A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
26: Education and literacy in medieval Devon
Certainly the church was the main focus for literacy in medieval times. Apart from the scriptoria that produced the finer manuscripts, the church also required the keeping of large quantities of legal and adminstrative records. The service books too had additions made to them at various times by a wide range of clergy. This was often to commemorate the dead. For example the Leofric missal, once in Exeter Cathedral, contains seventeen notes of dates of people's deaths probably made before the end of the eleventh century, including both bishops of Exeter and persons from the wider world such as William the Conqueror and Lambert of Spoleto, King of Italy. At a later period dates of death were recorded in a copy of a martyrology written at Exeter in the 12th century. Outside the Cathedral other bodies were inserting details of persons to be commeorated into calendars, for example the parish of St Martin and the Guild of Kalendars. Such lists were drawn up for obits, anniversary services to commemorate the dead, and accounts of these show that some of the income, appropriately, was used to repair or acquire books. For example in the cathedral in 1305 12d was spent to bind two books and later the same year 6d was given for the wages of a binder for binding a gradual and 2d for fastenings for two missals. In 1307 12d was spent on the purchase of an unspecfied book (Lepine 2003, 231-2, 235, 244-5, 273, 278, 285, 303).
With the presence of so many literate clerics it is not surprising that much of medieval education in Exeter centred on the Cathedral. The song school, established to supply trained singers for the choir, is first recorded in 1175. Under the control of the recentor it taught reading, grammar and singing. Thomas of Marlborough went to Evesham in the 1190s taking books of canon and civil law with which he had ruled the schools of Exeter. As time went on the running of the schools fell increasingly into the hands of clerics. From the middle of the twelfth century there are also records of a grammar school under the control of the archdeacon. Teaching here was in Latin and the master had a monopoly of teaching in Exeter and seven miles around. In 1288 the premises were in Smythen Street and new buildings are recorded in the High Street, erected by Dean Walter Brayleigh in 1344. In addition a theology school is mentioned in the twelfth century, controlled by the Chancellor, but from 1314 scholars could complete their studies at Exeter College, Oxford, founded by Bishop Walter de Stapledon for twelve scholars from Devon and Cornwall nominated by the Dean and Chapter of Exeter.
Educational facilities in Exeter grew during the course of the middle ages. In 1332 St John's Hospital was established by Bishop Grandisson to board twelve scholars and a tutor who received education in the high school. Teaching was also provided by the Franciscan friars in the years around 1337 and the Dominican friars in the fifteenth century. (Orme 1976, 205) Some of these facilities were for elementary education. For example William Wynard in 1436 provided for a chaplain to teach the alphabet, reading and psalter to from three to nine boys. In the period 1525-30 the heretic Thomas Bennet is recorded as a schoolmaster in Butcher Row, Exeter, perhaps teaching reading.
These schools would require textbooks and in 1433-48 John Boringdon, master at the high school is known to have written two tracts on grammar: De regimine casibus and Liber communis. Three surviving manuscripts include examples of writings on grammar from medieval Devon (Orme 1976, 51-2). One, Gonville and Caius College Ms. 417/447, was written between about 1450 and 1470 by William Berdon, who is recorded as an acolyte in 1453 and John Smith, who lived in St John's Hospital. It includes John Boringdon's works. Another, British Library Ms. Add. 19046, was written in the mid fifteenth century by John Jonys and witnessed by Peter Carter, both custores of Exeter Cathedral . The third, Bodleian Library MS Rawl. D.328 was written between 1444 and 1483 by Walter Pollard of Plymouth.
St John's Hospital had been in existence before it established a grammar school. Founded in 1184 for the sick poor, it came under episcopal control in 1243 and in the 14th century was following the Augustinian rule. The grammar school came into being shortly after reforms in 1329 had set upan establishment of five priests and an elected master under the supervision of a warden appointed by the bishop. The Hospital attracted a range of scholars. John Westcote, warden in the early 15th century lectured in geometry at Oxford University and was also master of the college at Winchester. While warden at St John's he donated his copy of the sermons of Jacobus de Voragine to the hospital, provided he might retain the use of it for life. The Hospital helped to educate choral scholars from Devon and Cornwall, and attracted clergy whose interests extended to science and history. Three manuscripts are known to have been owned by the Hospital library, each with its own distinctive shelfmark, which suggests a considerable collection of manuscripts. At shelf F2 was Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, now British Library MS Harley 3671. At shelf FA was William of Malmesbury's De gestis regum Anglorum and his Historia novella bound in one volume, now British Library Add MS 38,129. At shelf A27 was a remarkable 15th century volume of figures and tables, now Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 156. This was bound with a biblical dictionary and the volume was probably used as a work of refernce in the school. Its diagrams included prescripts such as commandments and beatitudes which the young choristers would have to learn but there are also vividly colured drawings based on Old Testament descriptions of Solomon's temple and Ezekiels visions with emphasis on numbers and proportions which suggest an interest in the occult. As late as 1523 a manuscript volume of ten medical and alchemical tracts (now British Library Add. MS 27,582) was presented by a priest for the clergy there to pray for his soul. (Rawcliffe 2002, 137-8, 157).
There were also schools elsewhere in medieval Devon. Grammar schools are recorded in Plympton, Ottery, Barnstaple, Crediton and Ashburton, and teaching was also undertaken in the monastic foundations at Hartland, Tavistock, Buckfast, Cornworthy and at the collegiate foundations in Crediton, Ottery and Slapton. In the 16th century schools are also recorded in Braunton, South Molton, Torrington and Tavistock (Orme 1976).
Apart from the learned clerics mentioned elsewhere some other wills of clerics mention books, for example the will of Thomas Boteler, Archdeacon of Tones mentions "the Decreta with my Decretals" bequeathed to his brother in 1263 (Lepine 2003, 142). However an analysis of surving Exeter wills to 1540 has revealed no lay person's will referring to a book. But wills do not tell the whole story of an individual's possessions and culture and few inventories survive. For example it is known that an Exeter citizen Baldwin de Windesore caused a copy of the romance of Guy of Warwick to be written in 1301 (Lepine 2003, 129). That literacy was widespread among Exeter's ruling and merchant classes is seen by the extensive series of medieval records that survive, probably the best for any town outside London.The records were heavily used in legal disputes and there is remarkable evidence for this in the collection of letters written by John Shillingford in the course of a dispute over the areas of jurisdiction of the city and the cathedral. This involved repeated visits to London. Describing proceedings before the Chancellor in a letter from London dated 2 November 1447 he wrote: "Y seide they hadd seide dyvers tymes that they hadde old charters, evidences and munymentis to end the mater; and y seide if they so hadde to bryng ham yn" He sent William Hampton with the letter with a request that all the papers be crefully read. He also sent "a rolle yn the whiche is conteyned copies of Domus Dei [Domesday Book], copy of Eyris, of charters and other thynges that it is necessary to be seye yn makyng of thes repplicacions." He aslo asked for the "blak rolle" to be sent up to London, a compilation containing the customs of the city of Exeter which was considered to be of great authority, so much so that the mayors were sworn in on it. (Shillingford 14, 17). Writing to his deputy in London after Easter 1448 he asked that searches be made to counter the claims of the bishop: "Hit asketh meny grete encerchis; ffyrste, yn oure tresory at home, a monge full meny grete and olde recordis; afterward at Westminster, fyrste yn the Chauncery, yn the Eschecour, yn the Receyt, and yn the Towre; and alle these encerches asketh grete laboure longe tyme" (Shillingford 58). That both sides made use of the results of such research can be seen in the mayor's articles of complaint against the bishop where the history of Exeter is outlined, from the time before the Roman conquest when it was said to be known as Penholtkeyre, long before the Cathedral was established according to "croniclis", and referring to "ceverall letters patentz of divers progenitours of oure soverayn lorde the Kyng and by hym by his letters patentz graunted ratefied and confermed (Shillingford 77). In reply the bishop quoted verbatim from Domesday Book to which the city authorities replied that the quotation could not be held to support the bishop's claims. The case dragged on for at least four years and form only part of a long-running feud between the ecclesiastical and civil authorities where the written records of both bodies were repeatedly used as evidence (Shillingford 77, 105, 114, 116).
This is not the first time that the importance attached to written records has become evident in our story. From the earliest times there had been recourse to documents to establish the rights and privileges of institutions. The two major surviving medieval Exeter archives, those of the city and the Cathedral (both the Dean and Chapter and the Diocese of Exeter) begin to survive in quantity from the 13th century. A list made for bishop Bronescombe in the late 13th century shows little demarcation between the Chapter and the Diocese but this was soon remedied and a detailed and carefully arranged listing of records on a roll 30 feet long survives from about 1500 (Dean & Chapter Ms 2862). Such was the importance attached to these records, especially the charters, that they were normally stored in the treasury. Major series surviving from these early times include Bishops' registers from 1257, Cathedral fabric rolls from 1279, payments for obits from about 1300, Chapter act books from 1382, Mayor's Court rolls from 1263 and Provost Court Rolls from 1328.
Evidence for literacy among Exeter craftsmen can be found in records of the bishops and also of the Corporation which relate to the drama in Exeter. Exeter is one of the first places in the country where a post-Roman theatre is recorded. On 11 July 1348 Bishop Grandisson's register contains a mandate prohibiting the activities of a "sect of malign men under the name of the Order of Brothelingham" who have "set over themselves under the name of Abbot a certain lunatic and raver ... and dressing him in monastic habit, they set him in the theatre". These activities, rather like the Lord of Misrule during festive seasons, also involved processions through the streets when money was extracted from passers by, and the theatre may have been an open space rather than a building, although in 1352 Grandisson again had to intercede, this time to forbid a "harmful and blameworthy play, or rather buffoonery in scorn and insult to the leatherdressers and their craft in the theatre of our City". Apparently leathersellers had been "disposing of their wares at more than the just price" and this was an attack on such abuses. The possible location of any such theatre is unclear.
Corporation records show various payments in the 14th and 15th centuries for theatrical performances ranging from the play of Robin Hood, probably performed on May Day 1427, to processions by the friars of Exeter on Corpus Christi Day which may have included pageants (Radford 1935).
Anything longer than a mime or burlesque would have required a script and there is evidence for this in the Mayor's Court roll for 1413 when John Benet of the Craft of Skinners, apparently objecting to the change of date of the annual play from the feast of Corpus Christi to the Tuesday of Whit Week, witheld the scripts from the actors. The Mayor and Commonalty had determined that "two or three out of every craft in the City must have certain parts of the play called pageants and must find players in sufficient number to act the scenes at their own cost. Certain scenes (paiectos) and speeches (panelli) were extracted from the book (ordinale) of the play in writing and given to John Benet and William Frenssh and others as chief masters of the Craft of the Skinners by Peter Sturte the Mayor, with assent of the Commonalty, so that it could be acted according to the apportionment and effect of its scenes and speeches. On this Tuesday, and before, John Benet went to different actors of these scenes and speeches and persuaded them that they ought not to play their parts. And on the day he kept back divers Panellos alias speches given to the Skinners for the play. So that two scenes that the Skinners were to act on the day were a scandal to the whole city." (Radford 1950, 241-2).
The mention of an ordinale or script which was divided among the various crafts indicates the existence in Exeter of a cycle of plays similar to those for which texts still survive in complete form for York, Chester, Coventry and Townley and in fragmentary form for Cornwall and other places. It also presupposes a certain amount of literacy among craftsmen in Exeter at this time, although lines could be committed to memory by learning parrot-fashion or though regular familiarity, much as we remember Christmas carols today. Mnemonic devices were much more highly developed in the days before printed or written texts were widely available. An example can be seen in one of the earliest blockbooks dating from the 1460s but based on manuscript originals, the Ars memorandi, and people's memories would have been more fully exercised than today.
One prerequisite for the spread of education was a cheaper and more easily available surface to bear writing or, from the later 16th century, printing. paper had reached Europe from China via the Arabs in the mid 12th century with mills in Xativa in Spain and by 1276 had reached the christian part of Europe when a mill is recorded in Fabriano, Italy. The first recorded use in England is 1309 and early examples in Devon include a deed dated 1371 in the records of the Carew family of Haccombe House. In the archives of Totnes is a lease by Henry Bastard dated 1431 (Chope 1920, 33-4).
The letters of John Shillingford, mayor of Exeter, written between 1447 and 1450 are all on paper, but for a long time there was a preference for legal documents to be written on parchment. Shortly after Easter 1448 Shillingford wrote to his deputy in London that articles required in his dispute with the bishop "were delyvered us but a Thursday a fore Palme Sonday, and that full sympelly yn paper, and afterwarde, at oure prayer and request, yn parchement" (Shillingford 55).
The spread of paper was not immediate. In the early days all paper had to be imported and there were no mills in Devon until the late 17th century. When parish registers were introduced in 1538 they were frequently kept on paper. Only in 1598 were they required to be transcribed on parchment. For some types of records parchment continued to be used into the 19th century.
This page last updated 8 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.