Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


16. Ancient and medieval children’s texts


Gillian Adams




The answer to the question of which children’s texts are the oldest depends on which civilisations achieved literacy first. The origins of literacy have long been the subject of debate, but the earliest attempts at writing that have been discovered so far, the marks on items intended for trade in the protoliterate period c. 4500 BC, followed by cylinder seals that bear owners’ marks and other identifiers, come from ancient Sumer, now the southern half of Iraq. Between 3000 and 2600 BC, the Sumerians began writing on clay tablets. Given the tie of literacy and commerce, the need to develop what we might call commercial literacy quickly followed, along with the need for a literate priesthood. Difficult as it is for children to learn to read and write, particularly syllabaries such as cuneiform, pictograms, such as hieroglyphics, and Chinese characters, it is far more difficult for adults to do so (see Adams 1986: 8-9) and thus schools for a limited number of male children, usually aged about six or seven, were early established. These children came primarily from the powerful scribal class. Some women in Sumer were literate, however, and the goddess of scribes and wisdom was Nidaba.

We are fortunate, given the present situation in the Middle East, that a large number of clay tablets from Iraq are now in collections in Europe and the USA; they are the subject of ongoing research. The ones that have been deciphered so far demonstrate not only how children were taught but what they were taught: reading, writing, mathematics, astronomy, ethical behaviour and humanitas (nam-lu-ulu). With the exception of a lullaby addressed to a preschool child (Adams 1986: 2-3), many of these texts are didactic, but some are imaginative as well.

The earliest extant literary documents from Sumer date from around 2400 BC. In 2334 BC Sumer was conquered by Sargon of Akkad, and Sumerian (an agglutinative language) was gradually replaced by Akkadian, a Semitic language. Sumerian language and literature continued to be taught in the schools, where it was the mark of an educated person and of social status. We have some children’s texts from the Sumerian and Akkadian periods (the latter sometimes in both languages), but the majority of children’s texts are from the Sumerian Renaissance, ushered in by the Third Dynasty of Ur in 2112 BC. We know that these texts are for children for a number of reasons. First, they are on unbaked clay tablets, a cheap material that could be smoothed clean or simply discarded, and a large number of practice exercises have survived. They have been excavated from Sumerian edubba (tablet houses) and elementary school rooms where children went to learn the scribal arts. Because the children learned to write by copying literary texts of progressive difficulty, researchers are able to specify what texts formed part of a student’s literary universe at any given level.

Examples of genres that exist on the most elementary level include a sixty-three-line patriotic hymn, ‘Lipit-estar, King of Justice, Wisdom and Learning’, and proverbs. The hymn is a beginner’s text that covers Sumerian cuneiform signs, different sentence patterns, stylistic features and phraseology. A third of the text glorifies scribal activity and equates it with the functions of royalty (see Vanstiphout 1979). The Sumerian proverb collections range from complete collections in adult script to large, often clumsily written school exercises containing one proverb or a line or two from a longer one. The collections consist not only of precepts, maxims, truisms, adages and bywords, but taunts, compliments, wishes, short fables (primarily of the Aesopic type) and anecdotes. According to Bendt Alster (1997), they represent a living tradition dating back to the beginning of Sumerian writing, although they were written down c. 1900-1800 BC. While some of the proverbs must stem from an oral tradition, some seem to have been composed by schoolmasters. They cover a variety of subjects, providing the student with a large vocabulary drawn from the household, the family and further afield. Animals feature strongly, and their characteristics, as well as the stories about them, are familiar: most often found is the sly fox, but also the greedy wolf, the enormous elephant, the insignificant insect or bird, the stubborn donkey, the predatory and powerful lion. The major difference is in the portrayal of the dog as faithless and greedy.

We are fortunate to have three literary catalogues from Ur called the ‘Ur curriculum,’ which list the works used at the second educational stage, the school compositions and the mythological debates. These works are of greater length, contain more sophisticated language, and the cuneiform is of higher quality. The seven surviving debates, five of which appear in the Ur curriculum, may originally have been written as court entertainment for the Third Dynasty of Ur. They were perhaps adapted for school use because of their emphasis on hard work, intelligence and verbal ability. They begin with a mythological introduction that sets the scene, explains the creation of the participants, such as Summer and Winter, Cattle and Grain, and Pickaxe and Plough, and set up the argument, which always concerns which contestant is the most useful to man. The verdict is delivered by a god, usually Enlil the air god.

Of the school compositions, six listed in the Ur curriculum have survived; four are debates between a younger and older student, his ‘big brother’. More interesting are ‘School Days’ and ‘A Scribe and His Perverse Son’. ‘School Days’ begins with a boy’s successful day at school. But the next day is a disaster: the boy oversleeps, loiters in the street, arrives late and sloppily dressed, hasn’t finished his homework, talks without permission, fails to speak Sumerian, and tries to leave without permission. The headmaster canes him. The boy complains to his father that he hates school, and suggests that the father talk to the headmaster. The headmaster is invited to dinner and the father treats him well and offers him gifts. The headmaster’s attitude becomes more positive and he praises the boy and wishes a better future for him in school.

The second text, ‘A Scribe and His Perverse Son’, was even more popular, judging from the fifty-seven extant copies and fragments. This is an amusing diatribe by a father complaining that his son is not living up to parental expectations. Given the nature of the complaints (grumbling, pleasure-loving, imperiousness, laziness, wandering around on the streets, missing school and being generally ungrateful for all that the father has sacrificed for him), the son appears to be older than the subject of ‘School Days’. The piece ends with the fervent wish that the son will succeed in following his father’s profession, achieve humanitas - an inner worth reflected by outer conduct - and win the favour of the gods.

Thus the ancient Mesopotamians had a literature used for educating children, whether taken from the oral culture (proverbs and fables), borrowed from adult literature (the literary debates) or created particularly for their edification (the school stories). Most scholars classify this literature within the genre of ‘wisdom literature’ because of its didactic content. It reflects a competitive society in which hard work, perseverance, prudence, initiative, a certain aggressive, self-aggrandising foxiness, and above all verbal skills are requisites for gaining earthly rewards and the favour of the gods and king. The emphasis of this children’s literature on hard work and intellectual achievement must have had much to do with the high civilisation, artistic, legal, political, scientific and technological, achieved so early by the Sumerians and their successors in Mesopotamia. While the Sumero-Babylonian state ended in 1800 BC, its culture was absorbed by the Assyrians and successor states, and much of its children’s literature, at least in terms of genre and didactic content, would reappear in later civilisations.