Medieval Business Schools

21 February 2008 at 1:12 am 10 comments

| Peter Klein |

Contrary to popular belief, formal education in medieval times was not restricted to the clergy and the very wealthy. Nor was theology the most popular subject. Independent schools, unaffiliated with any particular religious body or royal institution and staffed by lay people, were common, and even taught business administration (writing letters, drafting contracts, keeping the books).

So says Nicholas Orme in Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England (Yale, 2006). (Thanks to Tom Woods for the pointer.) In Britain, grammar schools were often supported by wealthy patrons and were open to students of modest means. Notes Orme:

Most [English] schoolmasters were probably broad rather than specialized teachers, catering for a wide range of needs, so it is not surprising that a brand of practical teacher emerged by the fourteenth century (at latest), offering more focused instruction for careers in trade and administration. Such instruction might include “dictamen” (the art of writing letters), the methods of drafting deeds and charters, the composition of court rolls and other legal record, and the keeping of financial accounts. Since documents of these kinds were often written in French between 1200 and 1400, the practical teachers came to teach French too.

This illustration, from p. 69 of the book, depicts such a class. How did they do it without PowerPoint?


Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Education, Institutions, Myths and Realities.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. J.Lo  |  21 February 2008 at 5:23 am

    Alas, even acetate slides held over a candle wouldn’t be a possibility at the time. Perhaps serfs held scrolls? That would actually be an improvement over PP.

  • 2. Brian A'Hearn  |  21 February 2008 at 9:56 am

    Math education was business education in the middle ages. Before there could be accounting, there had to be arithmetic. According to some accounts, Arabic numerals were introduced into Europe by a Tuscan merchant, Leonardo of Pisa (a.k.a. Fibonacci), and the existence of numerous commercial/mathematical schools in Renaissance Florence has been documented. Is Orme’s book focused on England?

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  21 February 2008 at 11:52 am

    Brian, what makes you think we actually read the books we blog about?

    Seriously, yes, Orme’s book is focused exclusively on Britain. I don’t believe these Tuscan innovations are mentioned at all.

  • 4. Donald A. Coffin  |  21 February 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Just reinforces my belief that universities (schools, generally) have always been concerned with practical/professional education.

  • 5. Rafe Champion  |  22 February 2008 at 5:58 am

    On a related topic, there was quite a lot of basic school education around before the public education movement put the private “penny schools” out of business. The late Ed West was a great student of the old private school systems and his memory is perpetuated by the E G West Centre.
    There are some great links on the page, including an essay in praise of the Austrian economics of education. Also a lot of reports on private education in the Third World and a page of links to Ed West’s classic works

  • 6. Loki on the run  |  22 February 2008 at 2:19 pm

    Arabic numerals were introduced into Europe by a Tuscan merchant

    Except, of course, they were Hindu numerals. Accuracy is important.

  • 7. Got Medieval  |  25 February 2008 at 8:41 pm

    Not to be picky, but that picture’s clearly labeled ‘a royal counting house.’ Does Orme’s book say that counting houses often served as schools?

  • 8. Peter Klein  |  26 February 2008 at 9:47 am

    That’s a good point. The illustration doesn’t actually depict a business-administration class, but rather the kinds of “useful arts” that would be taught in such a class. I suppose I took artistic (or “blogistic”) license.

  • 9. JC Spender  |  26 February 2008 at 10:46 pm

    As usual I have not been paying sufficient attention to this super-blog. Ouch! So thanks for drawing our attention to Orme’s book, Peter. I was not aware of it. if you have any more like this in your bag of tricks please share.

    On a related note, I have just gotten around to reading the AMJ Issue 6 (2007) with its various styles of breast-beating about the state of business education. We really need to remind everyone who finds this interesting that our activity has a history, and a long one at that. Likewise our problems are far from new. Indeed, they existed already long before the modern age. Most of those writing about our profession’s ‘deficiencies’ and making ‘new proposals’ seem unaware of the heavy hand of history on their shoulder.

    For example, after Alexander the Great had done his thing (323 BCE) the Greeks set about administering an Empire that stretched from Sardinia to the Punjab. Like Frederick II two millennia later for the Prussian Empire, the Ancient Greeks did this – surprise – by setting up schools for their Empire’s administrators.

    Given to central control rather than Hayekian market forces, they established a standard Empire-wide syllabus known as the ‘enkyklios paideia’. This covered grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These ‘encyclical studies’ were later standard throughout the Roman Empire and its many centuries of successful administration. After the fall of the Roman Empire the syllabus was separated into the ‘trivium’ (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and ‘quadrivium’ (the remaining subjects) which together formed the core of university education throughout Europe until the Renaissance.

    The Roman economy was very sophisticated (in terms of financial instruments, law and so forth). Their schools of administration were of two types. There were those ‘top schools’ which would have figured in the Roman version of Business Week, where the sons of the wealthy (like Cicero) went. Even by 92 BCE Suetonius reported that these schools’ students seemed to spend their days in idleness and were generally not learning anything useful to the affairs of the State. More interesting perhaps were the special ‘vocational’ schools for the newly freed slaves – of which there were a considerable number – who, on graduation, used to run their previous masters’ estates and affairs.

    As far as trying to establish the origins of business education in Europe are concerned, given we were playing catch-up to both the Chinese and the Indians, and given this history of Mediterranean administrative education that goes back to Alexander and the Egyptians before his time, our definition must turn on the distinction between State administration and what we might now call the private sector.

    Is administration the same in both sectors? If yes, then the origins of our educational project go back a long way. But if not, why the difference? And then when, precisely, did the private sector, and thus business education as we know it today, actually begin?

    Some time ago I asked this blog-community when they thought organizations – in the modern sense that we know them today – first appeared. To talk about the beginnings of business education is to ask the same question, but from a slightly different point of view.

    I got very few answers. One actually – for which thank you (you know who you are!). So any more suggestions?

    Since then, of course, I have been trying to answer the question myself. As of today I’ll put my money on the VOC, what we English call the Dutch East India Company. It was incorporated in 1602 and its mode of incorporation is extremely interesting. There are lots of reasons for choosing this particular company and its cutting-edge administrative concepts – also manifest in the Dutch West India company incorporated in 1621. Perhaps the most significant factor is the religious freedom for which Holland was then notable.

  • 10. Michael Marotta  |  24 January 2010 at 11:56 am

    Capitalism and Arithmetic: The New Math of the 15th Century, Including the Full Text of the Treviso Arithmetic of 1478, Translated by David Eugene Smith.

    The book lays some groundwork to explain how the town of Treviso became a center for the teaching of business skills, especially arithmetic. Eventually, Venice just annexed and incorporated their neighbor.

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