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Children's Literature in the Middle Ages

From: Children's Literature
Volume 1, 1972
pp. 21-29 | 10.1353/chl.0.0064

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Because western notions about children have changed radically since the Middle Ages, modern conceptions of "children's literature" are anachronistic as applied to that earlier period. Children in medieval society were thought to be essentially the same as adults, except that they were smaller and less experienced. A child's world was that of the adult in miniature. His clothing imitated adult clothing in every detail, as can be seen, for example, in the diminutive suits of armor in museums. Portraiture presenting children as wizened adults, mature in feature if not in size, persisted into the nineteenth century. Our modern society's preoccupation with the physical, moral, and sexual problems of childhood was unknown in medieval civilization. Indeed, there was no separation of generations in the Middle Ages as there is today. Soon after he had been weaned (much later than is common now), the child became the natural companion of the adult, sharing his interests and recreation.2

The description of children in early medieval literature indicates very little about their daily lives or literary interests. In the epic literature children, like women, are mentioned infrequently, and then often only as heritors, as in the passage in the Old French epic Le Charroi de Nimes where Guillaume d'Orange tells King Louis that he will not take the lands of an infant whose father has died valiantly in the King's service.3 The lives of heroes are narrated with few details about childhood except those that reveal precocious prowess, and the exploits themselves are archetypal adult feats—exceptional skill in arms and athletics, the killing of a monster, and the like. Similar idealizations occur in medieval saints' lives, which generally describe the saints as having been supernaturally good children.

Later in the Middle Ages the representation of children was sometimes more realistic.4 The advent of courtly literature with its emphasis on the domestic as well as the militaristic aspects of society brought the appearance of "family scenes," at least as vignettes, in the romances of Marie de France, Chretién de Troyes, and others. Childhood episodes in the lives of heroes such as Arthur, Tristan, Perceval, Havelok, and Guy of Warwick became more important. Occasionally inferences concerning the behavior of children and parents can be drawn from the actions in beast fables. For example, the outraged accusations of the mother hawk against her brood on seeing the nest befouled, the baby hawks' "it was him" responses, and the mother's harsh punishment of the young culprit, are told in the fable of "The Hawk and the Owl," which was widely repeated in English, French, and Latin in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.5 It is easy to infer that such slapstick episodes must have amused old and young alike, but neither the medieval beast fables nor the tales with human characters give any information about the literary interests of children.

Because we lack direct and explicit evidence of "children's literature" in the Middle Ages, that is, literature written specifically for the entertainment of children as opposed to adults, it seems logical to investigate the related field of educational literature for clues about what medieval children may have read and enjoyed. Of course, not all education is conducted with written literature. Often the media of education have been games, songs, legends, and personal demonstration. Nor is there always a clear line of demarcation between the purely instructive and the entertaining. The modern child who "plays house" or "doctor" or the medieval youth who "jousted" with blunt sticks or hunted birds with bow and arrow or javelin are ready examples of play that combines instruction with amusement. Surely the heroic legends of Beowulf and Roland must have been told with an awareness of their potential for instruction as well as entertainment. Conversely, the legends of the saints were entertaining as well as morally edifying, and they often reflected as many of the ideals and details of the secular society as of the clerical—for example, the lives of St. Edmund, St. Goderic, and St. Nicholas.

Were medieval children literate? There certainly existed in the Middle Ages a body of literature meant for instruction, and there is evidence that...



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