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The Medieval Child: an Unknown Phenomenon?
Sophie Oosterwijk

It seems inconceivable that, in a period when the most popular image was that of the Madonna and Child, there was little or no understanding of or affection for children in everyday life, yet such is the popular misconception about medieval childhood. One factor which has contributed to this idea is infant mortality during the Middle Ages. Of course, mortality rates may well have differed greatly among the different classes of society as well as among periods and geographical locations, which makes it hazardous to generalize; nevertheless, there is no doubt that medieval infant mortality was very high compared to that in modern western society. This has led to a general belief that medieval parents could not bring themselves to become emotionally attached to offspring so likely to die. In turn, it is argued that medieval adults failed to understand or to recognize the nature of childhood, and thus the medieval child was regarded, portrayed and treated as a miniature adult.

The notion of medieval indifference towards children certainly did not originate with the late French historian Philippe Ariès and his 1960 book L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime, but it was his theory that childhood was a concept which was not 'discovered' until much later that stirred up a heated debate on the nature of childhood in the past <1>. While many scholars may have come to feel that Ariès's ideas have already received sufficient criticism, others have continued to propose even more controversial and bleak pictures of childhood life in the past; according to one psychohistorian, "The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken" <2>.

One example of the supposedly indifferent attitude of medieval parents towards their children is the chronicle description of Edward I's reaction while on crusade at hearing the news of the deaths of first his son John and then of his father, king Henry III of England <3>. According to the chronicler, Edward grieved far more for his 64-year-old father than for his five-year-old son and, when asked to explain the reason, he replied that the loss of a child is easier to bear as one may have many more children, but that the loss of a father is irremediable. This has often been taken as the typical medieval response to the death of a child; indeed, Edward himself was due to experience such losses all too often, for only six of the (probably) fourteen children he had by his first wife Eleanor of Castile reached adulthood <4>.

However, what has often been overlooked is the fact that Edward's reaction, instead of being typical, was in fact seen as unusual even if proper and devout; the episode illustrates surprise at his behaviour both on the part of Charles of Anjou, who asked him to explain it, and on the part of the chronicler, who considered it significant enough to record. Although it may have been exemplary of Edward to mourn so much more for the death of his aged father (which actually made him the new king) than for his own little son, it seems at the same time to have been considered far from normal.

The popular misconception about medieval indifference towards children may partly be based on the apparent absence of children from medieval art; at first sight, there seem to be very few images of medieval children other than the almost ubiquitous Christ child. However, upon closer inspection one finds that medieval artists actually showed a predilection for depicting the births of all kinds of "historical" figures, from Samuel and St John the Baptist to Julius Caesar and Tristram, to name but a few. Admittedly, these scenes were often chosen because of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the birth or because of the children's subsequent exploits as adults. Nonetheless, other depictions clearly play a more important role as emblems of childhood: for example, the Virgin Mary, whose birth and early childhood are frequently presented in art and literature. Nor should we dismiss many of these artistic and literary representations as merely depictions of "miniature adults." Although the children are shown larger than life in art, we must remember that realism in a modern sense was not the medieval artist's objective; even so, contemporary audiences could not have failed to understand the message. Similarly, the precocious maturity displayed by these exceptional children in literature and drama was actually quite different from the behaviour expected of children in real life.

There is certainly other evidence of interest in children in the Middle Ages. The hugely popular theme of the Ages of Man, in all its variations, included at least one stage dedicated to childhood with its specific characteristics <5>. Children were known to be weak and dependent, but also innocent and playful. In the more extensive versions of the Ages of Man, infants are usually shown as swaddled babies, and toddlers try out their first steps in a childwalker while older children play with toys or carry schoolbooks. Numerous toys from medieval and antique times have come down to us, both as actual objects preserved through the ages or discovered by archaeologists and as depictions in art or mentioned in documents: toys made of leather, wood, clay and metal, but also of precious or more perishable materials. Some are still familiar to us today in some form or other, such as rattles, dolls, balls, kites, spinning-tops, hobby-horses and whirligigs. Like their modern counterparts, medieval children also liked to imitate adult life in their games, and their toys could comprise miniature objects such as toy boats and carts or cups and jugs. It may only have been royal children who were pampered with sophisticated toy castles, swords and armour, but play was characteristic of all children, whatever their class or means. Gerald of Wales (1147-1223?) relates in his autobiography how he as a small boy built churches and monasteries out of sand and dirt while his elder brothers preferred the more traditional, if worldly, sandcastles or palaces; convinced thereby that Gerald was destined for the church, his father decided to give him a proper education and called him his "little bishop" <6>. All in all, there are too many examples in medieval art and literature which show an understanding of childhood for it to be possible for us to adhere to the misconception that the medieval child as such did not exist.

High infant mortality rates do not seem to have prevented parents from being fond of their children, however likely they were to lose at least some of them to diseases or accidents. Miracle reports and other types of documents attest to the lengths to which parents were prepared to go to obtain healing, rescue or salvation for their children, as well as to their grief when their efforts proved futile <7>. The popularity of the theme of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents and its vivid depiction in medieval art and drama also suggest that medieval people viewed child death with anything but indifference. Nor can a supposed lack of tomb effigies for medieval children be used as evidence of parental indifference, as Ariès claimed; although costly burials and monuments were affordable only to the wealthy few, some royal and aristocratic parents seem to have spared no expense in the funerals of their deceased children, who might subsequently be commemorated by costly monuments <8>. However, it must be remembered that such monuments were as much displays of family status as of affection.

So did medieval parents love and understand their children? Obviously, it would be wrong to believe that things then were just the same as they are now in the West. Life was much harsher and children were expected to play a role in working life from an early age, to the best of their abilities, albeit probably under better conditions than those of the industrial child-labour system in the nineteenth century. Survival would have seemed very uncertain for adults and children alike; childbirth could prove fatal for both mothers and babies while infancy itself was quite a hazardous phase. Childcare was also different: the practice of swaddling infants is particularly likely to strike horror in modern minds and depictions of swaddled cocoons have no doubt added to the negative image of medieval childhood.

Nevertheless, some basic facts cannot be ignored. Medieval reality might have been a far cry from our own twentieth-century idea of childhood as a joyous and carefree phase of life -- in itself rather a modern Western idealization-- but the medieval popularity of the Virgin and Child could only have worked if people recognized its fundamental truth: the bond of affection between mother and child. We must not forget that the lullabies from Mary to her son in Middle-English literature are echoes of real-life cradle songs, just as the popular representation in art of the virgo lactans was based on the earliest and most natural way of feeding an infant <9>. The Middle Ages may have been different, but perhaps not quite so alien, after all.




1. Already in 1907, Elizabeth Godfrey noted in her book English Children in the Olden Time that "because children are so rarely and so briefly mentioned in old chronicles, some have fancied they must have been looked on with indifference."  For two perceptive discussions of the work of Ariès, see Anthony Burton, "Looking Forward from Ariès?  Pictorial and Material Evidence for the History of Childhood and Family Life," Continuity and Change 4:2 (1989): 203-29, and Adrian Wilson, "The Infancy of the History of Childhood:  An appraisal of Philippe Ariès,"  History and Theory  19 (1980): 132-53.  Even as late as 1994, the exhibition 'L'enfance au Moyen Age' at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris was very much a reaction against the ideas of Ariès and his followers. <return>

2. Lloyd deMause, "The Evolution of Childhood," 1, opening sentence of chapter 1 in Lloyd deMause, The History of Childhood:  The evolution of parent-child relationships as a factor in history  (1974; repr. London, 1980).  More articles by deMause and other authors can be found in the Journal of Psychohistory (previously named the History of Childhood Quarterly). <return>

3. William Rishanger, Chronica et Annales, regnantibus Henrico Tertio et Edwardo Primo, ed. Henry Thomas Riley, Rolls Series 28 (London, 1865), 2: 78;  although the chronicler names the son as Henry, it was actually John who died in 1271 a few months prior to his grandfather Henry III.  The episode is quoted as a typical reaction in John Page-Phillips, Children on Brasses (London, 1970), p. 10. <return>

4. See, for example, John Carmi Parsons, "The Year of Eleanor of Castile's Birth and her Children by Edward I," Mediaeval Studies 46 (1984): 245-65. <return>

5. For the Ages of Man, see J. A. Burrow, The Ages of Man:  A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought (Oxford, 1988) and Elizabeth Sears, The Ages of Man:  Medieval Interpretations of the Life Cycle (Princeton, 1986). <return>

6. Gerald of Wales, or Giraldus Cambrensis, relates this story in his autobiography De rebus a se gestis;  see J. S. Brewer, ed., Giraldi Cambrensis Opera (London, 1861), 1: 21.  To his regret, Gerald was never to become a bishop. <return>

7. Apart from Barbara Hanawalt's work on medieval coroners' inquests in particular, there is a wealth of interesting material in Ronald C Finucane, Miracles and Pilgrims:  Popular Beliefs in Medieval England (Guildford, 1977) and his more recent book The Rescue of the Innocents:  Endangered Children in Medieval Miracles (Basingstoke & London, 1997). <return>

8. Examples of medieval child effigies are the Limoges slabs of Jean and Blanche of France, infant children of St Louis, formerly at Royaumont and now preserved at Saint-Denis, and the alabaster figures of Edward III's children William of Hatfield at York Minster and Blanche of the Tower and William of Windsor at Westminster Abbey.  However, the notions that tombs are signs of affection and that tomb effigies should faithfully portray the deceased are in themselves popular misconceptions.  See Sophie Oosterwijk, "'A swithe feire graue": The Appearance of Children on Medieval Tomb Monuments,'" to be published in the 1997 Harlaxton Symposium Proceedings. <return>

9. Of course, many upper-class women are known to have handed their babies over to wetnurses, especially in Italy where there was a huge demand for dependable balie, but the Church clearly advocated the ideal of mothers suckling their own children. <return>

Alexandre-Bidon. Danièle and Monique Closson, L'enfant à l'ombre des cathédrales. Lyon, 1985.

Ariès, Philippe. L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime. Paris, 1960; translated as Centuries of Childhood, 1962.

Arnold, Klaus. Kind und Gesellschaft in Mittelalter und Renaissance:  Beiträge und Texte zur Geschichte der Kindheit. Sammlung Zebra (Bücher für die Ausbildung und Weiterbildung der Erzieher), Reihe B, Band 2. Paderborn, 1980.

Boswell, John. The Kindness of Strangers:  The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York, 1988.

deMause, Lloyd. The History of Childhood:  The evolution of parent-child relationships as a factor in history. 1974; repr. London, 1980.

Hanawalt, Barbara. Growing Up in Medieval London  The Experience of Childhood in History. Oxford, 1993.

Riché, Pierre and Danièle Alexandre-Bidon. L'enfance au Moyen Age.  Paris, 1994.

Shahar, Shulamith. Childhood in the Middle Ages. 1990; trans. London, 1992.

_______. De wereld van het middeleeuwse kind. (Special issue dedicated to medieval childhood with essays in Dutch by various authors.) Madoc: Tijdschrift over de Middeleeuwen 11:4, December 1997.

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