About midway through Nicholas Orme’s fascinating Medieval Children — a history of what it was like to be a child in Europe in medieval times leading up to the Enlightenment — he notes that an engraving from 1659 shows a boy playing with small balls, called bowling-stones.
We would call them marbles, but that word, he points out, didn’t come into use until later in the 17th century.
It got me thinking about marbles which had a short moment of interest for me in my childhood — round and hard, made of glass (I guess), and used for games.
I don’t think I played many games with them. In my recollection, they were just fun to roll around in my hand or in a bowl or a cloth bag. They clicked together nicely. I admired them as objects.
That got me wondering if kids today play with marbles. I’m sure they’re being sold somewhere to someone, but how widespread are they as a child’s toy in this era of digital entertainment? And in this era of heavy parental protection against all dangerous things, such as swallowing small round objects?
(As a young boy, my brother Tim once swallowed a dime, and, after a doctor’s visit, our parents had the unenviable task of making sure the dime went all the way through him. Think about it.)
When I was a boy, I had the sense that marbles had been a much bigger deal for my parents’ generation than they were for mine. We, after all, had baseball cards.
I imagine that a present-day historian of childhood would be able to find out to what extent kids today play with marbles, and how that compares to my generation, and how that compares to my parents’ generation.
Lots of written stuff available, such as newspaper ads throughout those years, and books written for children, and books, articles and other material about the games children play, and sales reports from toy companies.
And lots of photos, and movies, both feature films and documentaries. Few, if any, about marbles per se, but I suspect that, depending on the era, marbles-playing can be found at least along the edges of many an image or a scene.
Still, would all that material reflect my enjoyment of marbles, not as tools for a game, but as physical objects to admire?
I mention all of this because, it seems to me, childhood is a pretty mysterious time in the lives of human beings. Not mysterious in a dark and scary way, but simply unrecorded. Even with the over-recording of children’s lives by their parents today in photos and videos, it’s still mysterious what’s going on inside the head of a particular child.
So, if childhood is mysterious today when there is so much data available — even to the point of being able to go out and watch children at play or going about their lives — how much more mysterious is it if you want to know how they were 300 to 1,300 years ago?
How much more difficult to get a sense of what a child’s life was like then?
That’s the wonder and joy of Orme’s book, published in 2001. Relying on generations of historians who have looked at all the possible aspects of childhood between 700 and 1700, Orme gives an overview that is rich in detail — if also, rich in unknowns.
A listing of the chapter heads gives a sense of the ambitiousness of Orme’s project:
Consider that third chapter, “Danger and Death.”
The joke among Baby Boomers is that it’s amazing we survived childhood since we rode bikes without helmets, wandered our neighborhoods alone, climbed trees, climbed monkey bars on cement playgrounds, never sat in a car seat, etc., etc., etc.
Parents today would consider most, if not all, of those things dangerous, but, in medieval times, children encountered a lot more deadly stuff, such as the accidents that could befall an infant or toddler at home:
The baby in the cradle might be caught in straps or cords, crushed by the fall of stones from a wall, burnt in a fire, choked by smoke, or attacked by an animal.
Coroners’ and miracle records suggest that pigs were a particular source of danger, wandering into houses through open doors, biting babies, or overturning their cradles. The sow devouring the baby is one of the images of death in Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale.”
As soon as infants could crawl or walk, these threats were increased by other potential dangers. The hearth was the chief of these, on which one might be burnt or scaled by overturning dishes placed upon it. Children fell into vessels of liquid: a pan of milk, a cask of water, a wooden vat.
In the seventh chapter, “Learning to Read,” there’s another interesting insight into the life of children six or so centuries ago as compared to the present-day — the learning of the ABCs.
For the kids back then, it was a prayer.
Look at this alphabet from a primer from about 1400. It begins with a cross and, then, has the letters and, then, ends with the word, “Amen.” It then goes into the words for the sign of the cross although others lead right into the Our Father prayer.
Orme writes that the word “alphabet” wasn’t common in English. More usual was the term ABC, but, by the 1520s, another term was becoming popular: “Christ-cross row.”
The alphabet cross was more than a symbol too. It was a rubric: an instruction to readers to say a short prayer before they pronounced the letters that followed.
The recitation of the letters also became a prayer, and the word “amen” was said at the end of the process, just as it was at the end of a prayer.
The times in which the children then were growing up were much more religious-minded that our present age. As Orme notes:
It fitted with all this that medieval children learnt the alphabet in a Christian form and as a Christian task. It was not only to be looked at, but pronounced like a prayer. The cross at the beginning was not simply a visual reminder of Christianity; it was a trigger for a phrase that you spoke before you started saying the letters.
Indeed, there was a particular prayer that the child was expected to say at the start of reciting the ABCs. There were several versions, all along the lines of “God me speed” and “Christ cross me speed.”
Adults said this prayer too when they made the sign of the cross.
Of course, some things never change.
One of the first images in Orme’s profusely illustrated book shows five boys having a snowball fight. In any era, whether the deep past or distant future, isn’t making and throwing a snowball what a kid does?
Another of the earliest images in Medieval Children is a winter scene from a 16th century Flemish manuscript in which a young boy inside a warm home — you can see a bit of the fire around which the family is gathered — is urinating out of an open door into the snow near a chicken. Again, in any and every era, won’t a child always delight in the presence and import of yellow snow?
And then there are those odd and embarrassing noises that the human body can make and that have always been a source of delight to children. In the 1400s, the poem The Friar and the Boy had a punchline to call forth just that sort of delight:
Jack has a cruel stepmother. He does a small act of charity and is given three magic gifts, including one “to make the stepmother fart when she is angry.” He goes home and, knowing the woman will not like it, he gets his father to give him a nice piece of capon.
The stepmother scowls and immediately explodes like a gun going off. All those present roar with laughter. She makes another noise as large as a bomb, and turns red with shame.
Giggles, giggles, giggles.
Patrick T. Reardon