Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


16. Ancient and medieval children’s texts


Gillian Adams




Like the Sumerians, the Egyptians put images on objects of trade and common use in the late Prehistoric period, but it was not until c. 3200 BC, shortly before the Pharaoh Menes, the founder of the First Dynasty, that these pictographs began to be connected with the sounds of language as hieroglyphs. Cylinder seals began to appear along with other features of Sumerian culture, probably under the influence of Sumerian immigrants, and by the end of the Second Dynasty, 2650 BC, one finds continuous text with recognisable sentences (James 1984: 154). An abbreviated hieroglyphic developed into hieratic, which was used for less formal writing by scribes and was written with a reed brush on papyrus or other surfaces, although formal hieroglyphic was also used into the Roman period (see Emery 1961: 193-202; James 1984: ch. 6). Whereas papyrus was usually reserved for more important documents, ephemera were written on papyrus scraps and ostraca (limestone flakes in areas where excavations were going on or pottery shards elsewhere). Practice exercises were also written on sycamore boards covered with gesso (a layer of fine, hard plaster). These were easy to wipe clean and to replaster (James 1984: 145-7). Like the Mesopotamians, children learned to write by copying texts, and just as Sumerian texts copied by children and beginning scribes are found on discarded mud bricks, so Egyptian texts worked on by beginners are evident on the ostraca and writing boards that have survived thanks to the Egyptian climate. Indeed, as Adolf Erman comments, ‘we in great measure owe our knowledge of the old and later literature to the papyri, writing-boards, and ostraca upon which the schoolboys of the New Kingdom copied out extracts from standard or didactic compositions’ (1923: 185).

Towards the end of the Middle Kingdom, with the Twelfth Dynasty (2000-1780 BC) and again in the New Kingdom (1546-1085 BC), Egypt became an imperial power that at its height stretched from Nubia to Palestine and Syria and even beyond the Euphrates. The country was prosperous, and literature and the arts flourished. The need for an educated bureaucracy was filled by scribes, and their education and training was expanded and systematised. While education for most was an apprenticeship, essentially vocational (although it may have included some reading and writing), education for the privileged classes, those destined to become scribes, began early. It was devoted to reading, writing (particularly letter writing), and the arithmetic necessary for surveying and keeping accounts. There were two stages, school proper for younger children, and a post-graduate stage in which the young were enrolled as ‘scribes’ in an administrative department or temple, where they continued their schooling in writing model compositions, copying older texts and developing the calligraphy required for hieroglyphics (Erman 1923: 186). Two key sites for school-related artefacts are a large collection of ostraca and writing boards found at the village for workers on the tombs of the Kings at Deir-el-Medina (modern Luxor/Karnak), from the Eighteenth Dynasty (1546-1319 BC), and the rubbish mound of a Nineteenth Dynasty school attached to a temple built for Ramesses II (1299-1232 BC). Several important papyri have also survived: for example the schoolbook comprising Papyrus Lansing; others are a medley of school and other texts, such as Papyrus Chester Beatty IV, Papyrus Anastasi V and Sallier Papyrus IV, grouped as the Miscellanies (see James 1984: 146-52).

According to T. G. H. James, the most elementary text was the Kemyt, cast in the form of a model letter, which exists in hundreds of copies and is characteristic of the late Eleventh Dynasty (c. 2000 BC). A long introduction consisting of ‘elaborate greetings’ is followed by ‘a series of statements, aphorisms and injunctions aimed ... at exalting the scribe’s profession’ (147). James demonstrates how the simplicity, even banality of the text, the formulaic expressions, and the way it is set up on the page make it an ideal primer (148-9). Another important school text dating from the Middle Kingdom but turning up repeatedly in texts on New Kingdom papyri and ostraca is the beautiful Hymn to Hapy, the personification of the flooding Nile. It is the equivalent of the Sumerian hymn to Lipit-estar discussed above, but in the Egyptian hymn children and youths are specifically mentioned as celebrants in Hapy’s festival (see Lichtheim 1973: I, 205-10). Other school texts were prayers and hymns to the gods Amun and Thoth (see Lichtheim 1973: 110-14).

The Egyptian equivalent of the proverb texts used by Mesopotamian elementary school children are the ‘Instructions’, a uniquely Egyptian literary form. A father instructs his son by means of a series of maxims strung together in more or less logical order, some Instructions more likely to be a part of the schoolboy curriculum than others. The oldest extant is the Instruction of Hardjedef, according to Miriam Lichtheim a work of the Fifth Dynasty, c. 2450-2300 BC (1973: 5-7). It is a tribute to the essential conservatism of Egyptian education that it was still being copied by children in the schools over a thousand years later in the New Kingdom.

The best known and most popular of the Old Kingdom Instructions is the Instruction of Ptah-Hotep (c. 2200 BC), still used as a schoolbook in the Eighteenth Dynasty, 1546-1085 BC (Erman 1923: 55). This is an attractive work that urges teaching of selfcontrol, moderation, kindness, generosity, justice and truthfulness towards all, regardless of social class, although the tone is aristocratic. ‘No martial virtues are mentioned. The ideal man is a man of peace’ (Lichtheim 1973: 62). A variant on the Instruction is the speculum regum or Mirror for Princes. While the descendants of the Instructions are medieval and Renaissance courtesy books, the Mirror for Princes was a genre that also became popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The earliest one now extant is The Instruction Addressed to King Merikare by his father, probably Nebkaure Khety (c. 2050 BC), but Merikare, on the basis of the text, appears to be an adult. A variant on the genre comes from the Middle Kingdom, c. 1990 BC, The Instruction of King Amenemhet I for His Son Seostris I. The speaker is the dead king (1991-1962 BC), who appears to his son, Seostris, in a dream. Although the topic is regicide, it was a popular school text in the New Kingdom (c. 1300 BC) and survives on a number of ostraca and writing boards.

The most important of the Instructions for children’s literature, because, unlike the Instructions above, there is internal evidence that it was specifically written for children, is the Middle Kingdom Instruction for Khety, usually called The Satire of the Trades. It is the Egyptian equivalent of the Sumerian ‘School Days’ and ‘A Scribe and His Perverse Son’ but written about 500 years later. A father takes his young son Pepi to ‘place him in the school for scribes, among the sons of the magistrates’ (Lichtheim 1973: 184-92). He urges Pepi to ‘set your heart on books’, that this journey to the school is all for the love of him, that table manners, truthtelling, following orders, and good companions are crucial, and he warns Pepi not to leave the school at midday and wander in the streets. The body of the work is a description of all the trades, with their disadvantages - only the scribal profession is ‘the greatest of all callings/ there is none like it in the land’. This is one of the three most popular New Kingdom school texts and found on over a hundred ostraca, as well as in other sources.

The last, and perhaps the greatest of the Instructions, given its literary quality and influence, is The Instruction of Amenemope from the Ramesside period (Lichtheim 1976: 146-63). Written for ‘the youngest of his children/ the smallest of his family’ by a scribe and overseer, this work marks a shift from coveting worldly success to modestly working to keep the peace, giving to the poor and surviving the reversals of fortune. Honesty is the primary virtue. Scholars agree that the author of the biblical Proverbs must have known the work and borrowed from it (Lichtheim 1976: 147). From the New Kingdom also comes the schoolbook Papyrus Lansing, which consists of the satirical and sometimes amusing praise of writing and the scribal profession (Lichtheim 1976: 168-75), numerous model letters (Erman 1923: 198-214) and a long, interesting poem on the immortality of writers and the word (Lichtheim 1976: 175-8).

Not all the texts that Egyptian children used and read, whether written for them or adopted, were only didactic or pragmatic. They also were exposed to a new genre: prose narrative. Justly famous is the Middle Kingdom short story ‘The Eloquent Peasant’, ‘a school product’ (Erman 1923: 85). An unlearned peasant is robbed and speaks so eloquently before the magistrate that he is sent to plead in successively more elaborate speeches before the king, who ultimately rewards him. Perhaps the reason the work fell out of favour in the New Kingdom is that scribes did not appreciate the idea that book learning was not essential to success. Also from the Middle Kingdom we have two prose tales that initiate two further genres: the (probably) true-life adventure story and the tale of wonders and magic. The first is the popular Story of Sinuhe, which, like the Hymn to Hapy, is found on numerous New Kingdom papyrus fragments and ostraca in children’s handwriting as well as two Middle Kingdom papyri. Sinhue, a royal servant, flees Egypt and after a series of adventures ends up in Syria, where he marries the king’s daughter and has further adventures. When he grows old, he returns to Egypt, where the king’s family welcomes him and builds him a tomb. The other story from the Middle Kingdom, the appealing Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, is in much simpler language than ‘Sinuhe’, and exists only in one papyrus. We have no direct evidence that it was used by children, although Lichtheim thinks it was a scribal product, and William K. Simpson notes that ‘it is just possible that there is an indirect allusion to it in a Ramesside school text’ (1966: xxiv). A sailor reassures his despondent master that incredible things can happen for good and tells how he was shipwrecked on the magic island of the ka and confronted by an immense snake, the Lord of Punt; the snake turns out to be friendly, foretells the sailor’s rescue by Egyptians, and he returns to Egypt laden with the snake’s gifts. There are other Egyptian tales of wonder and magic, as well as interesting myths, such as that of Isis and Osiris and Set, but I have found no evidence to date of religious myths in children’s texts; perhaps they were too sacred to entrust to children. It is not until late, in the Greco-Roman period, that we find animal fables; one is a version of the Aesopic fable of the lion rescued by the mouse he has scorned (Lichtheim 1980: 156-9).

The children’s literature genres developed in Mesopotamia and in Egypt over a roughly 1,500-year period - proverbs, fables, animal stories, debates, myths, instructions (wisdom literature), adventure and magic tales, school stories, hymns and poems - pass down to the Hebrews and the Greeks. The Old Testament owes much to both Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature (see Pritchard 1969). How that biblical literature, both for children and for adults, became stories that were refashioned for children beginning in the medieval period has been brilliantly described by Ruth Bottigheimer (1996).