When most people think of ‘medieval’ in popular culture (books, tv, movies, games) they usually think of fantasy that includes knights, ladies, wizards, and maybe some royalty and/or supernatural folk including dragons, elves, dwarves, etc. In terms of narrative or plot, there is almost always adventure and travel, battles and conflict, possibly a love story. Very often, the story revolves around a character or few learning about themselves or their world in some capacity. The strange thing is that education is almost never a major concern in most fantasy, medieval or modern.
The reason why this is strange is that education as we now know it was “invented” in Europe in the period now called the Middle Ages, roughly the 12 through 15th centuries (1100-1400 in other words). So many other features of the period are recognized elements of fantasy fiction of all genres in some form, so the question is why not this one?
Historically speaking, the system of education is one of the biggest and certainly one of the longest lasting innovations of the Middle Ages or Medieval period. This is the time period when public education was becoming more established via monasteries and other church institutions. This period is when many of the great universities of Europe, including the Sorbonne- University of Paris (1150, 1257), Oxford (1096 or 1167), and Cambridge (1209), were founded.
In medieval stories of kings, knights, and damsels (known as ‘romances’ in the literary sense) there is virtually never mention of school education as a part of anyone’s life. Stories like Sir Orfeo, Lanval, or anything by Chrétien de Troyes (author of a series of 12th c Arthurian stories) very rarely show the main characters as school age, and while training or reading may be referenced, it is almost always as a solitary or pair activity, not in a group as a school would have been.
Admittedly, the fantasy genre as we now know it is a broad category, covering everything from George Orwell to Douglass Adams to Ann McCaffrey to Rick Riordan. What I’m focusing on here are fantasy stories that take place in an at least somewhat medieval setting (at least partially).
Can anyone tell me if Game of Thrones, probably the best known modern fantasy, cares at all about anyone’s education? My guess would be no. I admit I’m not a big follower of the series, either book or tv, but even so I’m fairly certain that schooling is not a concern.
The bildungsroman is another major type of fantasy literature, but even these tales have little to do with formal education. Take The Golden Compass series which begins at Oxford University. Lyra’s education has virtually nothing to do with the 3 book series; instead it’s all about self-discovery which takes place alongside an adventure plot.
The one type of fantasy that even hints at a formal education process is the wizard or magic centric story.
If we back up for a moment to historical medieval times, there were 3 social classes known commonly as the ‘estates’: the noble (aristocrats and knights), the clerical (priests and Church officials), and the working class (ranging from crafts-folk to peasants). In the fantasy fiction sense, these 3 estates translate roughly to the ruling class, the wizards, and everyone else. Historically, the king’s (or ruler’s) education was a genre of literature unto itself, and in practice was likely conducted by private tutors and not in a formal school setting. Writers including John Gower and John Lydgate contributed to the literature that was meant to instruct a king on good states-craft and ruling. While such writing reflects some elements of fantasy as we now know it, the education of the king literature just is not present in modern fantasy.
The second class is the one that requires any degree of formal education. Clergy were educated by schools, universities, and the Church, while wizard education varies by author. Many famous wizards we meet in classic fantasy are already beyond their formal years of study; think Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings or Merlin from Le Morte d’Arthur. If the wizard’s education is a factor in the story, it’s accomplished via experience or apprenticeship as in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell or Uprooted. Uprooted makes explicit mention of this when Agnieszka goes to the royal court and another wizard asks her how long she’s been studying for, and is shocked to learn she has only been learning magic for a few months as opposed to the tradition 7 year apprenticeship.
There are 3 major exceptions to the rule: A Wizard of Earthsea, the Discworld series, and The Name of the Wind. Ursula LeGuin’s story shows young Ged apprenticing to a wizard but then shows him spending some time in magic school. The school scenes are not the point of the book though, as the novel does fall under the bildungsroman category. Much like the Golden Compass, the focus is not as much on learning magic, but on personal development.
In the Discworld series, the wizards have an official school, Unseen University, which appears occasionally throughout the series but is a main setting of 2 novels: Equal Rights and Unseen Academicals. Equal Rights is the one which most directly considers a main character’s magical education, although the schooling is less the focus than the student’s gender. In this world, wizards get educated at school, but witches learn as apprentices (see the Tiffany Aching stories among others). Unseen Academicals may take place at the University, but focuses again not as much on education as it does on the rise of sports as a part of the university.
The Name of the Wind takes as its focus the education of it protagonist wizard Kvothe (pronounced ‘quothe’). About half of the novel takes place at a formal institution of learning that is pretty close to an actual medieval university. Students go to lectures together, study closely with individual masters, and undergo examinations. Cost is also a concern, as in both the world of the novel and medieval history, pursuing formal education was expensive.
The Magician is similar to The Name of the Wind in its focus on an educational institution, but is concerned more with the effects, obsessions, and consequences that magic has on people than with actual learning. In any event, the school in The Magician operates more as a modern school in a modern world, and not as a medieval institution. The same is also true of the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter is too closely tied to the modern world, and Hogwarts is modeled more on a more contemporary system, since tuition is not an issue and the curriculum includes things like electives and extra-curriculars.
So, even though wizards and witches too in some cases require education, it is rare in medieval and medievalism fantasy to spend much time considering the contents or experience of that formal learning. The question remains why?