Skip to main content

Children of the Middle Ages

[clock] 16-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 2002

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 Ariès 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 Mause, 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. Even so, the undertaking is a formidable task for a single author who wants to show that childhood occupied an important place, not only in traditional family life, but also in the larger framework of political and economic development in the kingdom.

Orme opens with the disconcerting question, “What is childhood?” and does not stay for an answer. Rather the answer comes in installments several pages later when we find that childhood was “a concept,” that it may be defined in different ways, and that it had certain but variable legal limits. This last approach turns childhood from an idea into a period and provides the basic framework for the discussion which follows. Indeed, the book itself is constructed so that like a child it grows from conception to maturity with each stage of development explained by references to aptly chosen texts and pictures. The first chapter, on birth, sets the style and method for the eight others that follow on family life, death, songs, playtime, the church, schools, books and stories, and work and marriage. It is divided into short sections on sub-topics such as baptism, names, birthdays, and proofs of age, each one equipped with a short historical introduction which leads the reader on to a cluster of citations and commentary. The form of the book is, in fact, very similar to the arrangement adopted by Danièle Alexandre-Bidon in the illustrated survey, L’Enfant à l’ombre des cathédrales, published in 1985, and by her joint enterprise with Pierre Riché, L’Enfance au moyen âge, which appeared in 1994. In each case, the successive stages of birth, family, danger and death, school, the church, adolescence, and leaving home, make up the historical narrative, but in this case based largely on selected French sources, whereas Orme’s book give us a more comprehensive story from the other side of the channel. His book, however, is not a systematic account of medieval English childhood sustained by a fully developed scholarly analysis in which the theoretical, as well as the practical, problems are dealt with on a comparative basis. It is, rather, a very interesting and informative tour though an extensive array of source materials by a knowledgeable and expert guide.

There are many useful things to be learned here, although there are obviously many uncertainties that remain in the interpretation of the documents and in the conclusions that can be drawn from them. At the very beginning, an interesting discussion deals with the shift in the choice of personal names for children after the Conquest, whereby the Old English names with a double element, like Aethelred and Edward, gave way to fewer, but more widespread, biblical names like Thomas, John, and Mary, and Germanic-Norman names like William, Robert, and Henry. As a consequence, there was an increase in the use of surnames, based on place, occupation or personal characteristics, to distinguish one William from another. This process is well-explained, and sufficient information is presented to illustrate the point at hand with regard to naming children, but little is said about the current problems of research in surnames, their distribution, their use as markers of social class, family status, or work. In a later chapter the section on child-marriage suggests that for the most part it was unusual, and this assumption is borne out by recent studies which form the basis for the conclusions reached in Peter Fleming’s study of the medieval English family and the household. There is also a brave attempt to sort out the conflicting views on what happened to a child when he died. Unbaptised babies, and even those not yet born, were thought to be excluded from heaven. If one listened to St. Augustine, who had no legitimate children to worry about, they went straight to hell. But eventually this harsh doctrine was tempered by the invention of limbo where these unfortunate souls were gathered and where they remained without pain of punishment, but also without hope of salvation. Babies, therefore, were baptised as soon after birth as possible, and Orme provides a remarkably skillful and concise analysis of the structure of this fundamental Christian myth.

There is also much to be said for the author’s treatment of some of the byways of childhood where little serious research has been done. In chapters on baby-talk, on stories, rhymes, and songs, on playtime, toys, and games, and on literacy, reading, and learning the alphabet, the significant and defining elements in elementary education are given the place they deserve in a survey of medieval social history.

In the final chapter on adolescence, in the section on “children and the law,” we are brought back to the key problem of defining childhood referred to at the beginning of the book. In this regard, the standard of reference was legal age, but it is obvious that this scheme was more complicated than it looks. Not only was there some divergence in meaning depending on a child’s sex, social status, and the nature of the question involved, but there was enough imprecision in the meaning of words like infans, puer, juvenis, adolescens, pubes, and adultus to raise difficulties in interpretation. In other words, medievals faced many of the same problems that we do today. For a large part of the period under review a boy could make a will and marry at 14 and inherit property at 21, but could not swear an oath until 12. He could be ordained to certain minor orders at seven, but could not enter major orders until 17, nor become a priest until 24. But he was criminally liable anywhere from 10 to 14. A girl’s will was valid at 12, she was considered of age at 14 if married, and at 16 if unmarried. There were, therefore, and as we would expect, a number of legal ages in secular and ecclesiastical society which varied from place to place and from time to time. It might also be useful to identify what might be called “emotional age” or “mental age” as a parallel development, that is, how long it took children to think of themselves as adults. The assumption, as we have seen, is that the process was slow enough to make childhood a recognized period of perhaps 10 or 15 years. Nevertheless, there were doubtless many children for whom this time of innocence was very short and often not very sweet. In the Dialogi of Laurence of Durham, for instance, the author recalls how he entered the church at Waltham as a boy and grew up under the supervision of the canons. But when he felt the desire to leave in order to become a monk at Durham, he suddenly (repente) changed from a boy to a man. This may be no more than a figure of speech, but it seems reasonable to suppose that for many young people in military life, merchant life, royal life, as well as in ecclesiastical life, and under pressing circumstances, childhood passed by very quickly.

Also instructive is the commentary on the handling of child criminals. As in our own day, some writers argued that the crime determined the punishment, no matter what the age of the guilty party, while others contended that the age of the criminal must be taken into account. We can find that a 10-year-old boy was hanged and a 13-year-old girl was burned for murder, and a 15-year-old boy was burned for heresy. But such isolated cases do not make a history. On the other hand, too much of the evidence is lost, and it is difficult to say that there was an increasing tendency over the years to be more lenient with regard to children. This is the implication in Orme’s statement that “such cases were rare and aroused people’s pity.” But in spite of the temptation to see things taking this turn, since it is another way of distinguishing children from adults and, therefore, important to the fundamental thesis of the book, there is simply not enough evidence on which to make a judgement.

However fascinating and well told the story of medieval childhood is, and Orme certainly succeeds in presenting a full and colorful picture, there are obvious limitations imposed on this kind of scholarly work. Three constant factors which shape the story are: 1) that most of the evidence comes from the later period, often from the 15th and 16th centuries, 2) that a large portion of the documents represents upper class views weighted on the side of the urban population, and 3) that the majority of references come from literary sources. This means that for most of the Middle Ages we know precious little about children, childhood, or family life. Ninety percent of the population is left in silence. When we begin to know more, we still have only small pieces of the puzzle, and a careful assessment has to be made as to the extent to which conclusions drawn from a few sources may be applied to groups of people about whom we have heard nothing. There are also instances where the evidence used is illuminating but the exposition appears to be incomplete or in some way flawed. In the section on weaning, for example, the reference to the baby Jesus touching the chin of Mary, which is seen as a playful gesture, misses the interpretation advanced by Leo Steinberg that it is a representation that should be placed in the larger framework of a kind of spiritual eroticism with a long historical tradition. As always, there is an inherent danger in arguing directly from appearances. A more familiar topic, and one which concerns many more aspects of medieval life, is the abandonment of children. Here it is given half a page, but surely there is more to be said about the practice. John Boswell’s book is listed in the bibliography, but no use seems to have been made of the suggestive, if controversial, information to be found there. Child oblation, on the other hand, which Boswell considered to be a form of institutionalized abandonment, is dealt with at greater length. Yet there are questions and answers which might further our understanding of the custom which are not pursued. How important was economic hardship in the decision to offer a child? Was oblation irrevocable? What happened to runaway children? Were there laws to deal with them and who could enforce them? Similarly, there has been a good deal of research on medieval infanticide which has been published in the last few years, by Barbara Hanawalt, R.H. Helmholtz, Barbara Kellum, Emily Coleman, and James Given, among others, which tends to show that it was a fairly rare occurrence. Consequently, it can be argued that children were more important than critics of the de Mause school had thought. Certainly the investigation of the practice can shed light on important aspects of the economic and social, as well as the emotional, life of the family. The big question, of course, is how widespread and how routine it was. Against infanticide Orme gives references to Aelfric and Chaucer, and to a number of legal enactments, and can show that it was condemned by many people. Yet, as he admits, we have no idea how many children were killed, nor do we know how often the death of a child was simply the result of an accident. We miss a discussion of the action taken in secular and ecclesiastical courts, of the motives involved, and of the exact cause of death. As pointed out in other studies, children may have been killed, not because they were unloved, but in order to regulate the number of family members. Moreover, in an age of primitive medical care, infanticide was safer for the mother than abortion. To say, as Orme does, that “medieval people, like us, regarded such deeds with horror,” is to commit the fallacy of reading modern sentiment back into a former time. It is quite possible that infanticide was far more common than we think or that we would like to think, and carried out with less emotional stress than we would suppose, although such a conclusion does not invalidate the notion that childhood was a distinctive stage of life. Here, as elsewhere, there is the immense problem of trying to reconstruct a medieval system of values to compare with our own. A related question, which is not considered here, but which might be usefully followed up, concerns children who killed their parents, or their step-parents. What evidence is there for this, how was the crime treated in the law, and what bearing did it have on the hostile relationships found so often in the literary tradition? There are helpful pages on the management of children as wards, but little elaboration on the related role of guardians, or on the financial profit that was realized. Other lapses occur from time to time, so that we are not much enlightened on the significance of children’s graves, and on the question of why there are so many fewer in proportion to adult graves in an age when child mortality was very high. William Fitz Stephen’s 12th-century description of London is used to fill out the section on games, but he has much more to say about summer and winter sports than is reported here. Some minor criticism can be made, inter alia, of the identification of medieval leprosy with Hansen’s disease, of applying mortality figures for a later period to an earlier one, and of placing too much confidence in the assertion that the illegitimate birth rate (in the 16th century) was “never more than about 4.5%.”

For some reason, whether it is the author’s practice or the publisher’s decision to save on costs, a number of important sources and monographs are not included in the bibliography. In some cases they are referred to in the notes, but there is no easy way to check on a citation, or to find out if one is missing, as in the case, say, of useful works by David Herlihy, Michael Goodich, Linda Pollock, Kate Mertes, Majke de Jong, James Brundage, and Didier Lett, as well as studies for comparison by Thomas Wiedemann, Cornelia Löhmer, and Klaus Arnold, and the volumes on the child in the Recueils de la Société Jean Bodin.

The strengths of this book, however, far outweigh the weaknesses. As a survey of the history and as a reassertion of the importance of childhood in the English Middle Ages, this is a timely and important contribution. As a commentary on the ways in which children were brought up, educated, and sent out into the world, and as a guide for the reconstruction of the life and thought of the child, it is not only a valuable collection of references, but also a point of departure for further research on several different topics in an expanding field.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading