- Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages by Nicholas Orme
This short book presents, in modern English, some of the rather scant body of poetry clearly connected with children from the Middle Ages, where that term covers the age range between babies and teenagers. Most of the works are English in origin, but some were composed in Latin and French, and all the translations are Nicholas Orme’s own. The poems had to fit his requirement for ‘some provable link with children’ (p. 5), and the content is varied, as is the calibre of the translations. Some offer instruction in manners or schoolwork, and there are stories, rhymes, and scraps intended for fun. After an introductory essay, the works are arranged in several parts, with brief footnotes to explicate expressions in the verses that are likely to be unfamiliar, and endnotes for the origins of the poems. Before each section and most of the works there is further introductory material, varying in length from a sentence to several paragraphs.
‘Growing up’ (pp. 7–24) reminds us that children continually hear more than works written just for them, by including songs that might have been sung to children, verses from school exercise books, carols, and nursery rhymes, together with directions for mothers and nurses. This varied range is a glimpse of the works to come.
‘Words, Rhymes, and Songs’ (pp. 25–38) presents poems closely connected with children’s play, such as nonsense rhymes, charms, curses, and insults, including the tongue-twister that provides the book’s title, an expression of distaste for the friars, which associates them with pests. The line [End Page 264 ] ‘Bloodless and boneless standeth behind the door!’, which Orme speculates may be a riddle or ghost story (p. 29), may also be related, albeit distantly, to a poem on the Host (‘Blodles & bonles blod has non bon’, New Index of Middle English Verse (2006), 542). The section ends with poems of love, concluding with the fate of the girl who loved Jack, the holy water clerk. Since this poem seems most likely to be the work of a clerk, with other clerks as its most appreciative audience, we may question its standing as a poem for children.
‘Manners Maketh Man’ (pp. 39–57) presents extracts from courtesy books, including Stans Puer ad Mensam, in versions by Robert Grosseteste, which instructs in etiquette, and by a follower of John Lydgate, on prayer and behaviour in church. Orme also translates a Latin poem of the same title that deals with table manners. These works, addressed to boys, recommend high standards of behaviour, but suggest greater freedom than ‘The Good Wife Taught her Daughter’, which prescribes a meek, submissive way of life for girls and young wives. Extracts from The Book of St Alban’s explain the customs of hunting.
There are tales of adventure and fun, ‘produced or adapted especially for’ children (p. 58), in longer extracts from ‘Robin Hood’, ‘Sir Aldingar’, and ‘The Friar and the Boy’ in ‘Stories’ (pp. 58–83). Orme uses the introduction to ‘School Days’ (pp. 84–98) to describe opportunities for literacy in Latin and English and schools of the period. He presents poems of the alphabet, comments of John Trevisa, and the learning of the hymn in The Prioress’s Tale, together with schoolboys’ own verses about drudgery and their masters. These chapters and ‘Words, Rhymes and Songs’ bring us closest to medieval children, through the expression of childish thoughts and their experiences of recreations and discipline, and not least because they have Orme’s livelier and more enjoyable translations. They are quite unlike the poems of instruction.
The collection is ‘aimed first and foremost at general readers, not at scholars who would require a very different kind of work’ (p. 5). This seems to lead to some missed opportunities to insert additional matter in the notes. For example, in the stanza of the maid of Kent (p. 14), although a...