Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


17. Texts in English used by children, 1550-1800


Margaret Evans


Origins: from Caxton to Puritanism


It has been said that children’s book publishing in English began in earnest in 1744, when John Newbery issued A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, ‘intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly’ and offered for sale on its own at 6d or with ball or pincushion at 8d (Darton 1982: l-5). However, this is to assume that early children’s literature encompassed only books aimed mainly at pleasing the reader. The span was very much wider and a literature read by children therefore began much earlier. Many of the texts used by children in the centuries between the introduction of printing and the development of the serious business of children’s book publishing in the mid-eighteenth century were far from light-hearted; they were a mixture of courtesy books, schoolbooks and religious texts. Children also took what they could from the diverse range of cheap paper pamphlets, the chapbooks. These began circulating in earnest in the seventeenth century after the Star Chamber was abolished in 1641 and political and religious ideas could be expressed in relative freedom. Along with the sermons and tracts were published the ‘small merry books’ which Samuel Pepys collected (Spufford 1981: passim).

Many of these were enjoyed by children and young adults; there were no distinctions between readership ages in the popular literature circulating in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The young John Bunyan read avidly of George on Horseback or Bevis of Southampton and later repented of his laxity: ‘for the Holy Scriptures, I cared not’ (Spufford 1981: 7). The story of Bevis predates the invention of printing - manuscript versions were known as early as the thirteenth century - and his famous battle with the giant Ascapart was depicted in a graphic woodcut in William Copland’s edition, published around 1565. Certainly, Shakespeare knew the tale. Richard Johnson’s The Seven Champions of Christendom, first published in 1596, Tom Hickathrift, Old Mother Shipton and The King and the Cobbler are further examples of similarly popular tales which sprang from an earlier, largely oral, culture and were taken around the country by the travelling pedlars. This literature survived well into the nineteenth century in better-produced formats, and was remarked upon by Wordsworth among others as of continuing significance for children. The early, rough, uncut paper books with their crude woodcut illustrations provided much of the reading matter for the mass of the population in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, adults and children alike. John Clare, born in 1793, noted how his father was ‘very fond of the superstitious tales that are hawked about the streets for a penny’ (Spufford 1981: 3): tales which included Guy of Warwick, History of Gotham, Robin Hood’s Garland and Old Mother Bunch. These became the province of children as adult reading tastes shifted and, like the nursery rhymes which evolved from an adult-oriented oral literature, provided the basis for a specifically children’s literature.

The chapbooks and ballads which so appealed to Bunyan, and which he acknowledged were also read by his fellows, were commonly available even to the yeoman class. However, despite this widespread availability, literacy levels were low; by the midseventeenth century only around 30 per cent of men could read fluently, and even fewer women (Cressy 1980: passim). Nevertheless, that more and more children were learning to read in Britain can be seen from the increasing numbers of schools in towns and the larger villages. By the end of the seventeenth century even poorer children in these areas had access to some rudimentary schooling, although pupils would usually be removed from school as soon as they were old enough to earn for their families, perhaps as early as seven or eight. Social class differentiated those children who received little more than the barest introduction to reading - using a basic primer or horn book - from those who were taught to write and learn further from the better-produced schoolbooks, bound in sheepskin or calf. Horn books, which provided the earliest exposure to reading for many children, have been dated from the fifteenth century; several are shown in contemporary portraits, hanging by a ribbon from the waists of young children. This type of ‘book’ was usually made from a bat-shaped piece of wood, to which was pasted the alphabet and sometimes the Lord’s Prayer, and covered with a transparent piece of horn. Versions in lead, alloy, bone and even silver have also been found and the horn book frequently served as a battledore for play between lessons. Primers - small booklets which contained the alphabet, the Lord’s Prayer, catechism and collects - were also commonly available: Thomas Tryon, born in Oxfordshire in 1634, learned to read by using one and then sold one of his sheep to learn writing from a master ‘who taught some poor people’s children to read and write’.

More substantial, real books for the education of well-to-do children included the books of courtesy like Stans Puer ad Mensam (c. 1479) and Hugh Rhodes’s Boke of Nurture (c. 1545), which were intended as much for the instruction of parents and tutors as for their charges, and schoolbooks - Latin and Greek grammars, spelling books, arithmetic books and so forth - provided the mainstay of reading for older schoolchildren. More boys than girls attended school during this period, and boys’ reading and writing skills were generally further advanced. While most of what was offered would have seemed hard labour to a child, as few books were illustrated by more than a crude woodcut frontispiece, some writers did attempt to provide a little lighter material. John Hart’s A Methode, or Comfortable Beginning for all Unlearned (1570) contains the first known printed picture alphabet, and Francis Clement’s Petie Schole (1576), one of the earliest English spelling books, offered some verses written for ‘the litle [sic] children’. However, until the late seventeenth century, most schoolchildren had little by way of diversion through their schoolbooks. One of the most significant changes to this can be seen in the publication in English of Johann Amos Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1659). Although not a children’s picture book by modern standards, this was the first lavishly illustrated picture encyclopedia for children and is evidence of a new acceptance that children learn best through books designed to stimulate them. Towards the end of the seventeenth century writers were beginning to write more sympathetically for children; Thomas Lye’s The Child’s Delight (1671), a spelling book, is one example.

Not all of the schoolbooks used by children in this early period were therefore lacking in imaginative stimulus. The old fables, especially the compilation known as Aesop’s Fables which was first printed in English by Caxton in 1484, were also much used in schools. One of the earliest English translators was Robert Henryson, whose version has survived in an edition published in 1570; John Brinsley produced another translation in 1624 and in 1692 Roger L’Estrange provided one of the most comprehensive renditions in a magnificent collection of 500 tales from Phaedrus, Avian and La Fontaine, as well as ‘Aesop’. While the older animal fables were not Christian in origin, the morals preached in them were approved by all religious persuasions, and editions of Aesop were used widely in schools and in the home. The need to illustrate the fables to make them more accessible to a child had, however, not been fully realised; John Locke, writing in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), argued that ‘if his Aesop has pictures in it, it will entertain him much the better, and encourage him to read when it carries the increase of knowledge with it’ (Axtell 1968: 259). Locke’s treatise contained a range of advice on the teaching of reading and the kind of books best suited to young children; his remarks on the importance of presenting it in as attractive a format as possible reflected the changing mood of the times. Samuel Croxall’s illustrated edition of Fables of Aesop and Others, published in 1722, was the product of this intention that children’s reading books should be both morally profitable and also pleasurable; John Newbery later borrowed heavily from Croxall in his preface to Fables in Verse for the Improvement of the Young and the Old (1757). The evolution of Aesop from a collection of somewhat florid moral fables to the neat tales published by Newbery exemplifies the paradox that the history of children’s literature has always been characterised by continuity mixed with far-reaching change.

This paradox is especially evident in the tenacious hold on children’s books of morality, especially the Puritan morality which pervaded much of seventeenth-century writing. In Thomas White’s A Little Book for Little Children (c. 1660), readers are warned to ‘read no ballads and foolish books, but a Bible, and the Plainmans pathway to Heaven’. Children were exhorted not only to read scripture; they were also directed to adult devotional books. Arthur Dent’s The Plaine Mans Pathway to Heaven; wherein every man may clearely see whether he shall be saved or damned (1610) was an important Puritan text and was used by children beside other classics such as John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1563), usually known as the Book of Martyrs.

An even more significant book, designed specifically for children and which continued in publication into the nineteenth century, was James Janeway’s A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children. Published in two parts between 1671 and 1672, the book contains moral tales of young children who died young of unspecified illness, or the plague, and who lecture their families and companions for their lax religious observance. The preface to Part 1 asks the reader: ‘How art thou now affected, poor Child, in the reading of this Book? Have you ever shed a tear since you begun reading?’ Children were given Janeway to improve their souls as much as their reading. Books such as this were not intended for amusement, although by the time John Harris was publishing Janeway in 1804 along with other ‘pious little works’ in a gift box, its original impact had degenerated somewhat, largely because other lighter material served as an antidote. To the seventeenth-century child, there was little choice. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) remains as the best-loved classic of the Puritan period, and Bunyan’s allegory was recognised by him as having a special appeal to children, but this too was a work of devotion rather than imagination. Children’s delight at Christian’s adventures on his journey to the Celestial City was not intended to obscure the moral meaning.

Abraham Chear, one of the most popular of the Puritan writers, whose work was used in many others’ books, had his verse published in A Looking Glass for the Mind (1672), a book of poems and elegies which went into four editions by 1708. This book is remarkable only for its popularity; like many others of its kind it was bought by parents seeking to educate their children for a good life and a holy death. Publishers, though, were realising the worth of the market for these ‘good godly books’ and by the 1670s many more were being published. Benjamin Keach was one of the most prolific of the Puritan authors; his War with the Devil (1673), which describes the fight for a young man’s soul between Conscience, Truth, the Devil and Christ, was still being published in the mideighteenth century, when it was advertised as ‘necessary to be read by all Christian families’. Another much-read author was Nathaniel Crouch, editor and publisher as well as writer; his pseudonym was ‘R.B.’ - Richard Burton. The Young Man’s Calling (1678), Youth’s Divine Pastime (3rd edn, 1691) and Winter Evening Entertainments (1687) were conventional in tone and contained much that was repackaged from other works: riddles, stories, morals.

There were those in addition to Bunyan who stood above the mediocrity of Puritan religious tracts. William Ronksley’s work, for example, displayed considerable interest in the child as reader. His The Child’s Weeks-Work: or, A Little Book so nicely suited to the Genius and Capacity of a Little Child ... that it will infallibly Allure and Lead him on into a Way of Reading (1712) was moral in its intention but so well composed with neat rhymes for every day of the week that the child would have undoubtedly been charmed by it. Isaac Watts also wrote at the turn of the century, at the point when Puritanism was losing some of its ferocity in dealing with children. Like Ronksley, Watts wrote gentle verse; his Divine Songs attempted in Easie Language for the Use of Children (1715) continued as a staple of the nursery through to the Victorian period and was lovingly parodied by Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The duty children owed to parents was his particular theme, but the lesson is easily read and could be liltingly spoken:


How doth the little busy bee

Improve each shining hour,

And gather honey all the day

From every opening flower ...

In works of labour, or of skill,

I would be busy too;

For Satan finds some mischief still

For idle hands to do ...


By the beginning of the eighteenth century, therefore, books for children were becoming more child-oriented: in the tone, the language and the subject matter. While death and damnation were still important concerns, so too were the more prosaic concerns of family life. Watts was writing in the Puritan tradition, but his verse was accessible to everyone, and remained a staple of schoolroom and nursery for two centuries.