Michelle's Reviews > Fleas, Flies and Friars: Children's Poetry from the Middle Ages

Fleas, Flies and Friars by Nicholas Orme
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it was amazing
bookshelves: arc, young-adult, poetry, history, children-s, netgalley

Nicholas Orme's Fleas, Flies and Friars is a thoroughly enjoyable look at the lives of medieval children through their poetry. Orme states in the introduction that he had two primary criteria when compiling poetry for this book: 1) that it can be shown to have been composed, copied, used by, or aimed at children or teenagers and 2) that it include relevant passages from longer poems and stories, as well as works in Latin or French, that have previously been ignored. His goal in doing so was to, in his own words, help the reader to "learn more about how medieval children grew up, and be able to see beyond the popular perception that they were small adults, living though brief and impoverished childhoods. A medieval childhood could indeed be cut short by disease or distressed by poverty, but while children were alive they shared in a rich culture of songs, sayings, rude-nesses, riddles, tales, and (at the higher levels of society) works of instruction as well."

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
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Reading Progress

January 21, 2012 – Started Reading
January 21, 2012 – Shelved
January 23, 2012 –
page 32
25.0% "Childhood faces two ways, both inwardly to its own interests and outwardly to the adult world around."
January 23, 2012 – Shelved as: arc
January 23, 2012 – Shelved as: young-adult
January 23, 2012 – Shelved as: poetry
January 23, 2012 – Shelved as: history
January 23, 2012 – Shelved as: children-s
January 23, 2012 – Shelved as: netgalley
January 23, 2012 – Finished Reading

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