Author: Nicholas Orme
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Expected Publication Date: March 13th 2012
Medieval children lived in a world rich in poetry, from lullabies, nursery rhymes, and songs to riddles, tongue twisters, and nonsensical verses. They read or listened to stories in verse: ballads of Robin Hood, romances, and comic tales. Poems were composed to teach them how to behave, eat at meals, hunt game, and even learn Latin and French. In Fleas, Flies, and Friars, Nicholas Orme, an expert on childhood in the Middle Ages, has gathered a wide variety of children’s verse that circulated in England beginning in the 1400s, providing a way for modern readers of all ages to experience the medieval world through the eyes of its children.
In his delightful treasury of medieval children’s verse, Orme does a masterful job of recovering a lively and largely unknown tradition, preserving the playfulness of the originals while clearly explaining their meaning, significance, or context. Poems written in Latin or French have been translated into English, and Middle English has been modernized. Fleas, Flies, and Friars has five parts. The first two contain short lyrical pieces and fragments, together with excerpts from essays in verse that address childhood or were written for children. The third part presents poems for young people about behavior. The fourth contains three long stories and the fifth brings together verse relating to education and school life.
Fleas, Flies and Friars reminded me of nothing so much as Terry Jones' Medieval Lives. I am sorry to admit that, prior to reading Medieval Lives, I was one of those individuals that thought the term "dark ages" fitting. Medieval Lives taught me about the richness of the medieval life, and how many things modern Western culture accepts as fact about the middle ages are patently false (just in case you think they believed the world was flat, they didn't.) Orme has expanded upon that understanding to encompass childhood. Much of Orme's content comes from an invaluable source: a collection of school boy notebooks. These teenage boys were encouraged to write verses or songs they knew from childhood, or to make up their own, to then translate into Latin or French. I could not help but laugh at the constancy of teenage attitude: one wrote in the front of his notebook, "Who steals this book should be hanged by the neck; who blames what's here may kiss my rear." Another gem is the list of insults a boy translated into Latin: "Thou stinkest. Thou are a false knave. Thou are worthy to be hanged. His nose is like a shoeing horn. Turd in thy teeth! I shall kill thee with my own knife!" (I simply cannot type, read, or say out loud that "turd in thy teeth" bit without giggling like a school girl.)
Orme does a good job of forewarning the reader of differences in what was acceptable in the middle ages versus modern times, prior to the reader becoming outraged. It would be really easy to get caught up in the violence ('hey, that's child abuse' or 'how could a child do that?') and then totally miss the humor. Orme acknowledges the difference in such a way that it eases the reader into appreciating the poetry for what it was, not what we expect it to be. Likewise, he is quick to point out the dearth in poetry for or about girls (the lecture on how to be a good, godly wife notwithstanding.) This is not a fault of Orme's but of history's. Women probably had just as lively poems, stories, and songs, but women were not formally educated (meaning no school notebooks from girls) and all that oral tradition was lost.
Each of the five parts of Fleas, Flies and Friars starts with an excellent introduction, followed by tons of poetry. Wherever possible, he left the Middle English alone - updating it enough to make it comprehensible to the casual reader, but preserving enough of the original vocabulary to give it a decided "other" feeling. Footnotes abound, clarifying changes in word meaning, defining words that are no longer used, or simply providing contextual understanding. Fleas, Flies and Friars is a wonderful bit of academic-light, making what could have been Heavy History an entertaining insight into the lives of medieval childhood.
I received an ARC from netgalley.com