Social changes after the plague: education

The plague was so severe that it disrupted most ongoing institutions, including the ones that educated the youth. During the worst of it, schools closed as pupils died or were sent home. Masters and apprentices died. When it was over, each social circle had to find ways to get started again.

In England, one main purpose of school had been to teach French so that students could find work in the king’s service. Court still used French, and if it wasn’t used exclusively any more, it still remained as an employment requirement. After the plague, schools had to hire more teachers, and their hiring standards dropped due to the labor shortage. They had to settle for people who knew Latin-related subjects (grammar, history, literature) but could not speak French.

From this point on, the use of French at court dropped off sharply. It was already in decline; the new schools that did not teach it only accelerated the inevitable. Geoffrey Chaucer, born in 1343, was among the children who survived both the first and the second plague epidemics. He is among the first writers to use the English vernacular that was spoken in everyday London, instead of French. In the Canterbury Tales, written in the general era of the Peasants’ Rebellion, he points out that the Prioress could speak French, although not the French used at court. French always remained an important part of upper-class education, but it was increasingly detached from practical use at court, until in later times the focus shifted to Parisian French and travel.

University education changed after the plague, particularly for priests. The common people were dissatisfied with how the Church had carried out its duties, although they understood that some of the problem was that the priests had died in just as great numbers as the people had. Too many bodies had gone unburied, too many souls unforgiven. The normal way of becoming a priest in past centuries had been through an apprenticeship structure, but this was disrupted. The Church needed to crank out priests as rapidly as possible, without long training years. University education seemed the best way.

With increased awareness of impending death, many wealthy donors left property and money to endow colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. These colleges were residences for students, since the universities provided nothing but lectures. More colleges meant more financial aid and opportunities, and the number of educated priests rose rapidly. Some pre-plague priests could not read (although monks were always literate); after the plague, more of them had genuine educations. More later on other effects on religion.

The apprenticeship system was disrupted for other trades, but for the most part, enough masters and apprentices were left to keep up the basic knowledge. As we know, a lot of rural boys came to town to find apprenticeship slots, and the city populations rose rapidly. But there was one profession that never quite recovered.

Stonemasons had always been itinerant, by necessity. They had to move where the building was going on, and move again to the next project, instead of remaining based in one city like most craftsmen. There were ordinary stone carvers, but there were also highly-trained masons that we’d call architects. A very small number of architect masons planned and oversaw a large number of cathedrals and castles. A few elite masons worked internationally. Similarly, a small number of highly-trained freemasons cut most of the delicate granite tracery in Gothic cathedrals.

After the plague, only a few of these elite workmen were left. They were never able to transmit their knowledge adequately, so mason skill declined immediately after the plague. A few cathedrals that were partially finished had to be completed in simpler styles because only the second-tier workmen survived.

This entry was posted in Black Death and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply