Medieval Book Tells Kids Don’t Pick Your Ears or Nostrils!
A new British Library website presenting collections of books from the British Library, Seven Stories, Bodleian Libraries, and the V&A includes manuscripts by Lewis Carroll and Jacqueline Wilson and a special medieval book titled The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke ( Little Children’s Little Book). This 1480 AD manuscript has been digitized for the first time and advises medieval children not to “pyke notte thyne errys nothyr thy nostrellys” (“don ’t pick your ears or your nostrils”) among other cortices.
Every parent reading this article is probably sick of saying “don’t pick your nose,” “wash your hands,” “elbows off the table,” and “don’t burp out loud,” and so too were mums and dads more than 500 years ago. The Little Children’s Little Book was designed to teach posh children the most appropriate manners when attending noble or royal functions and within the lists of advice historians are able to glean some of the shenanigans medieval children got up to.
Medieval children’s book, titled ‘Little Children ’s Little Book’ published in 1702. (British Library / Public Domain)
The Taming Of The Burping Brats
Children's literature evolved from ancient oral traditions; stories, songs, and poems that adults shared with children before writing and publishing existed. The arrival of printing presses saw many classic children’s stories published that had originally been created for adults. Since the 15th century, literature has been specifically written for children with and contained within the page deeply rooted moral and religious messages.
The modern children's book emerged in mid-18 th century England to suit an expanding middle-class who held manners and politeness in the highest regard and in a 2015 article for the British Library, Professor MO Grenby writes, “in the 1740s, a cluster of London publishers began to produce new books designed to instruct and delight young readers”.
The 15 th century book of polite conduct and manners is now available to read online in new children’s literature website, Discovering Children’s Books, and according to a report in The Guardian, Anna Lobbenberg, the lead producer on the British Library’s digital learning program said that these older collection items allow young people to “examine the past close up”. The book includes advice such as “Bulle not as a bene were in thi throote,” “ )don’t burp as if you had a bean in your throat”) which conjures images of a row of children rattling burps into the air in a ‘burp-off’ which can break out at any table of children at any time, as parents know.
“Don’t burp as if you had a bean in your throat” … ‘The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke’, a medieval children’s book of conduct. (British Library / Public Domain)
Fantasy Lands and Tiger Tales
Making sure children don’t attack food like packs of starving animals is another piece of advice offered in the book “Chesse cum by fore the, be not to redy,” warning (“don’t be greedy when they bring out the cheese”) and another tip is “‘Loke thou laughe not, nor grenne / And with moche speche thou mayste do synne”. Or “don’t laugh, grin or talk too much,” for as the Victorians later said children should be seen and not heard.
The new website features more than 100 “treasures from children’s literature” including a 1741 book from the first publisher and bookseller of children’s books, Thomas Boreman, describing the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London introducing the zoo’s lionesses, Jenny and Phillis, and the lion Marco with his “frightful teeth”. More modern classics such as the first manuscript of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which would come to known as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Judith Kerr’s sketchbook for The Tiger Who Came to Tea, depicts the day to day life of tigers at London Zoo.
Page from the original manuscript copy of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, 1864. (Andrew Gray / Public Domain)
Publishers Political Undercurrents
Within the collection of children’s books are traces of the authors political leanings and motivations, for example, Sarah Trimmer authored the 1778 book, The Œconomy of Charity, and became a major figure in the establishment of Sunday schools. According to the British Library Trimmer set up a Sunday school in Brentford in 1786 and had over 200 pupils after the first two years and she later became a leading figure in the setting up of ‘charity schools’, so much so that the British Royal family consulted the author on the dynamics of founding this type of school.
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Trimmer's first book was ‘An easy introduction to the knowledge of nature, and reading the holy scriptures, adapted to the capacities of children’, 1780. (Awadewit / Public Domain)
Mrs. Trimmer was very particular about the culture of animal abuse which was widespread throughout England in the Georgian period and her educational moral tales personified animals and presented them as characters in pictures, which influenced many later authors of educational material. However, Trimmers staunch conservative views brought her up against liberals like Jean Rousseau who believed children should be given the freedom to develop in “their own ways” and if allowed to develop naturally without constraints (Sunday school) imposed on them they will develop towards their “fullest potential, both educationally and morally”.
Children’s book from 1737, ‘Winter-Evening Entertainments’ includes moral tales. (British Library / Public Domain)
Top image: New website showing digitized medieval children’s books launched by the British Library Source: Pb / Adobe Stock.
By Ashley Cowie