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13.09.47, Orme, Fleas, Flies, and Friars

13.09.47, Orme, Fleas, Flies, and Friars

Written with a general audience in mind, Nicholas Orme's Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children's Poetry from the Middle Ages gathers a representative selection of the poetry written both by and for children and adolescents in the Middle Ages. In this slim volume, an adjunct to his major academic studies Medieval Children (Yale, 2001) and Medieval Schools (Yale, 2006), Orme translates French and Latin texts, modernizes Middle English poetry, and offers brief commentary that situates the selections. The collection ranges from brief couplets found in school primers to extensive excerpts of longer texts directed toward younger audiences. What emerges is a seldom seen medieval world of childhood creativity as well as childrearing, training, and education. In his introduction, "Children's Poetry from the Middle Ages," Orme briefly traces the routes by which children's culture survived beyond the medieval period; in fact, many of his sources come from the fifteenth, sixteenth, and even seventeenth centuries. After this concise introduction, Fleas, Flies, and Friars is divided into five thematic sections: "Growing Up," "Words, Rhymes, and Songs," "Manners Maketh Man," "Stories," and "School Days." The volume concludes with suggestions for further reading and notes.

Section one, "Growing Up," is split roughly between texts that depict the infancy and youth of medieval children and the activities with which they would be involved, including an overview of childhood activities in the liturgical year such as Shrove Tuesday antics and boy bishop celebrations. Walter of Bibbesworth's Tretiz is cited for its description of babies and young children and their habits, and the section moves on to nursery rhymes, lullabies, and children's songs. Among other materials, the sixteenth century writer Alexander Barclay's account of boys' seasonal activities is followed by a translation of a portion the Latin sequence devoted to St. Nicholas and a Christmas carol.

Section two, "Words, Rhymes, and Songs," draws extensively from school exercise books after 1400 to show childhood and adolescent creativity, and Orme notes that many of the rhymes are found in different places and times, perhaps indicating a "national culture of rhyming" (26). School children recorded tongue-twisters, riddles, nonsense rhymes and songs, and insults in their school books, including the rhyme that gives Orme's book its title:

Fleas, flies, and friars - foul fall them these fifteen years! For none that is her loveth fleas nor flies nor friars.

From a thirteenth century Latin sermon, we get the children's chasing game, "How many miles to Beverlyham?," and the section concludes with brief texts concerning love, seduction, and marriage. The material in this section is not just "kid's stuff." The rhymes and songs deal with sexuality and insults, among many other topics, and show how children were part of the rough and tumble everyday life of medieval culture.

Section three, "Manners Maketh Man," deals with courtesy books and related material, particularly hunting guides. The beginning of this section is taken up with versions of Robert Grosseteste's Stans Puer ad Mensam as translated by John Lydgate and later published by William Caxton in 1476, which instructed young boys, likely the sons of merchants and gentlemen, how to behave when serving their lord and waiting at table. Another fifteenth century version of Stans Puer ad Mensam includes advice on religious behavior, especially praying early in the morning and behaving well in church. A third version of the poem, put into Latin verse in the fifteenth century, describes how dinner is to be eaten at a boarding school, likely either Eton or Winchester College. The boys of the college are enjoined to wash their hands, clean their utensils, use only Latin at the table, take reasonable bites of food, not pick their teeth, and say their concluding prayers. A version of The Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, one of the few courtesy texts devoted to girls, instructs a daughter on how to behave in public (especially church), to court a young man, to conduct herself in town, to run a household properly, and to treat her children. The section concludes with excerpts from the hunting guide Tristram, composed by a gentlewoman for her son and printed in 1486 in The Book of St. Albans.

Section four, "Stories," contains the longest excerpts in the volume, with extracts from A Lytell Gest of Robyn Hode, Sir Aldingar, and The Friar and the Boy. Although it is difficult to ascertain whether or not these texts were directed primarily at children, their subject matter seems most fit for youthful audiences. Orme reprints a portion of Part 5 of A Lytell Gest of Robyn Hode, depicting a run-in between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin's subsequent encounter with Sir Richard at the Lee. Sir Aldingar, which does not appear in English until about 1650 in the Percy Folio, features a boy as a hero in a tale in which an honorable queen is accused of infidelity, sentenced to die by the king, and finally rescued by a lad who dispatches the traitorous Sir Aldingar. The Friar and the Boy, a fifteenth century tale printed by Wynkyn de Worde between 1510 and 1513, features a boy, Jack, who, after sharing his meal with an old man, is given a magic flute which causes its hearers to dance uncontrollably--the Friar, Jack's stepmother, and a church official all dance at his beck and call.

Section five, "School Days," includes material related to medieval schooling. Medieval schools fell into two types: song schools, which taught the antiphon, and grammar schools, which taught Latin grammar. Children could also be tutored privately. The chapter provides an abecedarium and John of Trevisa's account of his early schooling from On the Properties of Things (1389) before turning to the excerpt from Chaucer's Prioress's Tale that details the Litel Clergeon's schooling and then an exercise on the first declension in Latin from Alexander of Ville-Dieu's Doctrinale (1200). The section on Latin grammar continues with a selection of English phrases translated into Latin by schoolboys and four excerpts from commonly used Latin poetic texts--the Distichs of Cato, The Eclogue of Theodulus, the Parallels of Alain de Lille, and the Cartula--all of which teach moral and religious lessons. The section ends with a carol showing the corporal punishment boys could expect in school before concluding with a poem about the end of the school term. The volume itself wraps up with brief suggestions for "Further Reading" and a concise selection of notes.

Since it is aimed at a general readership rather than an academic one, Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children's Poetry from the Middle Ages could be well-used in the undergraduate classroom, particularly in courses that emphasize social history or the history of the family and/or childhood. Scholars will want to follow the notes to the primary sources and the broader contexts of the individual selections. Orme is to be commended for drawing together such a diverse collection of material under a single cover and for opening such a fascinating portal into medieval life.