- Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages by Nicholas Orme
In this erudite but approachable anthology of medieval children’s verse, Nicholas Orme creates from a relatively sparse corpus a vivid and, at times, surprising picture of medieval childhood. With the exception of didactic writings, medieval children’s verse traveled primarily through oral transmission, and it was only following the advent of paper in England that this ephemeral literature began to survive in any quantity. As he elaborates in his introduction, Orme draws his selections from the somewhat limited pool of verses that “can be shown to have been composed, copied, used by, or aimed at children or teenages, whether by adults or children themselves” (4). Additional brief texts, among them extracts from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale and John Trevisa’s translation of De proprietatibus rerum, offer periodic adult perspectives on aspects of children’s lives that go uncovered in the extant corpus of medieval children’s literature. [End Page 311]
In spite—and perhaps on account—of these constraints on Orme’s selection, the collection covers a lot of ground. He organizes his first chapter, “Growing Up,” around children’s early experiences and their expression in verse composed about, for, and even in some cases by them. Nursery rhymes accompany accounts of children’s games and holiday activities—from cock-fighting to carol-singing!—and early clothing and diet. An apocryphal narrative of a tiff between a youthful Jesus and his peers offers insights into familiar childhood contretemps, while Orme’s discussion of lullabies’ audiences and content may challenge modern expectations. In his second chapter, “Words, Rhymes, and Songs,” Orme turns his focus to verses composed or adopted by children. He derives many of these from school exercise books dating from the fifteenth century and beyond. This chapter’s categorizations—including tongue-twisters, riddles, and nonsense—suggest that children’s attraction to the strange or defamiliarizing has long governed their literary tastes. Orme’s selections also bear witness to medieval children’s frank awareness of sex and its consequences and of some political and social issues of their day. The third chapter, “Manners Maketh Man,” addresses literature of advice geared for children, likely a more familiar genre of medieval children’s literature for many scholarly readers. Here Orme assembles short poems and extracts from longer works that address general standards of behavior as well as gender- or class-specific expectations. The fourth chapter, “Stories,” presents three longer narratives whose medieval audience, Orme contends, would have included young people even if it was not limited to them. These range in subject matter from an adventure of Robin Hood to the mischievous exploits of a boy persecuted by his step-mother to a romance-inflected account of a wicked knight’s attempted framing of a queen who has rejected his advances and his eventual defeat by her extremely youthful champion. The final chapter, “School Days,” centers on verses that reflect upon the value or travails of children’s education in reading and song schools or grammar schools. Orme rounds out this chapter with excerpts from common texts children would have read in the course of their instruction.
For scholars, this slim volume provides a pleasing and informative supplement to Orme’s significant scholarship on children and their education in the medieval and early modern periods. This book will also appeal—and be accessible—to a far broader audience. In his lucid introductions to the book and to each chapter, Orme provides a historical and cultural framework in which to situate the collected poems. For the inquisitive, he has included at the back of the book notes on the sources of these poems, as well as a brief list of further recommended reading, including his own forthcoming edition of the texts collected within school exercise books. (Here it is worth noting that the title for this edition appears to have changed since this book’s publication, from Early School Exercises to English School Exercises.) Orme’s translations render not only the Latin...