Mediaeval German Schools -- By: James Davie Butler

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 039:155 (Jul 1882)
Article: Mediaeval German Schools
Author: James Davie Butler


Mediaeval German Schools1

James Davie Butler

Here G. 50:Kriegk, the archivist of Frankfort on the Mayn, has published several volumes gleaned from the city archives. Among these gatherings, not the least curious relate to German popular education before the era of Luther.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica “Luther first brought the schoolmaster into the cottage,” and he is generally regarded as, with Melancthon, the originator of the German school system, so that before his time popular education was non-existent. The truth, however, turns out to be, not that Luther was the father of the common school, but that the common school was the father of Luther. His first rudiments were acquired in Mansfield, a village which even now has no more than fifteen hundred inhabitants, and elementary instruction was afforded to him in a school there, either gratuitously, if his father was too poor to pay, as was probably the fact, or for the merest trifle, and that from a teacher probably salaried by the state. Nor is there reason to suppose similar establishments to have been then either uncommon or of recent origin.

But the clearest proof that German schools for the people may be traced in some cases more than three centuries

backward from Luther’s boyhood may be found in the researches of Herr Kriegk. This antiquarian at first noticed in the archives that bills against the city by mechanics, as glaziers and locksmiths, were made out in the handwriting of the mechanics themselves. He also observed that in the chronicles of mediaeval guilds or trades-unions the statutes were subscribed with the names of members, and showed the autograph of every man. The Frankfort book of the locksmith brotherhood, for instance, contained signers by hundreds for a century and more onward from the year 1417. None of them, though they came from all sections of Germany, made their marks. He also met with a gift of thirty-five gold gulden in 1477 by a pewterer to a convent to provide books “useful for the common folk.”

Herr Kriegk was at length convinced that the mechanics of the Middle Ages could write, and indeed that they and their wives were better educated than their contemporary nobles and even princes. In 1407 the landgrave of Thuringia confessed that he had never been in a school. In the thirteenth century, also, the pre-eminent knightly minstrel, Wolfram von Eschenbach, could neither write nor read. In fact, reading and writing were despised by the ruling class as unknightly, priestly, womanish, and effeminating arts; just as the fine arts had seemed to Virgil,You must have a subscription and be logged in to read the entire article.
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