1.4.2: 1460 - 1585 - Education and literacy

Not only urbanisation, growing trading activities, the Reformation and Counter Reformation, but also humanism and the dissemination of the printed book stimulated education and literacy in the Netherlands. The availability of schoolbooks was greatly improved by the invention of printing.

The number of schools for primary education in the Netherlands had grown rapidly from the later Middle Ages. Education in Low German had grown in importance besides Latin. Towns increased their influence on local education in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The ecclesiastical parish and chapter schools often became town schools, also known as 'large schools'. The link between church and school continued to exist, not least because pupils had of old formed the church choir. In the countryside it was often the sexton who provided elementary education. By the end of the sixteenth century, a school for elementary education could be found in every town and village of reasonable size in the Northern Netherlands.

The 'large school' had a 'lower school' where elementary education was given in the vernacular to boys and girls up to eight years old. Education was restricted to religion, reading, singing and sometimes arithmetic. Teaching was extremely difficult because of the large groups of pupils, sometimes 100 to 150, and the individually oriented education. The Latin 'upper school' was intended for small groups of privileged boys aged eight to fifteen. The primary purpose was to teach Latin for which, among other things, the Donat, an elementary Latin grammar, was used. In the upper school the number of pupils was restricted to a few dozen. The curriculum and the range of pupils in the village schools were the same as in the urban lower school.

In towns, private schools providing additional education increased in number from the fifteenth century onwards. They were considered by the town authorities to be financial competitors and, in the sixteenth century, as hotbeds of heresy. These schools were not permitted to teach Latin and had to compensate the town for school fees lost. These schools were more expensive and therefore intended for the well-to-do citizens. In some private schools, aimed particularly at merchants, subjects were taught lacking in the curriculum of the large schools, such as arithmetic, accounting and French. Writing schools existed for young children up to the age of eight where only reading and writing were taught. At nursery schools for infants, only the alphabet was taught and simple religious lessons. In the sixteenth century the Sunday School was added to this list intended for the schooling of working youths in religious knowledge and elementary reading and writing skills. The creation of this type of school in particular was due to the struggle against the Reformation.

The Italian diplomat, Ludovico Guicciardini, in his Beschryvinghe van alle de Nederlanden of 1567, spoke highly of the ability of the Dutch, both in towns and in the countryside, to read and write. Although this kind of individual observation should be treated with caution, research into literacy levels has shown that his positive impression of Amsterdam at the time was not far from the truth.

author: J. Salman

Education and literacy