Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Middle Ages for Early Ages

A few weeks ago at the thrift store, there was a buggy of free books and I found a book I enjoyed as a girl, The Maude Reed Tale. I picked it up out of nostalgia, and, although the level of characterization was too low for teen or adult tastes, the book was otherwise as enjoyable as I remembered. I was hesitant about reading it the first time, as I had some vague idea Norah Lofts might be a romance writer and I didn't want to read any mushy girly stuff, but the heroine (a girl who wants to be a wool merchant) and the background (middle ages castle life and wool merchant life) to the story turned out to be interesting. I think Maude might appeal to homeschoolers who, I've read, favor books about children behaving self-sufficiently; Maude may begin the book pitching a fit to get her way, but by the end she's learned to keep her own counsel, and think and act strategically.

On the nonfiction front, I recently found three books from the children's history series The Library of the Middle Ages in the local public library. Going by the list on the back of the books, there's twelve books in the series, but my library had only Medieval Feasts and Banquets, Medieval Clothing and Costumes, and Tournaments and Jousts. I'm no expert--in either medieval history or children's history books generally--but these books seem very good. They are beautifully illustrated with pictures from medieval manuscripts, maps, and, in Tournaments and Jousts, photos of armor. They seem to cover the subjects well for children's books; I'm no child and I know just enough about the Middle Ages that I didn't really learn anything from the food or clothing books, but the tournaments book taught me some things, and all of the books were a pleasure to look at. Each book has a glossary to help children with new terms and a large selection of additional resources on the subject.

I could perhaps quibble with a few remarks in the clothing book--not the facts, but attitude or interpretation--but I won't. The only real problem I had was an error in Tournaments and Jousting: the author explains excommunication as the Church condemning people to hell. While I don't want to ascribe to malice what may be explained by simple ignorance, that is a pretty glaring error. Excommunication is a formal acknowledgement of something the excommunicated person has already done to himself--namely, remove himself from the sacramental life of the Church by obstinately persisting in grave error; in still other words, if a man is going to hell, it is because of his own choices, not something the Church has done to him. Excommunication is intended to help the person by, 1.) preventing him from receiving communion unworthily (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-29) and, 2.) impressing upon the person the seriousness of what he is doing, so that he may be more likely to repent.

That aside, I recommend the three books I've read in this series, and it seems as if the series as a whole would probably prove worthwhile. However, several of the books deal with crusades and/or Muslims, and, given the nauseatingly PC world the West has become, I would want to read those volumes myself before I gave them to a child.

Believe it or not, I can recommend some more children's books set in the Middle Ages. Several years ago, when I still lived somewhere with a good public library, I read three novels by Karen Cushman, all of which were well-written, entertaining, and, I think, likely to inspire an interest in the Middle Ages in the children who read them. They were Catherine, Called Birdy, The Midwife's Apprentice, and Matilda Bone. The first of these was the most entertaining; it's the diary of a thoroughly delightful 13th century girl and, among other things, her funny attempts to avoid the suitors her father brings to their home.

The Midwife's Apprentice seemed to me (remember I'm no expert) to be intended for younger children than the other two, but it is still a good story of an orphaned or abandoned child who must steal food and sleep on dung heaps to keep warm. She is taken on as a servant by a midwife, and gradually begins to learn the midwife's trade. By the end she's not only learned a trade that will allow her to support herself, but has given herself a name and acquired a sense of herself as a person and a valuable member of society.

The third Cushman book I listed, Matilda Bone, is the only one I have any hesitation in recommending. It is about an orphan girl who is dropped off to live with a bonesetter as apprentice. What we see of medieval medicine is interesting and the characters are likeable, but the Church doesn't fare well. The priest who raised Matilda before the book begins is pretty unattractive, if not downright repulsive, and we get no countering portrait of a more attractive churchman. (There is a local priest, but he hardly appears.) The attitudes the priest has inculcated in Matilda make a poor display before the earthy decency and humanity of the new people who finds herself around. Worst, Matilda is prone to having conversations with saints, and I thought the saints were treated rather flippantly. There is nothing so bad in this book that I wouldn't recommend it, but I would caution Catholic parents--or anyone giving a gift to a child in a Catholic family--to read the book beforehand and decide whether you think it crosses the line.

I'd be interested in hearing anyone else's recommendations for good children's medieval-related books.

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