Medieval English Books for Children: Reading to Succeed

Many parents in medieval England were as concerned about teaching their children to read and write as parents are today. Literacy was not as common as it is in 2010, of course, but by the later Middle Ages a monastic and aristocratic elite no longer dominated book culture as it had in earlier medieval centuries. Paper offered a cheaper alternative to the costly animal skins used to make parchment, and more and more texts were being written in English or translated into the vernacular, making them available to those who had never mastered the Latin and French favoured by the church and aristocracy. Professional scribes were busy in urban centers, copying books not only for the monastic houses that had once been the primary bookmakers of England, but also for the nobility and a widening range of literate middle classes: the lesser and provincial gentry, lower knightly families and rising professionals, as well as the successful and cultivated urban bourgeoisie.

English books designed with children in mind survive from the Middle Ages. Learn about these manuscripts, who was reading them, and why.
Reading for Social Success

For these middle classes, the ownership of books held a special appeal. Throughout most of the medieval period, books had been virtually the sole preserve of the wealthiest and most learned members of society. So for a middle-class family blessed at last with disposable income, books were luxury items of conspicuous consumption that rendered their success tangible to anyone who chose to turn the pages. More importantly, books could contain texts that taught the courtly customs and chivalric lifestyle associated with the highest strata of society–the very lifestyle many hard-working merchants and gentlemen aspired to, for their children if not themselves.

Often such families could not afford more than one or two books, however, so each volume tended to be chock-full of a wide selection of works, often carefully compiled to achieve certain goals. Courtesy manuals designed to teach children social skills appear frequently in such domestic collections, and so do romances, which could dramatize behaviour and its consequences, desirable and otherwise, and were more about social mobility than romantic love in medieval times (though marriage was certainly an important part of success in feudal society). Some fifteenth-century English collections designed for family consumption even provide a “children’s corner” of sorts in which moralistic romances are not only altered to appeal especially to young readers, but combined with courtesy texts bearing titles like The Little Childrens’ Book or How the Wise Man Taught his Son and the Good Wife Taught her Daughter, which provide instruction in everything from honouring one’s parents, to carving at the table, to praying devoutly in church. Although there are occasional efforts at writing by inexperienced, youthful hands in the margins of such domestic manuscripts, the focus remains upon reading to assimilate and act upon the social principles encountered.

 Reading and Writing for Intellectual Success

For those children chosen to serve the church, however, writing and teaching were crucial as well. The christian church controlled higher education in medieval times, so intellectual and professional as well as spiritual careers fell within its compass, and at some point in their training, so did all children destined for such careers. Latin was the church’s language of learning and devotion, but by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries English texts were found in most religious communities, many of them used by the monasteries and cathedrals to educate not only the young people planning to join their communities, but the sons and daughters of local families as well.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, for instance, which was originally written for the poet’s ten-year-old son, found a welcome home among the black or Benedictine monks, whose healthy interest in astronomy and cosmology must have extended to their teaching and helps explain why the title “Bread and Milk for Children” is found above more than one of their copies of the Treatise. Also used to instruct boys were the morality plays Wisdom and Mankind that were copied and owned by a monk of Bury St Edmunds. It is likely these plays were performed by students at one or more of Bury’s three schools, an educational activity that would have instilled religious values in an engaging way, while providing active experience at delivering these principles to lay folk of the town. The fact that those students, like their modern counterparts, were not always entirely engaged, however, is revealed by the prankish notes and ciphers scribbled throughout Wisdom, and the school boy’s lament written in English, then translated into very poor Latin at the back of Mankind.

Exceptional Medieval Children and their English Books

Several young readers and writers associated with surviving medieval books are notable for their intellectual as well as their social accomplishments. As a successful wine merchant’s son, the father of English literature himself very likely began his relationship with vernacular poetry between the boards of a domestic collection similar to those discussed above. Some scholars have considered the illustrated Auchinleck Manuscript (1327-1340), one of the earliest and largest surviving collections of Middle English romances, a compelling candidate for Chaucer’s early reading, and to be sure his Canterbury Tales reveal considerable knowledge of the Auchinleck romances.

Page from Auchinleck Manuscript
Page from Auchinleck Manuscript

Alternatively, the Auchinleck Manuscript might have been commissioned by an aristocratic household like that of the Earls of Warwick, servants to successive kings, since the book is known for its special attention to the martial and moral adventures of the romance character Sir Guy of Warwick. If so, then we have in the Auchinleck a rather impressive children’s corner within a larger aristocratic library, for its collection of simple instructive texts in courtesy and christian principles was certainly designed for a young audience, and many of its romances, like its version of Arthur and Merlin, two of the most famous of medieval children, place special emphasis on youth and seem particularly geared toward the interests and concerns of boys who would one day bear arms and advise kings themselves.

The prologue of the Auchinleck’s Arthur and Merlin tale even takes the time to inform readers that “children” who pay diligent attention to books “do much better” as adults (folio 201rb, lines 9-10). No child could do better in medieval England than become king, and the books of kings were often deluxe artistic creations. The Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund composed by the monk John Lydgate and found in the British Library’s MS Harley 2278 (c.1434) provide a perfect example. Copied at the Bury St Edmunds abbey as a gift for the twelve-year-old King Henry VI, Harley 2278 is one of the most sumptuous and richly illustrated of all surviving medieval English books. It sports about 120 finely-executed and brightly-painted miniatures in as many folios, and these tell not only the saints’ lives in visual terms, but something of the book’s history as well, depicting the young king in relation to the Bury monks and their famous saints. Used devoutly, this book grants the child who already has everything the world can offer the spiritual connections and credentials to match his social and political power, while the clever monks who made the manuscript enjoy the benefits of his favour.

Sources

  • Bevington, David, ed. 1972. The Macro Plays: The Castle of Perseverance, Wisdom, Mankind. A Facsimile Edition with Facing Transcriptions. New York: Johnson Reprint Co.
  • Blanchfield, Lynne S. 1991. “The Romances in MS Ashmole 61: An Idiosyncratic Scribe.” In Romance in Medieval England, ed. Maldwyn Mills, Jennifer Fellows, and Carol M. Meale, 65-87. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.
  • Olson, Linda. 2011. “Romancing the Book: Manuscripts for ‘Euerich Inglische’” and “‘Swete Cordyall’ of ‘Lytterature’: Some Middle English Manuscripts from the Cloister.” In Opening Up Middle English Manuscript Studies: Literary and Visual Approaches, ed. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Linda Olson and Maidie Hilmo, chapters 2 and 6 . New York: Cornell University Press.
  • Seymour, M. C. 1995. Catalogue of Chaucer Manuscripts, Volume I: Works before the Canterbury Tales. Aldershot: Scolar Press.

Article published first time by Linda Olson on: April, 2011