By Melissa Raine, Associate Investigator, University of Melbourne.
Children’s Book Week, which celebrates contemporary literature designed specifically for young people, prompted me to reflect on children and books from medieval England. Precious little survives of children’s own responses to reading – fragments of verse that they might have uttered, marginal remarks in schoolroom texts – and there is not even certainty over which stories were intended for children. The mere appearance of a child, especially a child significant enough to speak for him or herself, by no means automatically suggests an audience of children. The dream vision poem Pearl, where a dead girl offers a sophisticated consolation to the grieving narrator (probably her father), could hardly be thought of as a “children’s” text. Nor is the gruesomely murdered child of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, who sings after his own death until justice is served, a promising candidate.
The “proper lad” hero of Jack and His Stepdame fits much more closely with modern expectations of a capable, mischievous and youthful protagonist with whom children could potentially identify. This narrative emerged in the last decades of the fifteenth-century and continued to attract enormous popularity for several hundred years, known in printed form as The Friar and Boy. Some evidence suggests that it appealed to children.
Here is the story:
Jack’s stepmother attempts to starve him while persuading his father, the head of household, to send him away. The father compromises by sending Jack out into the fields during the day to guard his animals. While outdoors, Jack complies with a request for food by a passing old man, who rewards him by granting three wishes: a bow and arrow that never misses; a pipe which causes anything living to dance uncontrollably; and, a stepmother who loudly farts when she looks at Jack with anger.
That night, when his father offers him food, his stepmother’s ire is raised and she is humiliated in front of the household. She exhorts a Friar to beat Jack when he returns to the fields, but the boy lures him into the brambles to collect a bird shot down by his bow and arrow. Jack plays the pipe, causing the Friar to injure himself extensively while dancing uncontrollably.
The distressed Friar returns to the house, where Jack’s father, fearing the devil’s involvement, demands that the boy play his pipe. The household and the village beyond dance uncontrollably, but the father is delighted by the merry music, and bestows his approval on his son.
Jack’s role in the Friar’s ordeal produces one of the most memorable lines of the poem:
Ever the boye blewe and lewh amonge.
How the frere lepe and wronge![The boy constantly blew and laughed at the same time.How the friar leapt and wrung his hands!]
The image of a child transported by sheer joy is powerfully evoked by the laughter that interrupts, and dissolves into, the blowing into the pipe: it is not difficult to imagine the sound of music, a tune bent and broken, unexpectedly loud and soft in turns, as merriment overcomes Jack’s very breath – we can virtually feel his happiness through these implied sounds. This is one of the most powerful descriptions of a child’s own experience of happiness that survives in Middle English.
That exuberance remains arresting for a modern audience, and much of the narrative’s humour will make sense to modern readers; however, there is also a great deal in this text that marks its medieval sensibility. The stepmother’s humiliation is brutal and decisive; the Friar’s more protracted and sadistic. To many modern readers, these episodes will seem gratuitously cruel. Beyond our altered cultural standards around violence and misogyny, the “reason” that Jack’s mischief is applauded is simple: he is his father’s son. His father, it is implied, is a prudent man, successful in his station, whose place in the world Jack will one day inherit. Jack lives up to his birthright through his resourcefulness (importantly, he acts, rather than complains), and by punishing interference with what is rightfully his, proffered by a woman and a religious figure. The stepmother’s machinations damage the father’s honour “from the inside”, and the Friar has no place in the productivity of the household over which the father presides. Jack’s childish antics are celebrated because he has his father’s interests at heart. He is not a rebel, or a delinquent, but a lad who knows and accepts his place in the existing order, who indeed upholds that order, even when ostensibly engaging in subversive boyish amusement. This is a story for parents as much as children.
In this early example of a child protagonist, we see how Jack’s status as a child hero is intimately related to broader cultural values. As such, Jack and His Stepdame offers an opportunity for reflection on how far we have come, as a culture, in addressing children as children.
The text of Jack and His Stepdame is available at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/furrow-ten-bourdes-jack-and-his-stepdame
A modern translation of the poem can be found in Medieval Comic Tales, ed. Derek Brewer (New York: D.S. Brewer, 1996).