Thursday, June 11, 2009

Question from Jacque - Gentry boys education

What would have been included in the education of a boy of higher rank (e.g. gentry)? What would they have been taught that girls were not? Was French considered something that ought to be learned?


  1. This is actually a fairly difficult question to answer, because the answer is entirely dependent on a number of variables. What decade of the Tudor period are we talking about? How are you defining "gentry"? And where in England does this "gentry" live?

    In very general terms, education for boys and men of the gentry (defined as non-aristocratic persons without noble title and with an annual income of less than a few hundred pounds per year) was very limited at the beginning of the Tudor period and significantly more extensive at the end. Remember that at the beginning of the century, perhaps only about 15% of the population could read and write. Education was also more readily available and of a higher quality in urban areas and the south and east, less so in the north and west and in rural areas. And it could cost a great deal of money: hiring a tutor in a northern rural area with few other educational opportunities might cost twenty or so pounds per year. That was a lot of money to a family making only 100 pounds per year ... itself a substantial income.

    Of those who were educated, reading came first, writing later or not at all. English was the principal language, of course. Those who really wanted "to get ahead" also learned Latin, if there was a Latin tutor available. Some learned French, but it was not considered essential.

    In addition to basic grammar, a boy might also learn some rhetoric and formal logic. The truly well educated went on to learn basic mathematics and geometry, plus the rudiments of philosophy and astronomy, as well as music. If he was lucky enough, and if his family was wealthy enough or if he had a wealthy patron, he might "go up" to one of the universities, Oxford or Cambridge. There he would study philosophy, theology, or law. At university, one might also study Greek and other languages.

    For girls, especially gentry girls, education was usually limited to learning some very basic reading. Girls often did not learn to write. Nor did they usually learn logic, rhetoric, or math and geometry. Instead, they learned "the domestic arts," such as household management, sewing and weaving, embroidery, and perhaps a little music. Girls did not attend university in England until the 19th century. Gentry girls seldom learned foreign languages.

    But again, this is all very general, and circumstances could vary depending on the family's location, income, and ambition.

  2. There is a book, Medieval Schools by Nicholas Orme, that has some information pertinent to your query about French language instruction.

    "By the second half of the fifteenth century French had largely disappeared for administrative [government] purposes, and its chief learners had probably shrunk to the nobility, gentry and merchants. Members of the first two groups still learnt it as a cultural accomplishment in order to read French literature or converse with French people, and those of the third group because of their business links with francophone regions. Henry VIII and his elder brother Arthur had a French tutor ... who was a native of France and their sisters (and other aristocratic girls) appear to have studied the language ... Lesser people are likely to have continued to acquire it from specialised teachers or by using treatises ..."

    Orme notes that two "French for Dummies" book were published in the late 1490s; William Caxton published a "phrase book in parallel columns, French and English," and printers Richard Pynson and Wynkyn de Worde issued A Gode Boke to Lerne to Speke French. "By 1500, French was the language of a foreign country ... but it remained the most obvious foreign language for English people to learn, and held on to a secure if limited base among the wealthy and commercial ranks of society."

    As a result, there continued to be a market for French primers. In 1523, John Palsgrave, the prebend of St. Paul's, made a deal with Pynson for "Another indenture for printing 750 copies of 'Lesclarcissement de la lange Francoys,' containing three sundry books, wherein is showed how the said tongue should be pronounced in reading and speaking, and also such grammatical rules as concern the perfection of the said tongue; with two vocabulists, one beginning with English nouns and verbs expounded in French, and a general vocabulist containing all the words of the French tongue expounded in English ..." (Letters & Papers)

  3. Elizabeth of York asked Isabella of Castile to make sure Catherine of Aragon learned to speak French before coming to England, as that was the language spoken at the English court -- but I've never seen any real evidence that Tudor-era courtiers conversed mainly in French. Perhaps Henry VII was comfortable in that language since he spent many years in Brittany; Elizabeth of York was instructed carefully in French when she was engaged to the Dauphin of France. So what she might have meant was that French was a reasonable middle way for Catherine to communicate with her new in-laws and the upper classes, since Spanish was apparently not widely known in England and foreigners could not be expected to learn English (although Catherine did, and acquired striking facility).

    Sir Thomas Boleyn's rise to favor seems to have come about partly through his proficiency in French. I think he may be a good example of a "gentry" boy carefully taught French both by the book but more importantly by sojourns abroad, through the connections of his merchant father and on repeated missions to France. His aristocratic brother-in-law Norfolk, by contrast, seems to have learned his French only by book, and an antiquated book at that -- while on an embassy in France he wrote a letter complaining that while he is speaking French, no one else in the country appears to do so. Sir Thomas Boleyn made sure his daughters (and possibly his son, but we don't have any records) got the foreign-language-immersion experience by placing them at the French and Burgundian courts.

    Cromwell, from a much lower walk of life than Sir Thomas, spoke French fluently, which helped immensely in his diplomatic encounters with Chapuys and others. He learned it on the hoof rather than by formal instruction, having traveled in Europe through his youth, possibly at one point as a mercenary soldier on the French side in Italy. Unlike Sir Thomas, he seems to have preferred a book-learning approach to French for his son Gregory, with apparently three tutors or crammers focused on the task at one point.

    Throughout Letters & Papers there are references to people being able or not able to speak French, particularly in reference to diplomatic missions, suggesting that it is a valued accomplishment, one that made sense for an ambitious gentry family to pursue for their children. The Regent Mary of Hungary demanded an English envoy who could speak French, for example; Stephen Vaughan, Cromwell's agent, wrote to his master saying that he wanted to learn French but Palsgrave refused to lend him the book; the French ambassador Marillac complains that the king is sending someone to France who "speaks French badly, as one who has never been out of England ..." and in 1540, explaining how the executed Cromwell's offices will be distributed, reports snarkily, "For affairs of justice they have deputed the Chancellor who, among other virtues, can speak neither French nor Latin" (as much law and legal procedure was in Latin and old French); the Lisle letters are full of young Master James' odyssey with the French tongue and his longing to acquire the "esprit" of a Frenchman in discussion with the natives.


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