Childhood in the Middle Ages
Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany
Life in a Medieval Village
Shulamith Shahar’s admirably ambitious book seeks to present a new view of the history of European childhood over nearly four centuries, between the early twelfth century and the fifteenth. One of her chief aims is to question the view of Philippe Ariès and his followers that the Middle Ages lacked a clear conception of childhood as a distinct period in human life, with a special character and needs. In particular she seeks to question the view that the high rate of infant mortality in the Middle Ages induced a measure of indifference toward young children, as a defense mechanism against establishing close ties with infants whose chances of survival were slim. Her book has thus a primary concern with the history of sentiment. A secondary aim is to explore potential comparisons between medieval Christian lore about the rearing and education of children and modern psychological theories about the significance of childhood experience in the formation (or malformation) of the personality. These two related themes are intelligently woven together.
Medieval authors commonly noted three broad stages in the early years of human life: infantia (early childhood), from birth to seven years old; pueritia (later childhood), from seven to twelve for girls, and seven to fourteen for boys; and adolescentia (youth), from fourteen to full coming of age (which was not very clearly defined). These divisions correspond quite well, Shahar points out, to the stages distinguished by the psychologist Erik Erikson: infancy, from birth to fifteen months, and early childhood from fifteen months to two and a half (some of the medieval authors introduced sub-divisions into their stages, e.g., from birth to the appearance of teeth); the age of play, from two and a half to six; school age, from six to sexual maturation; and youth, ending at twenty. It is with the first two stages of the medieval authors, infantia and pueritia, that Shahar is concerned, since the third stretched into early adulthood. Her book divides accordingly, the first seven chapters concentrating on the period from conception to seven years, the later chapters on the education of children over seven, the age at which they were thought to be ready to leave home (or to begin to take up adult tasks if they stayed there).
Ariès’s thesis relied heavily on inference from demography—particularly from the high rate of infant mortality; and on iconographical evidence, in particular the medieval illustrative tradition that distinguishes children from adults principally by their stature, rather than by distinctively childlike appearance, presenting them as it were as mini-adults. In order to find evidence to support her more positive interpretation of the medieval conception of childhood, Shahar has had to make a wide trawl, since it is by no means easy to accumulate. Works that throw personal light on family attitudes, such as Giovanni Morelli’s journal or Alberti’s Book of the Family are exceptional. Shahar makes much intelligent use of the works of theologians and didactic writers—authors of “mirrors for princes” and courtesy books that treat of upbringing, and homilists who address sermon counsel to parents (and indeed to children), and also of medical writing. Particularly illuminating are her explorations of accounts of childhood in imaginative literature and in hagiography. The lives of the saints often tell a good deal about the childhood of their subjects that remains significant despite the encomiastic bias. Even more significant are accounts of their miracles, performed in response to vows of pilgrimage or promises of benefaction, that involve the healing of sick infants, the cure of deformities, and the blessing of the barren with children. These offer some of the best evidence there is of parental concern that can be called “characteristic,” and the acta sanctorum (deeds of the saints) contribute heavily to the first part of Professor Shahar’s book.
As one would expect of the author of The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages, Shahar writes eloquently and effectively of birth, nursing, and the first weeks of childhood. Many mothers died in childbirth, and the proportion of infants that died during delivery or in their first month of life was high, probably more than half of those that died before the age of five. This is a field where the problem with sources is very acute: childbirth was women’s business, and the lore of the midwives who supervised it was passed on orally and so is unrecorded. Nevertheless Shahar finds enough to give a vivid picture of the problems a difficult birth could present (a work known as the English Trotula, which gives advice on dealing with sixteen possible complications, has been very useful here), and also to illustrate the real concern for the infant, whether or not it was destined to live for any time. The acta sanctorum are full of stories of children, seemingly stillborn, who were miraculously restored to life by the intercession of the saints, and of the prayers of parents that their children might live long enough at least to be baptized—and so earn a passport to the paradise of the innocent.
Nursing is an important subject for Professor Shahar. It was well understood that suckling established a bond between an infant and the woman nursing. Ecclesiastical authors, for that reason, unanimously favored maternal nursing, and countless pictures and images held up to mothers the supreme example of Mary nursing the infant Jesus. Nevertheless a very great many mothers in the upper strata of medieval society put out their children to wet nurses; those who served the rich seem often to have “lived in” in the homes of their charges: others took the children to their own homes. The obvious question arises: Does this imply indifference on the part of the mothers (and indeed the fathers) of the children that were put out, and does it equally imply indifference on the part of the wet nurses who nourished them at the expense of their own infants?
Sometimes, in some cases, clearly it did, but Shahar argues powerfully that we should not take this as the norm. The force of accepted social practice on the one hand, of economic need on the other, had more to do with the situation, she suggests. Evidence shows that care and forethought were given to the choice of a wet nurse, and that under “live-in” arrangements mother and nurse often took shares (suckling apart) in the care of the infant. “Living out” nurses were commonly changed if the original wet nurse became pregnant (which was supposed rightly, but for incorrect medical reasons, to impair her lactation). Shahar also makes the forceful point that in accounting for the practice of wet-nursing, we should take the frequency of renewed pregnancies into consideration. Sound sense suggested that a woman who could afford it should put her child out to nurse so as to gather strength against the next birth. Whereas one might expect that it would be the eldest son and heir on whom most maternal care would be lavished, the evidence suggests that in the upper strata of society it was more often the last child that was likely to be nourished on the milk of his or her own mother.
Children in the Middle Ages were usually weaned at about two. By then they were out of their swaddling clothes and beginning to walk and talk. Because those two first years were so crucial in the child’s life, didactic works of one kind or another have a good deal to say about care during them, about how to bathe the infant, about its need for caressing, about how to aid its first steps—and about the dangers of taking an infant into bed with one, lest it be overlaid and smothered. About the years between two and seven, the classic childhood years, there is much less evidence. Shahar has nevertheless uncovered some marvelously vivid evocations to support her argument that this “first age of childhood” was seen as a period distinct to itself. The Middle Ages were indeed on the whole more lenient and permissive toward the young child than the centuries that followed. The injunction of Philip of Novare (1206–1260), “Children should be allowed to play since nature demands it,” if a little unbending, shows perception. Froissart (1333–1401) takes us a step further with his pictures of the games they actually played, of how a child in its make-believe will make a hobby horse of a stick or a sieve out of a shell. The History of William Marshal, written in c. 1225, offers a still more individual picture with its story of King Stephen playing with his six-year-old hostage William at knocking down knights, represented by the plantains growing outside the king’s tent, and allowing the child to win. But perhaps most eloquent of all is the passage that Shahar quotes about the childhood of Parzival from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem:
Of sorrow he knew nothing, unless it was the birdsong above him, for the sweetness of it pierced his heart and made his little bosom swell. Weeping he ran to the queen, and she said, “Who has hurt you? You were out on the meadow.” He could tell her nothing, as is still the way with children.
A comparable perception, in more piteous mood, rings from the last cry to her mother of the little girl snatched up in the Dance of Death, “Look after my doll, my knucklebones, and my smart dress!” There is more that is lacerating to read in the two chapters that Shahar has set skillfully in antithesis on “abandonment, infanticide, and accidents” and on “sickness, handicaps, bereavement, and orphanhood.” In the first of these she faces squarely some of the most depressing material from the record, material easily interpreted as showing indifference to the fates of children. The second, which brings forward the record of Angst in the face of crisis and grief in loss, is if anything sadder to read, but it backs up her contention about the caring instincts of medieval parenthood with the greater eloquence for that.
The Middle Ages knew plenty of abandonment and infanticide, as other epochs have done. Foundling hospitals were busy, and the chances of survival in them were not good. Still, parents did not leave their children at the foundling hospitals so that they should die but in the hope that they might live; some even sought later to get them back. The Church’s unswerving teaching on the sanctity of human life ensured at least that infanticide was less common than in some past cultures, and never condoned.
Turning to sickness and bereavement Shahar finds in the lives of the saints and in the testimony of peasants before inquisitorial tribunals the whole disparate
spectrum of responses to bereavement which is known to us today: a weeping and wailing mother, tearing her hair or beating her breast and head; a mother fleeing to the forest after the death of her infant and refusing to return home; a bereft mother refusing to hand over the corpse of her little son for burial; a father totally paralysed with grief.