Is the use of beating in Medieval classrooms exaggerated?

Posted by ap507 at Nov 20, 2013 11:33 AM |
Dr Ben Parsons explores corporal punishment as a learning aid in Medieval classrooms in AHRC-funded project
Is the use of beating in Medieval classrooms exaggerated?

Durer: A schoolmaster wields his ferula as a mark of authority - Albrecht Durer's woodcut for the ballad Wer recht bescheyden wol warden, 1510 (British Museum).

Dr Ben Parsons from the School of English is currently working on Discipline and Violence in the Medieval Classroom, a research project funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) fellowship.

The project examines writing from the Middle Ages and highlights historical debates on the use of corporal punishment – many of which are echoed in discussions to this day.

The project explains how the picture of “unremitting brutality” in schools at the time put forward by Renaissance writers is sometimes exaggerated - although they were certainly more aggressive than modern schools, medieval writing suggests classroom punishments such as beating, flogging and whipping were carefully regimented and were only meant to be used to aid learning.

Among the reasons given for beating were:

  • pain helped students memorise their mistakes
  • beating could be used to mould the students’ bodies, just as teaching was used to mould their minds
  • fear was “the origin of wisdom”
  • beating could instil morality into the students
  • teachers could use beating to assert control over the students – which teaches them to obey authority

Dr Parsons will outline some of the findings from the research project so far in an upcoming paper titled “The Way of the Rod: the Functions of Beating in Late Medieval Pedagogy”, which is due to appear in the journal Modern Philology next year.