Educational Reforms in Europe Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the second half of the sixteenth century, a new level of education called the Latin school formed in Europe, falling between elementary school and the university. At the same time, the university turned away from Scholasticism toward Humanism and studia humanitatis, or the humanities and liberal arts. Humanist reformers believed individuals from all social classes could be more pious and could best know God through a liberal arts education.

Summary of Event

During the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth, European educators reacted against the Scholastic Aristotelianism that had dominated the thought of the Middle Ages. Many intellectuals and students alike—especially where the influence of the Protestant Reformation was dominant—considered universities to be outdated institutions bound by the power of the Catholic Church. Education;Europe Erasmus, Desiderius Luther, Martin Melanchthon, Philipp Loyola, Saint Ignatius of Vives, Juan Luis Melanchthon, Philipp Calvin, John Zwingli, Huldrych Luther, Martin Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Vives, Juan Luis Álvares, Manuel Cleynaerts, Nicolas Kayser, Johann

A sixteenth century schoolroom in Europe.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The expansion of the Humanistic Humanism school (also known as the Latin school, gymnasium, or grammar school) lent force to this gradual decline of the old universities.

The Humanists were not bound by the direct influence of state or church, which undoubtedly facilitated their ability to abandon the entrenched medieval curriculum and move toward the studia humanitatis—what we would now call the humanities. Students of the Latin schools were between the ages of twelve and eighteen; a university’s faculty of arts normally accepted students between the ages of thirteen and seventeen as a prelude to entering other faculties. The Humanistic school’s ideology centered on the formation of men (at this time only men were generally allowed entry into the university) free to occupy positions of responsibility in society or to continue to higher studies.

Among the best known of the Latin schools were the Sélestat or Schlettstadt in Alsace, founded in 1452. Its name is linked to Humanists such as Jakob Wimpfeling, Beatus Rhenanus, Desiderius Erasmus, and Philipp Melanchthon. These scholars—and others unrelated to Sélestat, such as Rodolphus Agricola (Roelof Huysman), John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli—were central to the development of education in central and northern Europe, united since Martin Luther to the Protestant Reformation and its medieval model of teaching. Among them, Melanchthon stands out for shaping the core curriculum in Saxony, Würtemberg, Nuremberg, Königsberg, Tübingen, Heidelberg, Leipzig, and other German states and cities.

In response to the new tide of Humanism, the universities adjusted by gradually adopting the Humanistic curriculum and abandoning the medieval model. In Italian universities, this substitution occurred earlier than in other European regions. In Germany (notably Heidelberg, Erfurt, Rostock, and Colmar), the majority of universities embraced Humanism and separated themselves from the teachings of Luther. The substitution did not occur in the university where Luther taught, at Wittemberg (founded in 1502); there, the Reformation and Humanistic approaches merged. Oxford, Cambridge, Uppsala, and newly created universities such as Harvard in North America also adopted the Humanistic curriculum. In Paris, the deep-seated medieval curriculum was successfully transitioned into the Humanist mold in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, precisely at the moment when Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), completed his studies there.

The Catholic Counter-Reformation Counter-Reformation[CounterReformation];education and , emerging from the Council of Trent (1545-1563), dedicated much of its energy to education with the aim of spreading Catholic doctrine to secular students. In the southern regions of Europe and in the Spanish Americas, where the influence of the Catholic Church was particularly strong, Humanism and Scholasticism merged, the universities in Salamanca, Louvain, and most of South America being prime examples.

Among the new orders of the Catholic Church, the Jesuit Jesuits;education order played a major role in education. Within a few years of its founding in 1534, its centers throughout Europe multiplied: Fifty Jesuit boarding schools appeared in Europe between 1552 and 1559. Students of all social classes were admitted, even if those from the upper classes were preferred (boarding schools of Rome, Turin, Padua, and Parma were dedicated specifically to the aristocracy). The Jesuits focused on secondary education: Students were between the ages of ten and sixteen. To enroll in one of their schools, students had to be able to read and write in Latin, as instruction was conducted in this language. The curriculum was essentially the studia humanitatis, but the new humanities were synthesized with the Scholastic medieval tradition, thus preserving an avenue for traditional church teachings. At the elementary level, the Jesuits used Donatus’s Ars minor (fourth century; morphology) to teach Latin grammar and Juan Luis Vives’s Colloquiasive Linguae Latinae exercitatio (1538; Tudor School-boy Life Tudor School-boy Life (Vives)[Tudor Schoolboy Life (Vives)] , 1970) as lecture books; with these works the preparatory phase of the Humanistic curriculum was complete.

At the conclusion of this stage, the Humanistic curriculum really began: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy—the latter through reading original texts on the topic. One or more authors were generally studied for each subject. Current subjects such as geography, mathematics, cosmology, and manners were not taught directly as separate courses but instead were integrated into the lessons for the core subjects listed above.

The most important authors of the curriculum were Cicero, Vergil, and Julius Caesar, whose works were memorized to acquire style and clarity of expression. Others were Horace, Ovid, Plautus, Statius, Seneca, Juvenal, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Curtius, Justinus, Valerius Maximus, Pomponius Mela, and Solinus. The grammar manual for the advanced level (syntax) was Guarino of Verona’s Regulae. Later, De institutione grammatica De institutione grammatica (Álvares) (1572), by the Portuguese Jesuit Manuel Álvares, became widely used. The subjects that formed the nucleus of the studia humanitatis were completed by Greek, logic, and, in some cases, Hebrew. The authors studied in Greek were Ptolemy, Isocrates, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Plato, and Aristotle. The manuals were Institutiones in linguam graecam Institutiones in linguam graecam (Cleynaerts) (1530) and Meditationes graecanicae in artem grammaticam Meditationes graecanicae in artem grammaticam (Cleynaerts) (1531), by Nicolas Cleynaerts (Clenardus). In logic, Aristotle’s Organon (335-323 b.c.e.) was taught, probably using an epitome (summary). Humanistic logic was normally addressed through two textbooks: De inventione dialectica (1479), by Agricola, and Dialectica Dialectica (Kayser) (1532), by Johann Kayser (Caesarius).

During the sixteenth century, the idea of the generalization of education—at least for the elementary studies of reading, writing, and arithmetic—became widespread and rooted. In many places (such as Italy, the Low Countries, and especially England), municipal authorities established free schools for those students lacking economic resources. The majority of students attending the Latin schools, however, remained young men of the nobility, families of high civil servants, professionals, and crafts people or citizens connected with trade and commerce—those, in other words, with a relatively high level of income. Coeducation (boys and girls learning together) was rare and limited to independent and vernacular schools.

Girls who received instruction tended to do so at home or through private lessons. They were also able to get an education as laywomen in convents, which, after the Council of Trent, toughened their rules for admission. In general, it was believed that the education of women should be limited to religious texts and to those authors most representative in the vernacular. Through them, one could learn elementary arithmetic. The primary aim was to create honest wives and mothers, and it was widely held that only those women with responsibilities to the state should receive a Humanistic education.


The development and expansion of the Humanistic schools and the type of education imparted there—the studia humanitatis—had an enormous impact on the history of Western education. The system of study that had developed during the Middle Ages through two institutions—on one hand the monastic or cathedral school and, on the other, the university—was reshaped as three. By the second half of the sixteenth century, yet another type of school developed, the vernacular abbaco school, a four-year secondary school for boys starting at age ten or eleven, where business arithmetic was taught. Such developments would, a century later, lead Johannes Amos Comenius (1592-1670) to propose his system of educational reforms.

The efforts carried out in Protestant Europe as well as those of the Catholic Counter-Reformation (particularly by the Jesuits) demonstrated the potential of general education. Finally, the progressive universities’ adaptation of Humanism and the Humanistic curricula in their faculties of arts formed the basis for the liberal arts that dominate today’s Western schools and universities. It could be said that the educational reforms of the sixteenth century were antecedent to the current structure of primary, secondary, and university education.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Robert. Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Focuses on teaching practices in the classroom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bushnell, Rebecca W. A Culture of Teaching: Early Modern Humanism in Theory and Practice. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996. Discusses the Italian origins of Humanism and educational development in Anglo-Saxon countries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grafton, Anthony, and Lisa Jardine. From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Explores Humanism in its practical and theoretical dimensions and discusses specifically the Humanistic education of girls and women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grendler, Paul F. Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300-1600. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. The author examines education in Italy, focusing on the pre-university level. Rich in statistics.

1499-1517: Erasmus Advances Humanism in England

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

1545-1563: Council of Trent

Categories: History