(en route to Dayton, OH) According to a fascinating article by Nicholas Orme in Oxford Today, medieval and renaissance English schoolboys spent most of their time translating passages into Latin. Latin was a practical, living language, and medieval teachers must have seen the research about motivating students by assigning culturally appropriate materials. They made up lists of highly topical sentences for their pupils to render into Latin.
In 1506, a teacher who was also Master of Oxford’s Magdalen College published a translation textbook that included such useful schoolroom phrases as: “Thou stinkest,” “Turd in thy teeth!” “I am almost beshitten,” and “He is the veriest coward that ever pissed.” A different text provided opportunities to translate the phrases, “Sit away, or I shall give you a blow” and “He hath taken my book from me.”
Another teacher expected his students to translate his complaint about their behavior:
As soon as I am come into the school, this fellow goeth to make water, and he goeth out into the common draft [toilet]. Soon after another asketh license that he may go drink. Another calleth on me that he may have license to go home. These and such other layeth my scholars for excuse oftentimes, that they may be out of the way.
In 1346, the Oxford schoolmaster John Cornwall asked his pupils to translate the warning: “If I go to Carfax, I may be met by misdoers.” That remains reasonable advice 660 years later, for Carfax is still a street in Oxford with a somewhat scruffy clientele.