Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages

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Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages

By Nicholas Orme

Cornell University Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8014-5102-7

Publisher’s Description: Medieval children lived in a world rich in poetry, from lullabies, nursery rhymes, and songs to riddles, tongue twisters, and nonsensical verses. They read or listened to stories in verse: ballads of Robin Hood, romances, and comic tales. Poems were composed to teach them how to behave, eat at meals, hunt game, and even learn Latin and French. In Fleas, Flies, and Friars, Nicholas Orme, an expert on childhood in the Middle Ages, has gathered a wide variety of children’s verse that circulated in England beginning in the 1400s, providing a way for modern readers of all ages to experience the medieval world through the eyes of its children.

In his delightful treasury of medieval children’s verse, Orme does a masterful job of recovering a lively and largely unknown tradition, preserving the playfulness of the originals while clearly explaining their meaning, significance, or context. Poems written in Latin or French have been translated into English, and Middle English has been modernized. Fleas, Flies, and Friars has five parts. The first two contain short lyrical pieces and fragments, together with excerpts from essays in verse that address childhood or were written for children. The third part presents poems for young people about behavior. The fourth contains three long stories and the fifth brings together verse relating to education and school life.

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Excerpts

Walter of Bibbesworth, a 13th century knight, offered up this poem to remind children how to dress themselves:

Put your clothes on; don’t refuse
Breeches, gloves, and also shoes;
Hat on head for ran or sun;
Buttons – do up every one.
Put your belt around your waist,
Then make sure the end is placed
Through the buckle till the pin
Holds the belt-end safely in.

A 16th century nursery rhyme

Tom-a-lin and his wife and his wife’s mother, 
They went over a bridge all three together.
The bridge was broken and they fell in;
‘The devil go with all’, said Tom-a-lin.

A tongue-twister from the 15th century

Three grey greedy geese
Flew o’er three green greasy furrows;
The geese were grey and greedy,
The furrows green and greasy. 

A Riddle found in school exercise books

Three headless men played at ball;
One handless man served them all;
One mouthless man stood and laughed
As a cripple dragged his cloak 

A Christmas carol from the early 16th century

Make we merry, both more and less
For now is the time of Christmas!

Let no man come into this hall,
Groom, page, nor yet marshal, 
But that some sport he bring withal,
For now is the time of Christmas!

If that he say he cannot sing,
Some other sport then let him bring,
That it may please at this feasting,
For now is the time of Christmas!

If he say he can naught do,
Then for my love ask him no moe,
But to the stocks then let him go,
For now is the time of Christmas!

See also Childhood in Medieval England, c.500-1500, by Nicholas Orme

Sharan Newman