Children of the Middle Ages

By Crosby, Everett U. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Children of the Middle Ages


Crosby, Everett U., The Virginia Quarterly Review


Medieval Children. By Nicholas Orme. Yale University Press. $39.95.

In the course of the singular True Account of the Island of England, written toward the end of the 15th century by an Italian visitor, we are told that: "The want of affection in the English is strongly manifested towards their children, for after having them at home until they reach the age seven or nine, they board them out to service in the homes of other people." It is, perhaps, just a short step from this doleful impression, based on narrow experience and restricted data, to the better known and frequently cited thesis of Philippe Aries published in 1960, also based on narrow experience and restricted data, that " . . . there was no place for childhood in the medieval world." Because of the scarcity of documentation, the difficulty in interpreting the materials, and, perhaps, a lack of interest in the subject, this perverse notion has persisted in scholarly writing up to the present time as a kind of personal judgement turned into historical fact. In a book of essays edited in 1974 by Lloyd de Manse, himself the author of an extremist theory based on Freudian psychology which claimed that "the history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken," there is an astonishing collection of examples. Mary McLaughlin reveals that medieval parents "were themselves often literally, as well as emotionally, little more than children," M. J. Tucker confirms that "the medieval idea that children were not terribly important persisted into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries," and James Bruce Ross, perhaps confused after hearing so many of the same voices, asks the startling question: "how could the deprived and neglected infants of the middle classes develop into the architects of a vigorous, productive, and creative era which we call `the Renaissance'?" Her own answer is that "the enigma will probably remain with us, but at least we are asking new questions and devising new methods of inquiry." Unfortunately, neither the questions nor the methods were new. They simply confirmed the old idea which had reappeared in 1970 in F.R.H. Du Boulay's widely read An Age of Ambition, in Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex, and Marriage in 1977, in Elisabeth Badinter's L'Amour en plus in 1980, and in 1996 in the popular history of Europe by Norman Davies where we learn that medieval children "passed straight from swaddling clothes into adult dress." But driven by the force of the new social history, which did not leave the period of the Middle Ages untouched, other scholars soon found the simplicity and exclusiveness of the argument suspect. In different ways, and from different points of view, by pointing out the misuse of the sources, the flaws in the methodology, and the bias against a remote past difficult of access, they have shown conclusively that there is little substantial evidence to support the contention of Aries and his followers. On the contrary, it is now generally accepted that there was, in fact, a distinct view of childhood in the Middle Ages, that children were treated as children and not as adults, and that a good deal of attention and affection was bestowed upon them. Similarly, and not for the first time, but from an unexpected quarter, the popular contention that medieval history ended in 1500 with the birth of the modern has been impugned, and Clio saved from seduction by the false promises of French theorists.

In support of the revised version of childhood, Nicholas Orme, who holds a senior academic position at the University of Exeter, and who is the author of several books on medieval schools and education, has collected an impressive amount of information on the history of children in England, from the Anglo-Saxon period to the 16th century, which he has organized and laid out in this illustrated volume. The title, unfortunately, is misleading, since it implies much broader coverage than is attempted. This is a traditional insular history, without any effort to compare it with developments on the continent. …

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