Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


16. Ancient and medieval children’s texts


Gillian Adams




In the Hellenistic period, between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the death of Cleopatra and the establishment of the Roman Empire by Augustus in 30 BC, citizens of the Mediterranean basin and beyond enjoyed a cosmopolitan community of culture. Greek became the language of learning, diplomacy and the arts; it was not race but the mind that made one Greek. Attic Greek took on the status of a learned language, and the ability to speak and read it was a mark of social status, as had been true with Sumerian and ancient Egyptian in earlier periods. There were few changes in terms of the curriculum and the schools, which girls could now attend, but there is a shift in the aim of Greek education. In the earlier period, it was to become ‘beautiful and good’ (Plato), both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds, based on models such as the Homeric heroes and administrators and lawgivers such as Solon. But in the fifth century under the influence of the Sophists, this aim shifted to being able to speak effectively. By the time of Isocrates in the fourth century, education had become professionalised and the emphasis was on logos, the word; its effective use was necessary for right thinking, right speaking, and right action. Thus the study of rhetoric, both oratory and theory, became all-important. The increasing educational opportunities for women, and their growing legal, financial and sometimes political power, led to an increased interest in romantic love and heterosexual passion, and the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes (c. 260 BC), an epic about Jason and Medea, entered the curriculum (see Pomeroy 1975: 120-48), as well as Menander’s New Comedies (321-289 BC), which largely concerned adolescents, slaves and prostitutes.

For the earlier periods it is difficult to guess what children might choose to read on their own, against what they were asked to read by adults. But there is a popular genre that began in the Hellenistic period and was certainly enjoyed by children from the Middle Ages on, and that is Romance. It has been argued that Greek romances are ‘Egyptian in origin and character’ (Heiserman 1977: 114 n. 7), and striking characteristics of them are the youth of the protagonists, who are in early adolescence, and the equality of their love. At least one if not both protagonists are initially under the supervision of a parent or guardian and both are chaste, unlike Menander’s older adolescent characters. After a series of exciting and often improbable adventures that involve magic, travel, captivity, shipwreck, and so on, the protagonists are allowed by their parents to marry. The language is straightforward. Only parts of three from the first century BC survive; the longest is the romance of Ninus and Semiramis (Heiserman 1977: 41-4). Others exist in epitomes. Of the four complete Greek romances from a later period, the best known is Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe (c. AD 160).

Perhaps the most important romance for children’s literature is the Greek Alexander Romance or The Life and Deeds of Alexander, usually referred to as Pseudo-Callisthenes. Although reasonably accurate factual accounts of Alexander the Great’s life and exploits were available in the classical and medieval periods, what eventually became part of the curriculum was a fusion of biography that skirted historical fact with the fantastic travel tale and the Romance; it arguably marks the beginning of fantasy. Extremely popular and translated into thirty-five languages, the Alexander Romance is a fluid text, with tales early added to it from Hebrew, Egyptian and Eastern sources (Kratz 1991: x). In simple language in the medieval version that reached the West c. AD 1000, it must have delighted children with stories of camels and elephants in faraway India and with Alexander’s trip under the sea in a bathysphere, not to mention his wooing of the princess Roxanne.

Two other important texts for children first appeared in the Hellenistic period, the Indian Fables of Bidpai, stemming from the Panchatantra, and a part of the canon of Confucianism, the Chinese The Classic of Filial Piety and its later supplement The Twenty- Four Examples of Filial Piety (see Mo and Shen 1999). Both are still in current use in China and India respectively. The Panchatantra, belonging to the Mirror for Princes genre, and its derivatives, have a complex history. Perhaps a product of the Vedic period (after 1500 BC), its actual age is unknown because the original Sanskrit version has been lost. There is evidence that one of its offshoots used by children, The Fables of Bidpai, existed in some form before 300 BC. Joseph Jacobs lists 112 versions of The Fables translated into thirty- eight languages, among them Persian and Arabic (1888: xii); the illustrations were regarded as an integral part of the text (ix). It was the Arabic version in Greek translation that was widely circulated in the Middle Ages (Perry 1965: xix), and it was one of the two books to survive the burning of the library at Alexandria (Hobbs 1986: 18). The relationship between the early Mesopotamian fables, Greek Aesopic fables, and Indian stories and fables is complex and hotly debated (see, for example, Perry 1965: xix-xxxiv; Thompson 1977: 367-90). The earliest collection of Aesopic fables that we know of, from late in the fourth century BC, the Aesopia of Demetrius of Phalerum, has not survived, but it was a principal source for fable in antiquity (Perry 1965: xiii); some of the Aesopica that has come down to us have Mesopotamian analogues. About the actual Aesop, an early sixth- century contemporary of Sappho, little is known, but the fictional first-century AD Life of Aesop is an interesting story and should have been popular with children.