It is hard to imagine a world without books for children. There have been children's stories and folk-tales ever since man first learned to speak. "Many of them," in Thackeray's words, "have been narrated, almost in their present shape, for thousands of years since, to little copper-colored Sanscrit children. The very same tale has been heard by the Northmen Vikings, as they lay on their shields on deck; and by the Arabs, couched under the stars in the Syrian plains, when the flocks were gathered in, and the mares were picketed by the tents." Children's books, however, are a late growth of literature. Miss Yonge says, "Up to the Georgian era there were no books at all for children or the poor, excepting the class-books containing old ballads, such as Chevy Chase, and short tales, such as The King and the Cobbler, Whittington and his Cat." We shall nevertheless see that there were English books for children (and it is with no others that we have to deal) long before this time.
Puer ad Mensam is ascribed to John Lydgate, about 1430, and is in the Lambeth Manuscripts. The Babees Book, in the Harleian Manuscripts, was written about 14th, for children of royal or noble blood then serving as pages in palace or castle. The English version is translated from the original Latin, but both author and translator are unknown.
"O Babees yonge," the writer says, "My Book only is made for youre lernynge." The "Babees" are exhorted to salute their lord; to hold up their heads and kneel on one knee; to look straight at whoever speaks to them; to answer sensibly, shortly, and easily; to stand till told to sit; to keep head, hands, and feet quiet; not to scratch themselves, lean against posts, etc. They are told to turn their backs on no one, to be silent while their lord drinks, and, when allowed to sit down, to tell no low stories or scorn any one, but to be meek and cheerful, and thankful for praise. They are warned not to interfere in affairs of the household, to be ready for service, and, the author adds,—
"Gif ye shoulde at God ask yow a bone,
Als to the woride better in noo degre
Milite ye desire thanne nurtred (well-bred) for to be."
They must wait on their lord at table, and give him water to wash his hands; cut, not break, their own bread; eat soup with a spoon, but not leave the spoon in the dish, or lean on the table, hang over the dish, or fill the mouth too full, or pick teeth or nails. They are to wipe their mouths, and keep their cups clean for others to drink from; never eat with their knives, or cut meat hastily and as a farm-laborer would mangle it. They are to use a clean plate and knife for cheese, and wash knife and hands at the end of the meal.
A Lesson of Wysedome exhorts a child
"Clem thou not ouer hows ne walle
For no frute, bryddes, ne balle;
And, chyld, cast no stonys ouer men hows,
Ne cast no stonys at no glas wyndowys; Ne make no crying, yapis, ne playes,
In holy chyrche on holy dayes."
The child is told to get home by daylight; keep clear of fire and water; take care of book, cap, and gloves, under penalty of whipping; make no faces behind backs; rise early, go to school and learn fast, if he wishes to become a bishop.
The Young Children's Book, from the Ashmolean Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, says,—
"Aryse betyme oute of thi bedde,
And blysse thi brest & thi forhede,
Than wasche thi hoindes & thi face,
Keme thi hede, & Aske god grace
The to helpe in All thi werkes."
The hints on table manners are much the same as in the Babees Book, but the Children's Book has additions on the conduct of life: & #8212;
"Vse no suerynge nother lyenge,
Yn thi sellynge & thi byenge.
Gete thi gowd with treweth & wynne,
And kepe the out of dette and synne."
After dinner, says The Lytylle Childrenes Lytil Boke, in the Harleian collection,
"Aryse up soft & stylle,
And iangylle neither with Jak ne Jylle,
But take thi leve of the hede lowly,
And thank hym with thyne hert hyghly,
Than men wylle say therafter
That a gentylleman was heere."
A very rare book, which Dibdin bought for thirty pounds for Earl Spencer, at the Roxburghe sale, is Dives Pragmaticus, "A booke in English metre, of the great marchaunt man called Dives Pragmaticus, very preaty for children to rede; whereby they may the better, and more readyer, rede and wryte wares and Implementes, in this world contayned.... When thou sellest aught unto thy neighbour, or byest anything of him, deceave not, nor oppresse him, etc. Imprinted at London in Aldersgate strete, by Alexander Lacy, dwellyng beside the Wall. The xx.v of Aprell, 1563."
There is a preface to "all occupations now under the sunne:"—
"Al Brewers, Bakers, Butchers and Cookes,
Al Printers, Stacioners and sellers of bookes,
Al Poulters, and Pedders, that ryde day and nyght,
Al Farmours, and Owners, that in Money delyght,
Al Coller makers, Ropers, and Turners of dyshes,
Al makers of Nets, and catchers of Fyshes."
At the end of this preface is, "And thus endeth the declaration of the great Marchaunt of the world, called Dives Pragmaticus. Here foloweth the book, and his calyng of people to sale of his marchaundyse; with a rehearsall of part of his wares by name." He says,—
"I have inke, paper, and pennes to lode with a barge,
Primers and abces, and bookes of small charge,
What lack you, scollers? come hether to me.
I have fine gownes, clokes, iackets and coates,
Fyne iurkins, dublets, and hosen without motes;
Fyne daggers, and knyves, and purses for grote 5,
What lacke you, my friend? Come hether to me."
The verses end with a moral:—
"Honest myrth in measure, is a plensaunt thyng,
To wryte and to rede well, be gyftes of learnyng;
Remember this well, all you that be young,
Exercise vertue, and rule well your toung."