Education in the medieval period was the prerogative of the Church, especially during the early medieval period.
Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it was under the Frankish ruler Charlemagne that a concerted campaign began to offer education to the people. Beginning in the late 8th century, monasteries and cathedrals started establishing schools of their own where they would educate young boys in a variety of sciences.
Most of the secular education was concerned with classical Greek and Roman subjects while a significant section of the taught syllabi comprised religious education.
The Church played a very significant role in medieval education. At the time of Charlemagne’s ascension, the Roman heritage and culture of Western Europe had largely been forgotten. It was the Church and its bishops and monks who continued learning and teaching classical subjects such as grammar, rhetoric, and logic.
As a result, when Charlemagne sought to have his subjects educated, he had to turn to the Church. This remained the case not just in France but also elsewhere throughout Europe until at least the High Middle Ages. The Church, as the primary patron of arts and education, would remain the key institution that aided in imparting education to medieval Europe.
A wide range of subjects was taught as part of education during the medieval period. In grammar schools which typically fell under a large church, subjects such as Latin, rhetoric, Greek, and basic sciences such as arithmetic were taught. Towards the later medieval period, this list included geography and a number of other natural sciences as well.
In monastic schools which were directly associated with monastic orders, a wider latitude was exercised in the choice of subjects. Such schools typically taught directly from the rich treasure-trove of Greek and Roman books, often exploring even such subjects as physics, philosophy and botany.
Education in the early medieval period was imparted and overlooked by the Church. Frankish king Charlemagne was among the first in medieval Europe to support formal education. Medieval education institutions were of three types
The first university in medieval Europe was established in Italy in 1088. Only 5% of the European population had any formal education by 1330. If a peasant or serf family attained education without the permission of the nobility, they were fined.
The establishment of universities in Europe began in the 11th century. The primary purpose of a university was to provide advanced education to those who had already attained formal education in a monastic or grammar school. Initially, universities fell under an ecclesiastical authority such as the Church, and the students, as well as teachers at the universities, enjoyed significant privileges.
A wide range of subjects was taught at the universities which included arithmetic, geometry, music theory, astronomy, rhetoric, logic, grammar, metaphysics, physics, and moral philosophy.
Once a student had attained sufficient education in these subjects, he could go on to follow a specific field such as theology or law, or medicine. Typically, he then had to spend another few years pursuing the specific literature of that field before qualifying for the practice of say, law or medicine.
Until the High Middle Ages, formal education for serfs or peasants was simply never considered. Education was mostly limited to the nobility or the rich and wealthy.
It was towards the late High Middle Ages that this began to change as more and more members of the nobility started to support education for the common person. Even in this period, a peasant or serf could get an education only with the permission of his lord.