The Medieval Child: an Unknown Phenomenon?
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
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
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.
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
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>
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
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,
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,
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.
_______. 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.