Storytelling: education in fantasy

Once again, I’m here with a post that will combine history and fiction. This time, the topic is education systems in fiction and how can historical facts be used for inspiration.

(Public domain image, Johann Peter Hasenclever, 1846)


When it comes to Europe, mandatory schooling only started quite late (16th-18th century, based on location). Literacy wasn’t a common thing in times past and was often limited to the upper circles. The first forms of education were found in ancient Greece.

In medieval times, education was often bound to the church (convents) and the first universities in Europe were either founded by major towns, the church, or a sovereign (and, possibly, combination of those factors). The ties between church and education only began to loosen (or vanish) around 16th century.

For general populace, given the rural nature of pre-modern times, wide education held little value. Given the low life expectancy and life based around manual labor, different knowledge was important. Thus, even when countries laid down the laws for mandatory schooling, the scope was relatively thin – such as basic literacy, maths, and knowledge needed for agriculture and housework – and the education was interrupted in harvest times, for obvious reasons. The scope only began to increase with further urbanization and growing collective knowledge, eventually reaching the present-time systems.


This short background may be important for anyone who delves into the topic of education as part of their world-building. Many apsects will be set up by different aspects of world-building, such as:

  • A nation with absolute, evil-leaning ruler will probably try to curb the access to education as uneducated citizens are easier to control.
  • A nation where religion is important part of lifestyle/culture, the religious organizations will have a major impact on education. Here, Europe’s history is a good example, as mentioned above: not only were many universities co-founded by the church (or by sovereign that had to be approved by the pope anyway) but even the very basic education had emphasis on faith.
  • The scope of knowledge will determine the level of education. A more primitive world that knows little about the scientific aspects of their world (so to say) will have much less “hard” knowledge (such as physics or complex mathematics) to share.
  • The need for education grows as the rate of city-dwelling people grows: rural people who live off the land can survive well with the basics and understanding the land (both for escuring their livelihood and to avoid natural dangers – wildlife, floods, etc.) while city-dwelling people will be more likely to have livelihood that relies on education. Even traders need to understand value of things, geography, and other aspects that influence the value of goods (or be swindled if they don’t).
  • Likewise, the level of bureaucracy involved in fictional society will influence education: if a world has complex laws, it’ll need people who can understand and interpret them.
  • Fictional science and magic: magical system and the presence of other arts, such as alchemy, will affect education. These aspects may be common knowledge, or limited to specific groups, and exist in a variety of forms that may require different approach.

As for the scope of education, I would say that the 18th century approach might be more than fitting, with adjustments to respect the specific setting. For most people in a fantasy setting, the ability to read, write, count, and have some basic knowledge about common plants and animals and basic anatomy/first aid could be enough.

Another aspect somes with population density. In a land with small villages scattered around, the road to a school may be way too long, which offers the option for home-schooling or traveling teachers. Likewise, for those who’d want to learn more than the basics, it’s possible that the only way would be to travel (and possibly live) in a town. Thus, for a hgher education, boarding school system may be necessary.

The question, then, would be what kinds of education may be available – and this will, again, depend on the setting. The military is a sure bet (have you ever seen a fantasy without an army?) and, likewise, magic and natural sciences (in some form) are likely to exist. Another form of training common in fantasy would be some form of apprenticeship – which may be the easiest way to learn a physical craft.

Another aspect that comes to play is lifespan – especially in an elf-centric story (or any story where the lifespan is significantly longer). As I said in a post about fantasy longevity, a society will go into decline either by lack of reproduction or overpopulation if the balance between lifespan, fertility, and childbirth age is upset (long story short: babies should be born around 30% of expected lifespan). Thus, elves (or any other creature with significantly larger lifespan than humans) will have even larger struggles with filling up a class, especially in a rural setting. Thus, the abovementioned about homeschooling or traveling teachers will likely come to play, as well as a different schedule (such as longer but fewer school days).

Another aspect I’d like to mention is language. This may not be prominent in many stories, but a world with many languages will likely have a dominant language (or more than one), which means that some consideration should be given to what kind of people can learn another language, which is the dominant one, and why.

That’s it from me for this time. Before I close this, I’d like to hear your opinions and experiences. Is there something I’ve forgotten? Is education something you’ve touched in your WIP? Any questions about my project on that matter? Or any historical fact I’ve forgotten? Let me know.

One thought on “Storytelling: education in fantasy

  1. Pingback: Worldbuilding: language skills in fiction | Tomas - the wandering dreamer

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