By Kathryn Walton
Can you name a work of children’s literature from the Middle Ages? I would be surprised (and impressed!) if you could. When people think of the medieval world they don’t tend to think of children, and they really don’t tend to think of the kinds of books that children might have read. Up until I started studying the subject, I certainly couldn’t name a single work of medieval children’s literature. So, what did children in the Middle Ages read? Was there even such a thing as medieval children’s literature?
Medieval children have never received a lot of attention. Scholarship on the medieval period and depictions in popular culture don’t tend to focus on this particular demographic. For a long time, people assumed there simply wasn’t much to childhood in the Middle Ages. This misconception came from Philippe Ariès who claimed that there was no concept of childhood as a separate and definable stage in the Middle Ages; he said that children were simply seen as mini-adults. He also said that because infant mortality rates were so high (up to 25% of children died before age 1), parents did not have a great deal of emotional attachment to children.
This idea has since been discredited. Scholars like Nicholas Orme have shown that a rich culture surrounding childhood existed in the Middle Ages. Burial sites, toys, games, children’s clothing, and other key artefacts of medieval childhood have been discovered and show that parents did, in fact, care about their children and attend closely to their upbringing.
Childhood in the Middle Ages did look a bit different than it does today. Children moved into adult responsibilities as young as age 12. Depending on one’s social status, that would mean marrying, apprenticing, or turning to work on a full-time scale. Even before that time, children were expected to bear a great deal of responsibility, taking on work in the home or on the farm to help out the family.
But kids were still allowed to be kids. They had time for play, for games, for friends, and of course, for books. In fact, literature was a central part of medieval children’s culture.
Children’s Literature in the Middle Ages
Children experienced literature in the Middle Ages in two ways: orally and in written form. The oral tradition was probably way more extensive and was accessible to every child, no matter their social status. Not every child could read, but most children could listen to stories, songs, and rhymes told to them by parents and nurses.
The manuscript tradition is somewhat less extensive. There are not a huge number of surviving examples of children’s books because books were expensive and less widely available. Also, children tend to read books to death so its probable that a lot of the material is lost.
So, what kind of literature were medieval children enjoying? Most medieval literature for children was intended either to educate or entertain.
Books for Education
Those books dedicated to education taught medieval children everything from how to read, to what good behaviour looked like, to history, science, and philosophy. Most surviving manuscripts of children’s literature are educational texts, so we have a good sense of what these books looked like. These educational texts appeared in a few different forms.
Like today, children in the Middle Ages were taught to read using ABC poems. One, for example, that survives in an English manuscript from c. 1430 is called The ABC of Aristotle, or sometimes, “Lerne or be Lewde” (Learn or Be Ignorant). It goes like this…
Whoever wishes to be wise, and desires praise,
Learn one letter and look on another….
A Be not too amorous, too adventurous, and do not argue too much.
B Be bold, but not too busy, and do not babble too much.
C Be courteous and not cruel and care not too sorely
D Be not dull nor dreadful nor drink too often.
The poem continues to provide a series of words that match each letter. Each line tells children how they should and should not behave. You can read the full thing here.
Manners and proper behaviour were of especial concern to medieval parents. There was an entire genre of literature dedicated to teaching children how to behave. What they were taught varied depending on social class. Members of the aristocracy would be taught how to rule through texts known as Speculum Principis (A Mirror for Princes).
Members of the upper and middle classes would be taught courtesy and good manners. Of utmost concern was table manners. Children were supposed to “keep their feet and fingers and hands still and in peace,” and “be simple of cheer and cast not their look aside and turn not their head about looking overall.” They must also, of course, “pick not their nose, and especially remember that before their sovereign they should not scratch and rub themselves.”
They were also reminded about other aspects of their behaviour. They were “not to give credence to every tale they heard, and to not be hasty in seeking vengeance.” They should “dress cleanly after their estate.” They should “light a fire in the morning and at night to protect against black mist and the pestilence,” and they should always “avoid sloth in the mornings and idleness, and also liars and lechers.”
These bits of advice come from a mid 15th-century conduct manual by John Lydgate – available here.
There were also texts dedicated to educating children on ideas: on everything from religion, to philosophy, to astrology, to history, and to science. Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, wrote a short scientific treatise on how to use an astrolabe for his 10-year-old son, Lewis. An astrolabe is a complex astrological instrument that allows the user to observe the sun and the stars. Basically, it helps you locate the angle of the sun and stars in the sky so that you can tell what time of day it is, the latitude, and where the constellations are according to the time of the year. It was an important scientific instrument of the time, and Chaucer wrote a manual for “Lytle Lowys my son” in simple language so that his son could learn how to use it.
These are just a few examples of the many different kinds of educational texts available for children.
Books for Entertainment
There were also all kinds of books dedicated to children’s entertainment. These again look a bit different than they do today. They are often full of things we now deem inappropriate for children (sex, violence, death) and they tended to circulate orally. Here are a few examples of the kinds of things that would have been available.
Songs and Rhymes
Lullabies and nursery rhymes were as prominent in the Middle Ages as they are today and many of the lullabies and nursery rhymes popular today probably have roots in the Middle Ages. They were transmitted orally in families and would have changed and evolved over time.
One lullaby quoted by Seth Lerer in his excellent history of children’s literature, looks exactly like something we would sing today.
Lullay, lullow, lully, lullay,
Dewy, bewy, lully, lully,
Bewy, lully, lullow, lully,
Lullay, baw, baw, my barne,
Slepe softly now.
A number of silly rhymes written by or for children also survive from the time. These often survive because a scribe writing a manuscript would scribble a ditty from his youth in the margins. Lerer refers to one that depicts a schoolteacher beaten with his own staff and condemned to the devil. In the poem the children wish that the devil “would help thee and be thy pouke.” Pouke in this case means evil spirit, and so the children want the devil to be an evil spirit for the schoolteacher and torment him in the same way that he torments them.
Fables were also a staple of the medieval child’s literary world. A fable is a short tale with a moral lesson that typically features animals. Aesop’s fables are the most famous and were very popular in the Middle Ages. They would have circulated both orally and in manuscript form and have appealed to members of all social classes. Fables like The Ant and The Grasshopper, or The Crow and The Pitcher would have entertained children with their amusing stories while educating them about the ways of the world.
Folktales and Romances
Folktales like the tales of Robin Hood and romances featuring valiant knights also circulated commonly in both oral and manuscript form. These were enjoyed by both children and adults, but the daring deeds of figures like Robin Hood, and the wonders of a knight fighting a dragon would have appealed to kids then as much as they do today.
Fairy tales in their more original forms would have circulated too, and many of the fairy tales that we know and love today come from the medieval period or earlier. Cinderella, for example, was first recorded in 9th century China. See my feature on “The Medieval Cinderella.”
And So Much More!
These are just a few of the many different kinds of literature that circulated for children in the Middle Ages. The reading life of a medieval child was just as varied as the reading lives of kids are today. Stories and books played a vital role in their entertainment and upbringing, and the kinds of things they read are in many ways very similar to the things kids read today.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: St. Anne teaching Mary to read – Walters Manuscript W.168, fol. 222v