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Shakespeare & Beyond

Educating and training a child in the early modern period

Guild chapel and school
Guild chapel and school
Guild chapel and school where William Shakespeare and other children were educated

Guild chapel and school where Shakespeare was educated in Stratford-upon-Avon. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In Shakespeare’s time, middle class boys (and sometimes girls) who survived infancy—by no means a certainty—were enrolled in school by about age six. Education was increasingly important in the early modern period with the rise of social mobility; schooling was seen as a way of emulating the bookish gentry and ultimately bettering one’s moral and financial standing.

It was also a way of getting the kids out of the house, both to keep from spoiling them and to keep them from causing trouble. “If any are sent to school so early,” wrote educator John Brinsley, “they are rather sent to the school from troubling the house at home, and from danger, and shrewd turns, than from any great hope and desire that their friends should learn anything in effect.”

Children in the early modern period were put to work, at least with minor household tasks, as soon as they were big enough to hold a broom or ply a needle. Many were also apprenticed. Even among the highborn, aristocratic children were tasked with learning the good manners that defined their social roles, often by being placed in other wealthy households, a practice called “fostering out.”