Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


16. Ancient and medieval children’s texts


Gillian Adams




Texts for children before the advent of printing and the subsequent promotion of children’s literature as a pleasurable commodity may seem alien to those familiar with children’s literature today, which tends to conceal its agendas. Nevertheless, from their earliest manifestations such texts share two salient characteristics of today’s texts: the persistence of genres familiar to us today - poetry, advice, proverbs, fables, animal, adventure and school stories - and their employment, covert or overt, as an avenue to commercial and social success. In the absence of promotional efforts by publishers, however, the criteria for establishing that a text was either used or intended to be used for children are somewhat different.

In terms of internal evidence, we need to ask whether there is a dedication to a named child or introductory material indicating that the work is intended for children or younger students. Is the language simpler and more direct than that in other works by the same author clearly directed at adults, particularly in the preface or dedication? Is the child directly addressed or portrayed as a major character? How is the child presented? What is the appearance of the text itself? Is there explanatory material directed at the inexpert reader? Does the calligraphy indicate inexpert copyists? Are there illustrations and of what nature? Is the text inexpensively or lavishly produced?

In terms of external evidence, we must ask about the nature of the scriptoria that have produced the text. Where were the texts found, particularly the earliest examples? Are they associated with schools? What do we know about the author, whether actual or ascribed (Aesop, for example)? How popular is the text and how fluid - was it often copied? Does it exist in multiple versions or languages? With what other works is it associated or bound? What is the historical or cultural context of the work, its location, and its period (particularly the view of what children deserved literacy)? Do excerpts from it appear in works used in the schools? Is it referred to in other texts as connected with children or education? Clearly no text will meet all these criteria, and some only one or two. But they can help to establish the degree to which a child or children were associated with any given text.