The Birth of Childhood

Childhood in the Middle Ages

by Shulamith Shahar
Routledge, 342 pp., $29.95

Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany

by Wendy Davies
University of California Press, 227 pp., $34.95

Life in a Medieval Village

by Frances Gies and Joseph Gies
Harper and Row, 257 pp., $22.95

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…

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