Gateway to the Classics: Barbarian and Noble by Marion Florence Lansing
Barbarian and Noble by  Marion Florence Lansing

The School of the Palace

Think of a school where all the pupils were of royal blood, and where an emperor, three princes, heirs to the thrones of Europe, two archbishops, a queen, three young princesses, and two or three courtiers of various ranks all sat down and studied lessons together. That was Charlemagne's School of the Palace, a school of more than a thousand years ago, which traveled about with him wherever he went.

The barbarian invasions had destroyed the schools of Rome, and since then there had been hardly any schools in all Europe, save those for the few boys who lived in the monasteries. The four centuries had been so full of warfare and bloodshed and conquest that scholarship and the arts of peace had almost disappeared from Europe. People have called those times the "Dark Ages," because the light of learning seemed to have been blotted out. But Charlemagne was determined that his subjects should not remain barbarians. So he set up the first free public schools in Europe and made a decree, which was published in the farthest corners of his realm, that every boy, whether rich or poor, son of a serf or of a freeman, should be allowed to go to them. But the most interesting of all and the most famous was his own School of the Palace.

If we had come to the court during a session, I doubt if we would have known that it was a school at all. In the first place we should look for books, but there would be hardly any books, for this was long before the invention of printing, and the few books which were written had to be laboriously copied letter by letter and sentence by sentence by practiced scribes. So books were very rare and very precious: There would be no writing paper like ours, but scrolls of heavy parchment, on which the learned scholars might write with quill pens, and wax tablets and steel points with which beginners might practice the forming of letters.

Charlemagne could never learn to write. He began too late in life, and, though he used to keep blanks and tablets under his pillow in bed that he might practice when he was wakeful, his hand was too familiar with the mighty sword Joyeuse to use skillfully so tiny a weapon as a pen. But in all else that was taught in the school he was the best student of all, and his sons and his daughters had hard work to keep up with him.


With so few books to study, everything depended on the teacher, who had to give out what should be learned, and Charlemagne sent across the channel to Britain and persuaded the great English scholar, Alcuin, to come over and be master of the Palace School. Alcuin had to get permission of the English king, for he was a very famous scholar, and learning was greatly prized in England; but he came and taught Charlemagne and his court for fourteen years, and this is the way he taught them. He would make up a series of questions and answers, and the pupils would ask the questions and he give the, answers until they knew them thoroughly. Sometimes the scholars would think up their own questions; and Alcuin tells us that he used to rise before daybreak and study out answers to some of the emperor's perplexing questions, for there was no subject in heaven or earth about which Charlemagne did not have a passionate curiosity.

The names of some of the studies which were taught are like ours,—grammar, arithmetic, physiology, and astronomy,—but to us the lessons seem very queer. Here are some of the questions in the dialogue exercise which Alcuin gave to his sixteen-year-old pupil, Pepin, Charlemagne's son. It began with physiology. Pepin was to ask, "What is the mouth?" and Alcuin would answer, "The nourisher of the body, because all food comes in through it." "What is the stomach?" would be the next question, and the answer would be, "The cook of the food." "What is the head?" "The preserver of memory." "And the eyes?" the boy was to ask, "what are they?" "The eyes, my son, are the guides of the body, the organs of light, the index of the soul." The hands, Alcuin taught, were the workmen of the body, the bones were the strength of the body, and the limbs were the columns of the body. Twenty-six questions and answers like this would be all that Prince Pepin would ever be required to know about physiology, and then Alcuin would turn to another subject, perhaps to arithmetic, where he would teach, among other things, that man was placed between six walls, the names of which were "above, below, before, behind, right and left."

Some of the answers in this exercise were very pretty and poetical. Spring was called "the painter of the earth" because it brought so many fresh colors to the barren fields and trees and hill slopes, and autumn was "the barn of the year" because the earth brought forth at that time her rich harvests, which must be stored up to preserve life through the long, unfruitful winter. When Pepin inquired of his master what snow was, he was told "dry water," and frost was described to him as "a persecutor of plants and a destroyer of leaves." The sun distributed the hours of the day, the moon was thought to dispense the dew and give warning of storms, while the stars were "the pictures of the roof of the heavens, the guides of sailors, the ornament of night."

To us they seem strange lessons taught at a very queer school, where old men and children sat down together and puzzled over the wonderful world in which they lived, trying to understand and explain it. But remember that this and other schools like it were the beginning out of which all our schools have grown, and that if Charlemagne had cared only for war and conquest and destruction, as did Attila the Hun, the world would have remained barbarian for a great many years longer than it did.

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