effect, based on the ingredients, and made a large batch, which they tested on one of today’s antibiotic-resistant superbugs named MRSA. To their great astonishment, the mixture wiped out almost 90% of the MRSA bacteria. They cannot completely explain this, for the ingredients, separately, will not have the same effect. So it is the combination of the ingredients mixed together that prove effective, and they cannot, as of yet, explain why or how. Research is continuing.

There is evidence from studying skeletons found from this era, and from treatments prescribed in the Leechbook,  that surgery was also attempted at this time, and in some cases, successfully. Amputations for gangrenous limbs, using silk thread to suture abdominal wounds, and even plastic surgery in terms of suturing cleft palates was practiced.

Even brain surgery. Yes. Some skulls from this period (and even from pre-historic times, believe it or not) show evidence of trepanation. This is the drilling of a hole through the skull to expose the dura mater that covers the brain. This could be done after a head injury, to clean out the bits of bone and blood that collect under the skull and relieve pressure and pain that results. If you have ever drilled a hole in a fingernail to relieve that throbbing pain that results from an injury to a finger where blood is collecting under the nail, you get the idea.*

Even more astonishing than the fact they attempted this is the fact that the patient often survived, as shown by the trepanned holes in the skulls being edged with new bony growth, meaning the person lived for some time after.


A trepanned skull of a 50 year old woman from 3500 BC (!), France.  Yup, she survived this (see the rounded edges of the bone?). That’s one huge hole….This procedure wasn’t always just for head injuries. Condidtions such as epilepsy or other psycological ailments could have trepanning as a “cure” – to let the “evil spirits” out. Image from wikicommons

There is, however, some “darkness” in Dark Ages medicine. There were certainly things that physicians could treat – mending broken bones, infections resulting from wounds, etc. However, there were maladies that they had no understanding of the causes and therefore had to resort to guessing how to fix it, or to charms. Things such as eczema or allergic reactions, or even the plague, would have been beyond their understanding as they didn’t know about the causes of these and so could not treat them.

Enter the Lacnunga (“Remedies”), a tenth century collection of medical and related materials. It is this collection that has given Dark Ages medicine it’s bad name, so to speak, for here we find the various remedies for ailments that involve charms, incantations, and other odd practices. Often they are a combination of ancient pagan practices with Christian prayers or symbolism. So we have, for example, this charm:

If cysts pain a man at the heart, let a virgin go to a spring which runs straight east, and draw forth one cup full, with [in the direction of?] the current, and sing thereon the Creed and Pater noster, and then pour it into another vessel; and let him/her draw again a second and sing again the Creed and the Pater noster; and do so that you have three [cupfuls]; do this nine days; soon he will be well.


The first page of the Lacnunga. Image from


Here we see sacred waters (the spring), running east (the direction of the coming Day of the Lord, when Christ will rise in the east), the virgin (note male or female), the number three, the number nine, the Creed (the Apostle’s Creed, the fundamental beliefs of every Christian), the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer). This is a marvellous mixture of both pagan and Christian elements, and it shows in a very elemental way how the culture of the time was being tugged between these two belief systems, just as do Beowulf and the insular art of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

But as a medical treatment for “cysts of the heart” (whatever that may be), it is, of course, useless. Except in the giving of hope, which as we all know, is a powerful kind of medicine all in itself, so it’s not to say that these charms were always ineffective.

So were Dark Ages physicians simply ignorant hacks that killed more patients than they cured, using guesses and folklore to treat their patients?

I believe the evidence says no. As the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England states, 

If we can trust the evidence of the surviving medical literature it appears that Anglo-Saxon medicine was no worse than any other of its day, and that at its best it was probably better than most.

And maybe even better than our own, in treating MRSA, at any rate!

*I never, ever do this. My hubby has done this to himself. I can’t watch. I can’t even imagine doing this to treat a head injury. “Come here, Ecbert. Let me drill into your head with this big drill. It will make you feel better. Honest. “ Yikes. They were made of sterner stuff than I, to be sure.


Featured image: a facisimle page from Bald’s Leechbook, from Wikipedia

Book Review: The Genesis of Science, by James Hannam

Published 2011 by Regnery Publishing, ISBN 978-1-5968-155-3

I picked up this book intrigued by the title, and soon found that it was a great treasure-trove of information. In this book  James Hannam, a physicist and historian of science, pulls back the curtain on Medieval Europe and puts short shift to many of the myths surrounding the so-called Dark Ages (which for many people means the whole of the Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance), including:

  • people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat
  • the Inquisition executed people because of their scientific ideas or discoveries
  • the Middle Ages was a time of intellectual stagnation, superstition, and ignorance

In this book you will discover that all of the above are not true, and in fact that medieval philosophers, scientists, and theologians did much to lay the ground work for our modern scientific methods and were well on the way to discovering many important scientific principles of their own, hampered only by faulty premises handed down to them by their Greco-Roman predecessors. It seems they revered Aristotle a little too much!

In particular I appreciated the author’s take on the role of the Church in fostering and encouraging new ideas. Hamman demonstrates how the education made possible by the Church allowed for the flourishing of science, math, and philosophy. This is a far different view promulgated by most in our society today. In fact my eldest son told me one of his recent philosophy professors taught his class the three misconceptions listed above. Hamman shows us that the supposition that the Church had a large part in suppressing scientific thought and discoveries comes from the Enlightenment and writers such as Thomas Huxley and John Draper. The Protestant Reformation did not help matters, for it suited early Protestant writers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to promote the idea that the “Catholic” church had taught nothing of value before the Reformation. Writers such as Voltaire, who saw the Catholic Church as being in cahoots with the French monarchy, again cast aspersions on medieval thought and discoveries.

All of these threads bring us to today, and our assumptions that the medieval time gave us nothing of value scientifically, that the Church was responsible for holding back the progress of science, and was in fact anti-reason. Hamman does a great job of methodically showing us that this is very far from being true.

This book is fairly easy to read, given its weighty subject matter. I will admit to getting lost a time or two. Some of the philosophical debates and scientific principles covered in the book are tricky to understand, although I think the author does a good job of explaining these fairly difficult concepts to the average lay reader, like me. I’m sure that those who have more knowledge than myself on these topics would find it even more interesting!

Hannam covers many fascinating topics, including medicine, alchemy and astrology, anatomical discoveries, heresy and reason, the Merton Calculators, and many more. The final chapters delve into the story of Galileo, and show that his execution was all about politics, not science.

I love books like these that can take our view of the world and turn it upside down. It’s a great challenge to examine carefully our own suppositions, to see if we are simply parroting the “party line”.

What’s your opinion of the progress of science throughout history and the role of the Church in promoting or suppressing it? Is your opinion based on fact or propaganda? This book challenges us to examine the facts, and in doing so, I learned a whole lot more about an era that I thought I knew quite a lot about already.

I recommend this book – it will certainly teach you and stretch your thinking, neither of which is a bad thing.