A Viennese institution: the Collegium civium

Lessons at a Viennese school in the Middle Ages: praying, writing, memorizing. School regulations dating from 1446 give a revealing account.

The first recorded mention of the St Stephen’s parish school dates from 1237. In 1296 Duke Albrecht I transferred the administration of this school, the rector of which was superintendant of all the schools in the city, to the mayor of Vienna and the city council. This placed a religious institution under a civic authority. The Collegium civium, the Latin school of St Stephen’s, resembled a university more than a primary school. Renowned scholars from across Europe taught here or acted as rector. The children were taught the septem artes liberales, the seven liberal arts, starting with grammar, dialectics and rhetoric. Once these subjects had been mastered, they progressed to arithmetic (which included only the four operations), geometry, theory of music and astronomy. These subjects were also on the curriculum of the cathedral and monastic schools, and likewise constituted part of the introductory courses (of the ‘arts faculty’) of the university. In Vienna theology was also taught.
A list of school regulations from 1446 affords an insight into everyday life at school: all the pupils were taught in one room. They were divided into three age groups, and within those into three smaller groups according to ability. This meant that the schooling progressed through a total of nine levels, which quick learners could complete in three years. Older pupils taught younger ones in some subjects and practised with them. The material was dictated, taken down and learnt by heart. Pupils were only allowed to use Latin. There were no holidays, and the school day lasted from the early morning to evening prayers. On Sundays and feast days the pupils had to take part in Church services. The only variety was provided by the school festivities which took place now and again, but these were also often subject to regulation in order to prevent excesses.

Julia Teresa Friehs