Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter

By Seth Lerer | Go to book overview

3
Court, Commerce, and Cloister
THE LITERATURES OF MEDIEVAL CHILDHOOD

Was there a literature for medieval children? Three decades of research into the culture of the child, the habits of the school, and the practices of Latin and vernacular literacy have revealed a richly textured verbal and imaginative world for children throughout medieval Europe.1 The church absorbed the old traditions of the Roman schoolroom, adapting instruction ingrammatica to the precepts of Catholic doctrine. Classical texts continued to be read and annotated, parsed and understood, but with new goals. Moral allegories were found in pagan narratives; poetic and prose styles shaped newer religious writing. The Aesopica was always there, but now new genres entered into school and home. The emergence of distinctive social structures—feudalism, courtly service, urban mercantile ambition, civic consciousness—fostered forms of children's literature different from those of the classical inheritance. In particular, courtesy and conduct manuals instructed children in proper behavior and speech and helped boys and girls take on social and familial roles. Popular poetry and tales in the vernaculars emerged, some of it indebted to Aesop, some of it developing local folk motifs and myths.

The structure of the family, too, was changing in the thousand years after the Romans pulled back from their British and Continental colonies. Patrilineage and primogeniture became the ways of passing on wealth and land, title and power. Marriage took on a sacramental value in the church, and the practices of baptism, communion, and confession, together with the conventions of naming children after biblical or holy figures, transformed the medieval family—at whatever social level—into something not just social or economic but spiritual as well. The “holy

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