Women, Family, and Society in Medieval Europe: Historical Essays, 1978-1991

By David Herlihy; A. Molho | Go to book overview

11
MEDIEVAL CHILDREN

In a fourteenth-century French poem, one of numerous surviving depictions of the danse macabre, the grim choreographer invites a baby to join his somber revels. "Ah, ah, ah," protests the infant, "I do not know how to speak; I am a baby, and my tongue is mute. Yesterday I was born, and today I must depart. I do no more than come and go."1

Many, perhaps most, children in most traditional societies did no more than come and go. And most never acquired, or were given, a voice which might have recorded and preserved their impressions concerning themselves, their parents, and the world they had recently discovered. Of all social groups which formed the societies of the past, children, seldom seen and rarely heard in the documents, remain for historians the most elusive, the most obscure.

The difficulties of interviewing the mute have doubtlessly obstructed and delayed a systematic investigation of the history of childhood. But today, at least, historians are aware of the commonplace assumption of psychologists, that childhood plays a critical role in the formation of the adult personality. Perhaps they are awakening to an even older wisdom, the recognition that society, in the way it rears its children shapes itself. "Childhood is the foundation of life," wrote Philippe of Navarre, the thirteenth-century lawyer and chronicler, "and on good foundations one can raise great and good

____________________
1
"A, a, a, je ne scey parler;/Enfant suis, j'ay la langue mue/Hier naquis, huy m'en fault aller/Je ne faiz qu'etree et yssue" J. Gerson, "a Danse Macabre," in Oeuvres complètes, ed. P. Glorieux ( Paris and New York, 1966), 7, p. 298.

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