Thursday 17 September 2009

Medieval Childhood

People are always people, and there is no reason to suppose that Medieval parents did not treat their little ones with as much love and affection as those today. Of course, there are always exceptions, and people were more subject to the vagaries of circumstances, particularly economic circumstances, in the past than they are in modern societies; at least in the developed world. However, Medieval sources provide plenty of evidence that attitudes towards childhood have varied remarkably little over time, although, of course, there was a much greater emphasis on corporal punishment in the past. Allowing for all due differences in lifestyle and culture, Medieval children grew up in much the same way as children today.

Let's begin by looking at the very first stages of life. Writing in the thirteenth century, Bartholomew of England observed "The mother loves her own child most tenderly, embraces and kisses it, nurses and cares for it most solicitously." About the same time, Philip of Navara said;

God gave children three gifts: to love and recognise the person who nurses him at her breast; to show 'joy and love' to those who play with him; and to inspire love and tenderness in those who rear him, of which the last is the most important, for 'without this, they will be so dirty and annoying in infancy and so naughty and capricious that it is hardly worth nurturing them through childhood

In Montaillou, his seminal study of life in a French village, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie documents the affectionate interplay between parents and babies, including adults enjoying the sensation of a baby’s skin against there own. In the circumstances of the day, given the low level of medical knowledge, and the general problems caused by hygiene and the transmission of disease, a great many babies and young children died, but again there is ample evidence that these losses were felt severely.

Medieval adults, moreover, had a clear concept of childhood as a distinct phase of life. They believed, in other words, that children progressed through a series of stages, the so-called 'ages of man', each with its own specific features. This was recognised also by both the church and the state: children below the 'age of majority', generally reckoned in the high Middle Ages as between 12 and 14, were not expected to undertake the same religious and legal obligations as adults. When they committed sins, or breached the code of law, they were generally treated with greater leniency than adults.

When children took ill there is again ample evidence that parents did everything in their power to deal with the problem. In some cases this involved, often at considerable expense, trips to sacred shrines, to pray for divine intervention. At Canterbury in the late twelfth century we hear, for example, of one Guibert of Thanet bringing his crippled daughter to the shrine of Thomas Becket, the two walking the whole way, the little girl supporting herself on a staff. Another man came from Folkestone on horseback with his seven-year-old daughter, who could not feed herself because of crippled fingers. Many other parents made the same journey, inspired by stories of St. Thomas' miraculous cures.

Children were also expected to have their own society, with codes of conduct developed in interaction with their fellows. In 1398, the English writer John Trevisa observed that the young "love talkings and counsels of such children as they are, and foresake and avoid the company of the old." The important point here is that children were given the liberty to develop their own unique customs and culture, and there is a lot of recorded detail, concerning the games, rhymes and songs of the time. Play is also well-recorded. In the fifteenth century, the poet John Lydgate mentions running, leaping, singing, dancing, wrestling, climbing trees to steal fruit, football, chess and many other such games. The paintings of Brueghel the Elder give depictions of some of these activities. Similar depictions are to be found in marginal illustrations of the fourteenth century Romance of Alexander, which also show children on hobby horses and playing blind man's buff.

There were also toy manufacturers who catered specifically for children. In the London of 1300 boys could buy model knights and other such toys. These, I think it worth stressing, were not hand made, but cast in moulds, and therefore mass produced. Miniature domestic items were also produced for girls; plates, bowls, jugs and the like. Children's literature, moreover, can be traced as far back as the reign of Richard II.

Education was also important for Medieval parents, and there were a great many schools, though these benefited boys more than girls, who trended to receive what education they had at home from their mothers. The curriculum may have been more limited than today, but masters were no less keen for their charges to develop their imaginations, and pupils were encouraged to write about the things that they liked in their notebooks. A number of these survive after 1400, with scraps of songs and riddles.

Yes, life may have been different. Yes, there were risks. But children were still children; subjects, not objects.