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Candlemas 1513 – the first day at Nottingham High School

Wednesday 10th April, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

by Dr Paul Sibly | tags: , , ,

Nottingham High School was founded at Candlemas in St Mary’s Church 500 years ago — Paul Sibly, Deputy Headmaster at the school, considers why Candlemas was an appropriate time to create the school and how different education was in the 16th century

February 2nd 2013 was the 500th Anniversary of the first lessons taught at Nottingham High School. During a morning Assembly I shared some thoughts with the pupils, beginning with St Luke’s account (chapter 2 vv 22 -40) of the presentation of Christ in the temple.

Candlemas in 1513 was an important church festival, ranking not far behind Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. The account of the presentation of Christ in the temple was read, in Latin, on the very day our School opened and, with its references to light (= knowledge and truth) and to the child growing in wisdom, I can see how appropriate that was.

What was the Candlemas celebration like back in 1513?

Most likely there was a grand procession around St Mary’s Church (which was Roman Catholic at the time), with every parishioner carrying a lighted candle and an offering of money for the priest. The Nunc Dimittis was sung. Later, in the grand Mass itself, the passage from St Luke would be read, along with other scriptures focusing on light, life and renewal.

Some would take the candles to symbolise Jesus; the wax, wick and flame representing his body, his soul and his divinity, ‘the light of the world’. Beyond that, popular folklore gave the candles mystical powers; a holy light could drive out the devil and all his works, could make people safe in thunderstorms, give relief in sickness, give comfort to the dying. Superstitions also crept in, for example witches were said to drip molten wax into their victims’ footprints, causing feet to rot off.

All in all, the celebrations were a great piece of medieval theatre. The light, music and liturgy were spot on for the launch of a school which, over the years, has taken the search for knowledge, truth and understanding in new directions.

Apart from being shiveringly cold in the great spaces of St Mary’s, what do we know about the first lessons?

The earliest clue is in the royal charter of 1512 which provided for the ‘foundation and building of a certain School, evermore to endure, in the parish of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the town of Nottingham, for the education, teaching and instruction of boys in good manners and literature’. The founder, Dame Agnes Mellers, added, “I will and ordain that the Schoolmaster… shall daily when he keeps School cause the Scholars every morning in their school house ere they begin their learning to say with an high voice the whole Credo in Deum Patrem and the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus …… and the collect Deus qui corda, and at even such time as they may gyf oop [sic] school to sing some anthem in honour of our Lady and say De Profundis with three collects …… for the soul of Richard Mellors my husband and for the souls of the said Sir Thomas Lovell and my soul….. and all Christian souls”.

From these sources we can see that the school was a Christian foundation, that teaching was in Latin - the universal language of learning in the 1500s - and that there was great emphasis on good manners, literature and singing. Lessons were, I think, mainly spoken; skills of reading and writing were considered less important; indeed writing may have been learnt as a separate skill, away from school. Learning by rote, was much used, for example in instilling Latin grammar.

Why didn’t the pupils study modern subjects? Let’s see what lay ahead in 1513:

English: William Tyndale will translate and print the Bible in English only in 1525. With this will come opportunities both for reading in English and for more widespread understanding of Christian teaching and principles. King and priests, unable to tolerate the unmasking of their selfinterested distortions of scripture, will see to it that Tyndale is murdered for his labours in 1536.

Mathematics, Science and Geography: The first book of basic arithmetic, Robert Recorde’s The Grounde of Arts, is 30 years in the future. Science is largely dormant, with the work of the Ancient Greeks still a major point of reference. New work in the 1540s will see Nicholas Copernicus challenge the Earth-at-the-centre of-the universe-with-everything-revolvingaround-it model; he will propose that the Earth orbits the Sun, and spins on its axis as it does so. Europeans are exploring the planet, with John Cabot sailing from Bristol to reach and name Newfoundland in 1497. Others will map the African coast, India and the western seaboard of America. In 1519 - 1520 Magellan’s expedition will circumnavigate the globe, finally demonstrating that we don’t simply fall off the edge of a flat world if we go far enough. Mapmakers will record every discovery.

Much of this new learning depends on advances in the printing, manufacture and distribution of written materials. Caxton’s press in Westminster started in the 1470s, but mass-production is new. Much more will be achieved in the sixteenth century. Books will give great stimulus, spreading knowledge and promoting the teaching of reading and writing.

So, in 1513, there’s about to be an explosion in knowledge and learning, but it hasn’t happened yet.

500 years later we’ve come a long way, but every day still tells us that our endeavours to increase our knowledge and understanding are only just beginning.

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