Children and Literature in Medieval England

 Children's BookChildren and Literature in Medieval England

Nicolas Orme

Medium Ævum: Vol. 68:2 (1999)


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.


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