The medieval period - Ancient and medieval children’s texts - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


16. Ancient and medieval children’s texts


Gillian Adams


The medieval period


In the last twenty-five years or so there has been an increasing interest in medieval children and their literature, particularly literature that is not primarily pedagogical but consists of the poems, fables and stories adapted or specially written for them (see Adams 1998b: passim). Nicholas Orme’s authoritative and beautifully illustrated Medieval Children (2001) devotes four chapters to children’s reading and exposure to texts in and out of school (see Adams 2003). Most recently, Daniel T. Kline has put together a collection of sixteen medieval texts for children, including a mixed child-adult audience, edited and introduced by different authorities (2003).

In the Middle Ages the literacy rate, which had been fairly high during the height of the Roman Empire, declined, but to what extent, at what time and in what locations varied greatly and is the subject of debate. Nevertheless, some children did learn to read, whether taught at home by parents or tutors or in schools run by clergy. The methodology remained roughly the same as in earlier periods, but instead of a Sumerian hymn, an Egyptian model letter, Greek passages from Homer or the Roman Twelve Tables, children memorised the Paternoster, the Creed and part of the Psalter. They then went on to the Distichs of Cato, the Fables of Avianus, a scaled-down Latin version of the Iliad, and a version of Donatus, a grammar book in question-and-answer format (see Adams 1998b: 9-10). In Britain, students used the Elucidariums, books of general information presented as dialogue, and Latin, bilingual or vernacular texts by churchmen such as Bede (673?-735), Aelfric (955?-1020?), Aelfric Bata (early eleventh century), Alexander Neckham (1157-1217), John of Garland (c. 1195-c. 1272), Bartholomaeus Anglicus (c. 1241-51) and Walter de Bibbesworth (c. 1275).

Before students went on to what remained of the old Latin curricular canon (Boethius, Cicero, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Statius, Terence, Virgil and others), they read shorter, transitional works in easy Latin. As well as fables, in Britain these could include saints’ lives, the stories in Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great, in Bede’s De Natura Rerum, and about King Arthur from Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1155); and riddles, such as those by Symphosius and Aldhelm and in Anglo-Saxon in the Exeter Book (comp. 1046). Europe added poems using speaking animals, such as Alcuin’s poem ‘The Cock and the Wolf’ (the earliest known analogue of Chaucer’s ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’), and the eleventh-century Ecbasis Captivi, a story about a calf caught by a wolf, rescued by a fox and taken to the court of the Lion King; it was meant as a warning to young novices not to run away. The twelfth-century Ysengrimus, the first fully worked version of the Reynard the Fox stories, was more likely written as a satire, but a bowdlerised version of it and selections from it appeared early in Florilegia bound together with teaching texts (see Adams 1998b: 12-13).

Children have long been recognised as participants in medieval dramas, including dramatised animal stories, but there is one dramatic corpus specifically written for them by the late tenth-century Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, a teacher in an aristocratic German nunnery (see Adams 1998a). She wrote these plays because she felt that the plays by Terence found in the curriculum were lacking in moral content and unsuitable for girls. In the later periods, added to the collections of moral precepts stemming from the Mesopotamian and Egyptian traditions, were fictional narratives meant to illustrate those precepts. For example, the first known version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, complete with moral, appears in Egbert of Liege’s Facunda Ratis, an eleventh-century hodgepodge for students of proverbs, fables, fairy tales and anecdotes (see Adams 1998b: 13). With more dubious moral content is a medieval bestseller for children translated into many languages, Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis, a twelfth-century collection of stories from primarily Arabic and Semitic sources (see Adams 1998c). A similar story collection is the Dolopathos or Seven Wise Men. These collections may be the forerunners of the later courtesy books, which often contain substantial narrative material. Allied to them are the Mirrors for Princes, such as the manual that Dhuoda wrote for her sixteen-year-old son in the Carolingian period (see Adams 1998b: 14). It has been argued that Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight belong to this genre (see Vitto 1998).

Religious texts constitute another important genre that has yet to be fully investigated as children’s literature. There is Claudius Marius Victor’s fifth-century paraphrase of Genesis, Alethia, which was written for the training of the young, and the narratives taken from the Vulgate by Peter Comestor in his best-selling Historia Scholastica (see Bottigheimer 1996: 14-23). There is the mysterious Holkham Bible Picture Book (c. 1325), a graphic novel with apocryphal material about the childhood of Christ. There are the stories in John the Monk’s Liber de Miraculis and those in the Gesta Romanorum and Golden Legend. Yet to be investigated are the stories of child saints and martyrs such as Chaucer’s ‘Little Hugh of Lincoln’. Some of this material and the Latin stories mentioned above found their way into the vernacular early. Other vernacular works connected with children are the singspiel Aucassin and Nicolete, Marie of France’s Fables, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe (see Adams 1998b: 15). Evidence is surfacing of manuscripts on which children have put marginal illustrations, glosses and commentary. I suspect that much more about medieval children’s literature is yet to be discovered.

I would like to end this survey with arguably the most beautiful children’s book to appear as a manuscript. Harking back to the ancient tradition of illustrated fables for children is the Medici Aesop, an illuminated collection of fables probably commissioned by the tutor of the eight-year-old Piero de Medici, Angelo Poliziano, about 1480 (Aesop 1989). What is remarkable about this work is not only the unusual choice of fables for a young boy and his siblings, but the way in which the miniatures of Florentine life are designed to facilitate understanding the Greek of the fables (see Adams 1999). It is an anachronism, as printed fable collections with wood block illustrations had already appeared in Italy and Caxton was at work translating and printing two illustrated works that belong to the realm of children’s literature, The Distichs of Cato (1477, 1481) and The Fables of Aesop (1484) as well as the courtesy book The Knight of the Tower (1484). In addition there were Caxton’s books for a dual audience: Jason (1477), Reynard the Fox (1481, 1489), Golden Legend (1484), The History of King Arthur (1485), and an Eneydos (1490) presented to the four-year-old Prince Arthur (Childs 1976). The Medici Aesop was intended for a limited audience while Caxton’s choice of works was aimed at the widest possible one. But his early printed books also demonstrate the essential conservatism of texts for children; some stem from the Hellenistic, Roman and medieval periods, while the fables reflect back on the very beginnings of those texts over 4,000 years ago.



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