Print Friendly and PDF With Strings Attached: Newbery Reviews: two views of 13th-century England

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Newbery Reviews: two views of 13th-century England

I thought I’d begin this post with an observation about our fascination with the Middle Ages.  Stories of knights and fair ladies, crusades and pilgrimages, serfs and clerics are part of our literary and cultural heritage from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Sir Walter Scott, Malory to Tennyson to T.H. White, Lerner & Loewe to Game of Thrones.   It turns out that other people have observed the same phenomenon:  here  and here

These Newbery winners were published 66 years apart and describe English life in the 13th century. 

Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray, won the 1942 Newbery Medal.  It is set in England in 1294.  I first read it when I was in sixth grade or so.   It was a delight to read it again.

The setting is England in 1294.   Ten-year-old Adam’s is the son of Roger Quartermayne, a minstrel who makes his living singing and playing at noble households in southeast England. Adam is becoming an accomplished harper and has learned many of his father’s songs. The Quartermaynes are on the road, sometimes on horseback but mostly on foot, when an unscrupulous rival minstrel, Jankin, steals Adam’s beloved spaniel Nick.  In his frantic search for Nick, Adam and Roger get separated.   Adam is honest and kind. He is  resourceful and determined despite travails. He travels with a merchant who is set upon by robbers.  He cracks his head when he falls off a wall while watching a mystery play. He joins a family of buskers who are less scrupulous than his father brought him up to be. Happily he is reunited with his beloved dog and his loving father.  

There are references to the Magna Carta (the gaffer, an old man at one house where Adam stays, was at Runnymede that day in 1215), to “raising a hue and cry” (“a mighty shout . . . according the statute made at Westminster” by King Edward in which the warning would be shouted from town to town until the criminal was caught) , to Oxford students singing Gaudeamus Igitur   (which dates to 1287).

I wondered how far Adam walked.  St. Albans to London to Dorking to Guildford. Back to London, to Amersham, to Oxford:  sixty miles east to west, sixty miles north to south.  Mostly on foot, by a ten-year-old!  Was Adam’s pluck and persistence a reflection of the British spirit during WWII?

Robert Lawson’s detailed pen-and-ink illustrations include a touch of whimsical detail (Adam’s freckles, Jankin’s sneer) even in tense situations. 

Elizabeth Janet Gray Vining wrote books for adults and children, many about Quakers (she became a Quaker as an adult).   Windows for the Crown Prince is her account of her experience as tutor (1946-50) to Japanese Crown Prince Akihito.

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Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!  Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz.   2008 Newbery Medal.

GMSL is a story told in dramatic verse.  The characters live in “a medieval manor” in England in 1255.  There’s Hugo, the lord’s nephew, who recalls the day he killed a wild boar.   Taggot is the blacksmith’s daughter who shoes Hugo’s horse. Will is the plow-boy, Jake is the half-wit. Jacob is the moneylender’s son and Petronella is the merchant’s daughter.  Each character has a scene with an episode from his or her every day life.

In the foreword Schlitz explains that her favorite way to study history is through people’s stories. She is a librarian (good research) and a playwright (good dialog). 

Marginal notes explain holy days, unfamiliar words, and other details.  (“The miller was socially superior to peasants and villeins, but greatly inferior to the lord.” “Pottage is a sort of stew. Poor people just threw whatever they had into the pot and hoped for the best.”)  Essays provide “a little background” on the three-field system of farming, the Crusades, and the Jews in medieval society.  There is an extensive bibliography.

Robert Byrd’s illustrations are in the style of the everyday people depicted in illuminated manuscripts. It’s fun to look closely for details.   


  1. Every time you mention the Newberry Award it makes me remember my mother who put great faith in both the Newberry and Caldicott awards.

  2. I haven't really been keeping up with the Newbery awards since when I was working. Did the Good Masters, Sweet Ladies remind you of Chaucer's stories? When you mentioned it was told in verse I immediately thought it.


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