Nicholas Orme, a professor of history at Exeter University in Great Britain, has published more than a dozen books about ordinary life in the Middle Ages. His latest one, Medieval Children, is a delightfully encyclopedic survey of everything imaginable concerning young people from birth to adolescence during a time span extending from the Anglo-Saxon era until the sixteenth century: toys, games, church-going, family life, education, jobs, even fickle teenage crushes.
Orme, however, has more in mind than simply using the rich collection of sources he has amassed to tell readers everything they would like to know about medieval childhood. His book is a deliberate counterattack against a notion that still has quite a bit of popular currency: that the whole concept of “childhood” as a distinct phase of human life is a social construction, an invention of bourgeois modernity whose origins go back no further than the seventeenth century. The instigator of this theory was the French historian Philippe Ariès, who contended in a widely read book, translated into English as Centuries of Childhood (1962), that medieval people regarded youngsters as inadequate adults, too small to work productively, and that most parents, perhaps because of the high rate of infant and childhood mortality during the Middle Ages, declined to form strong affective bonds with their offspring. Moreover, we were told that those offspring married in their teens and spent only short portions of their lives with their mothers and fathers.
Following in Ariès’ footsteps, the Princeton University historian Lawrence Stone argued in his The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500–1800 (1977) that the premodern family was a large, porous, multigenerational unit that accommodated a constantly shifting membership of husbands, wives, in-laws, shirttail kin, and assorted offspring whose ties to others in the household were largely loose and opportunistic.
This sort of message resonated across the ideological spectrum. It was naturally appealing to Marxists inclined to view the nuclear family as an oppressive creation of modern capitalism, and also to Freudians inclined to view the nuclear family as a wellspring of Oedipal tension and all-around neurosis. Radical feminists who believed that women could and should raise their children unencumbered by such patriarchal impediments as husbands bought into the Ariès-Stone interpretation of family history, as did advocates of easy divorce, who maintained that there was nothing particularly natural about the two-parent household and that children were tough enough to take the household disruptions to which their fulfillment-seeking parents might subject them. Many secular social conservatives also enthusiastically adopted the Ariès paradigm. For Protestant apologists, it represented yet another opportunity to bash the Catholic Middle Ages as morally lax and to demonstrate that Martin Luther’s “domestic church” marked the first time Western European fathers took an interest in their children’s Christian upbringing. And for those who regarded the rise of capitalism as a good thing, what could be better than its fostering of the middle-class Victorian household that sentimentalized children and devoted substantial and emotional resources to their rearing and education? To this day, it is not unusual to hear highly educated people remark offhand that “there was no such thing as childhood in the Middle Ages.”
Orme’s book joins a large number of more recent studies suggesting that the Ariès paradigm has little to do with medieval reality. The most stunning riposte was The Ties That Bound (1982) by Barbara Hanawalt, then a historian at the University of Minnesota. Hanawalt, unlike Ariès, actually looked at medieval documents, specifically the coroners’ rolls and other court records of the peasantry of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England that tell as much about how people lived as how they died. She concluded that although medievals did not sentimentalize childhood to the extent that Victorians did, they were deeply attached to their children and saw them as different from adults, with their own distinct children’s culture.
In fact—surprise, surprise—children of the Middle Ages by and large lived with both their parents in nuclear, not extended, families, with perhaps one or two siblings at most. Rather than marrying in adolescence, they tended to delay wedlock until they were in their twenties just like most of today’s young people, and when they did marry—again, just like most of today’s young people—they were not keen on having their in-laws and other relatives underfoot, preferring to form their own households in which their children were the chief objects of parental attention and gifts of property. Hanawalt’s book and several others that followed it suggested that childhood (not to mention the nuclear family) might be a natural human phenomenon after all.
Orme, who also focuses primarily on England, is very much of the Hanawalt school, which includes such other prominent medievalists as Shulamith Shahar, Pierre Riché, Danièle Alexandre-Bidon, Sally Crawford, and Ronald Finucane, along with the folklorists of children’s culture Iona and Peter Opie. Orme’s aim is to demonstrate that the line between modernity and premodernity is not a bright one when talking about family life.
As he points out, the very vocabulary that medievals used in reference to the young indicated that they were capable of distinguishing, via separate words, not only when childhood began and ended, but several stages of childhood, between infants and little boys and girls as well as between adolescents and full-grown adults. He shows that medieval parents looked forward to the births of their offspring, marking childbearing, baptism, and the churching of the mother with elaborate and festive rituals. They had a notion of the family as an ideal institution, frequently making images, especially on the tombstones of the fourteenth century, of husband and wife surrounded by their loving children. One fourteenth-century writer, Geoffrey de la Tour Landry, declared that parents should pray for their children every day. Adults delighted in the baby talk of their infants, imitating their sounds—“ba-bay” and “da! da!”—in songs about Jesus nursing in his mother’s arms or jokes about how to address Daddy.
Medieval Children contains one hundred twenty-five illustrations, most in color, most taken from manuscripts. Many represent adults’ loving views of children just having fun: boys spinning tops, or egging on a cockfight, girls taking in a puppet show, adolescents wrestling, a toddler manipulating a surprisingly modern-looking walker. Adults made ingenious toys for youngsters: hobbyhorses, toy knights, dolls, dollhouse-size plates and candlesticks, marbles, balls, board games, puppets, chessmen and dice, pint-sized lances and bows and arrows. A 1559 painting by Pieter Bruegel that adorns the cover of Orme’s book depicts seventy-five different children’s games, including hoop-rolling, swimming, wrestling, and handstands. People of the time made rhymes and games and songs that were passed down orally for centuries to our own time. There was even a medieval version of “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John / Bless the bed that I lie on.”
The pleasure that medieval adults took in children, whether in making objects with which to amuse them or in recording their play in manuscript illustration, is palpable in Orme’s book. They venerated child-saints, and in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there were cults of supposed victims of ritual murder by the Jews, a routine (if grotesque) medieval allegation. They watched their children astutely enough to realize that the onset of puberty in girls comes at a much earlier age than for boys.
Medieval adults also took seriously their responsibility to educate the young. Many children picked up their ABCs and simple prayers written on hornbooks and in primers from their parents, probably their mothers in many cases, as female literacy during the Middle Ages was far more widespread than is commonly thought. (The ubiquitous medieval image of St. Anne giving a reading lesson to her daughter, the Virgin Mary, seems to assume that it was not unusual for a woman to be literate.) Orme suggests that some medieval literature—animal stories, fables, Arthurian romances, rhymes and songs that dealt with children—might have been specifically written for young audiences. Teenage girls especially seemed to enjoy love stories. Later, schoolmasters entertained their charges with off-color and scatological rhymes to translate into Latin; “He lay with a harlot all night” is a sample of one those exercises.
Life was certainly not as comfortable for medieval children as it is for today’s, as Orme points out. The poorer ones had to go to work as servants at puberty or before; they typically spent their entire teenage years or more in service. The killer epidemics of the Middle Ages, especially the Black Death of 1348–1349, hit young people hard. Children born with deformities could be barred from the priesthood or even marriage—although they were often the objects of compassion as well. Orme describes two fourteenth-century Siamese twins born in Yorkshire who managed to live to about age eighteen, undoubtedly thanks to the care and sympathy of others.
Orme has written a rich, satisfying, and highly readable compendium of just about every practice and custom pertaining to children in the Middle Ages. But he has done something more: he has made it clear that they were indeed children, in the eyes of society and in their own eyes, and that medieval adults left them free to enjoy the pastimes, rhyming games, jokes, and rough sports that seem to have distinguished all the world’s children since time immemorial. As Orme writes: “Medieval children shared many of the thoughts and interests of children today. They responded to wordplay, both in speech and in writing. They liked animals and imagined them as people. They had an interest in magic and the supernatural. They mocked one another, and derided unpopular occupations and races. They savored scatological and sexual matters.” In other words, medieval children were kids, kids we ourselves would recognize on a playground or in a schoolroom today. Of course that’s because childhood is a natural phase of life, not a “social construction,” as ahistorical theorists would have us believe.
Charlotte Allen is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (1998).
Image by JIP licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.