Children and Literature in Medieval England

By Orme, Nicholas | Medium Aevum, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Children and Literature in Medieval England


Orme, Nicholas, Medium Aevum


Children's literature, both fiction and non-fiction, is a thriving modern industry with its own investors, producers, and consumers. It has classic writers going back to the mid-nineteenth century, and can be traced beyond them to the chapbooks of Hanoverian and Stuart times. How much earlier can its history be followed? Certainly well before 1500. Sources dwindle as one recedes in time, but children and adolescents can be identified as reading a substantial body of literature, both instructive and recreational, by the fifteenth century, and glimpses of the subject may be gained even before that time. One of the oldest references to a child reading English is to the young King Alfred in the mid-ninth century, and a Welsh poem in the form of a lullaby may have been composed in the sixth.(1) This and other evidence suggests that the association of young people with literature in Britain is virtually coeval with that of adults. It is less familiar to us primarily because of the absence or unobtrusiveness of records about it.

The subject is, in fact, a large and complex one, reflecting the diversity of childhood. This article seeks to survey the literature read or experienced by boys and girls from birth until their late teens, and thereby encompasses over a third of the population of medieval England. The young people concerned were in different stages of life -- infancy, childhood, and adolescence, stages with their own characteristics, recognized as distinct in medieval times.(2) They varied in being literate and illiterate,(3) and spoke or learnt more than one language. They might read texts or hear them read in Latin, French, or English -- each of which deserves consideration, although the present study concentrates on English. The texts they encountered differed in genre and in the audiences for whom they were written. There were works aimed specifically at the young, works suitable for use by adults or the young, and works intended for adults that reached the young unofficially or by chance. Children also produced and recorded literature themselves, especially school work but also rhymes and sayings from their own popular culture. All these kinds of material are considered in the survey, but a further category is not included. This concerns writing by adults about children for adult consumption -- such as autobiography or scientific observation -- writing which also survives from the Middle Ages.

It is conventional in most social history and literary criticism to assume that medieval literature was primarily intended for, and used by, adults alone. Rarely indeed does the word `children' find a place in the indexes of editions of texts, or of secondary works! Only in the field of education -- schoolbooks and didactic works -- are genres of writing usually recognized as catering for children. The relationship of young people with literature, however, can be demonstrated more widely than this, from both internal and external evidence. Internally a work may contain a statement by its author that it was produced for a child or children, like Chaucer's treatise on the Astrolabe for his son Lewis. Such testimony is valuable, but it is not common and tends to relate to didactic literature like the Astrolabe rather than to works of fiction. More often, possibilities are raised by a type of story likely to interest children, the presence of characters who are children or congenial adults, or the arrangement of a work in a form friendly to children, such as short lines of verse. Such possibilities can often be strengthened by external evidence. Context may be suggestive: the presence of a text among others directed to children. The use of books by young people may be indicated by inscriptions or scribbles, and letters or wills may link them with particular works. When printing begins, publishers may add a preface commending a book to children, or issue a text in a format like that of works explicitly for them. Writers about childhood may assert what children are reading, or should read, and the popularity of a medieval work with children in Tudor or Stuart England may suggest the likelihood in earlier times. …

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