The School goes back to the very origin of our civilization; if we are to understand its nature, we must transfer ourselves in thought to those early days when the first missionaries planted in the Somerset valleys and on the stern Northumberland coast the Cross of Christ. They came to a people still on the verge of barbarism, with a language still unformed by literature, with a religion that gave no clue to the mysteries of life by which they were oppressed. They came to these men full of the enthusiasm of the Gospel—coming not only as teachers of religion, but as the apostles of a higher civilization, for they had behind them the awful name of Rome.
Wherever they came, among their first duties was to found schools in which to train men who would succeed them; we must always remember that the education which they gave had one supreme object—it was to bring up the boys of the rude and barbarous communities in which they found themselves, to become teachers and servants of the Church. The substance of the teaching was always the same, whether in Spain, in Gaul, in Ireland or in Britain; it was the Bible, the services of the Church, and the writings of the Fathers. It was by the school that the boys were initiated into the common system of Western Christendom, and were made citizens of the greater world the centre of which was in Rome.
But if the substance and the object was identical throughout Europe, so always was the form in which the teaching was given; at a time when all learning and all religion came from Rome, the foundation of knowledge was the Latin tongue. In these early days was established the tradition that still subsists; the gateway to learning and to culture lay by the narrow road of the Latin grammar. The schoolboy who still tells out his longs and shorts can compare them with the ruder efforts of his Saxon forefathers thirteen centuries ago. Never have authors attained a fame and a circulation equal to that of the great grammarians who, during the decline of the Empire, codified the rules of Latin speech; generation after generation passed, and down almost to our own days every schoolboy began his career on the lines laid down in the works of Donatus and Priscian.
We must, however, guard ourselves against a mistake into which it would be easy to fall. It is true that in the early mediaeval days education was based on the study of the Latin language; and it was only through literature that the language could be learnt. The study of classical literature as we understand it was, however, far removed from the ideals of this time. The most authoritative teachers never neglected to warn their pupils against the moral dangers which arose from the study of heathen writers; Ovid and Cicero were only admitted under protest, and they were merely the stepping-stone to the study of Augustine and Prudentius.