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.

Once again Shahar strikes an individual note surely to round off her picture, this time from the journal (1393–1411) of Giovanni Morelli, in his misery of self-accusation after the death of his ten-year-old son, of whom he believed he had in his affectionate ambition demanded too much: “You loved him but never made him happy. You never kissed him when he wanted you…now you have lost him and will never see him again in this world.”

Morelli’s son, when he died, was formally past the “first age” of childhood, which ended at seven. The last five chapters of Shahar’s book are devoted to the “second stage” of upbringing, from seven to twelve or fourteen, when education began in earnest. Her survey here is thorough and intelligent, but it seems to me not quite as interesting or original as what has gone before, since this is a period of upbringing that has been much more extensively surveyed by other writers. Yet it is an important period for her thesis, for it was at this stage that children began to mingle much more in the adult world, and that some—or at any rate some sons—left home for training. The first custom might seem to imply a perception of childhood status at best dim, insufficiently distinguished from early adulthood; the second that a certain indifference—to put it at its least—must be implicit in the willing acquiescence in separation from home at such an early age.

It was boys, mostly, and from the wealthier families, that were sent away: girls tended to remain at home—because, in the upper ranks of society, there was nothing particular to train them for, marriage and domesticity apart. Where the boys went depended partly on their status, partly on their parents’ intentions for them. The son of a noble, destined for knighthood, was likely to be placed in the household of a seigneur (probably his father’s lord), where his training would be largely in horsemanship and the martial arts, though a tutor or chaplain would probably ensure he acquired at least a smattering of vernacular letters. A boy who was destined for the Church was likely to go to school, to be instructed first in “song” (in reading, writing, and the singing of antiphons), then in Latin grammar, the foundation for all serious intellectual studies.

Most schoolboys were day pupils; some proceeded no further than the first “song” stage (which would equip them for minor ecclesiastical posts): the ambitious (or the children of the ambitious) were likely to go on to university after “grammar” schooling. Up to the twelfth century, children destined for the monastic life were commonly placed, at seven or thereabout, in a monastery as “oblate children,” dedicated to God by their parents. The child of the merchant or the artisan was likely to be placed by his father as an apprentice in the household of a “master” of his future trade or craft, this usually at about eleven, though sometimes earlier. The child of the peasant, of course, did not leave home. He or she lived under the parental roof, gradually taking on a more serious round of tasks in assisting the adult heads of household, until the time came to be married.

About these modes of education, which can at first sight seem to suggest—in all but the last, peasant, case—the systematic shifting of upbringing responsibility away from the parents, Shahar makes a number of pertinent observations. First and properly she stresses the Church’s teaching, that the primary and basic responsibility for seeing that a child was brought up in a Christian faith and morals, the ultimate end of all training and of life itself, lay with a father and mother. Secondly she stresses the importance of the substitute paternal (or maternal) role that those to whom children were entrusted were expected to play; the seigneur and his wife to the children in their household, the abbott or abbess of a religious house to young oblates, the master and his wife to their apprentices. A father who sent his son away to his lord’s court, or a burgher who placed his son with a master as an apprentice, was likely to have other children into his own home for training; they were thus not cut off from the world of growing children.

Training was in stages, and children, though they now mixed more with the adult world, were not expected to live as adults or take on all the tasks maturity would expect of them at once. The young noble started out as a page, and did not seriously embark on martial training until he was eleven or twelve; oblate children in a monastery made up a separate group, living under special rules which made allowance for their age. With regard to apprentices, Shahar quotes a telling number of instances where parents sued masters for negligence or maltreatment of their children. There is a clear reminder here of an essential point that concerns all these categories of young people. The object of parents in placing their children in the household of a seigneur, or in a monastery, or under a master craftsman was not so as to be rid of them, but to ensure for them in the future a niche in society.

Economic aspects of family strategy certainly affected parents’ decisions for their progeny. In the case of a noble, for instance, it might be important, in order that the eldest son’s inheritance not be depleted, that one or more of his siblings should follow a clerical career. But they were by no means the only consideration. To dedicate a child in a monastery was not just to dispose of him; “My father promised me in thy name that, if I become a monk, I should taste the joys of Paradise with the innocents after my death,” wrote Orderic Vitalis. Indeed, to hold a boy at home in face of established social custom would not have been an act of affection, but to cheat him of his birthright. It would have affected adversely his chances of advancement, of acquiring skills and knowledge and making the contacts that would help him later in life. Girls were not kept at home because they were loved more (there were plenty who were prepared to regard them as second-class offspring) but because the plans that would eventually be made for their marriage did not require that they leave. Social norms were what underlay the system, not measures of affection or indifference.

Professor Shahar’s book is interesting and informative, and she at times argues powerfully. Nevertheless it has to be said it has left some loose ends hanging. It covers a wide span of time and draws on materials from diverse regions of the Christian West: evidence from different centuries and from different regions is, however, often inadequately distinguished. There are some shaky generalizations: the suggestion, for example, that for “girls from the upper classes” a conventual upbringing was “almost without exception, the sole way of acquiring an education, [and of] realising educational and organisational skills” goes too far and can only mislead. It will fit for, say, Hildegard of Bingen in early twelfth-century Germany, but there were far too many educated women (and too many businesslike women too), elsewhere and at other times, whom it will not fit; it cannot stand as a general statement. But perhaps the most significant symptom of the book’s incompleteness is that, whereas it opens with a forceful and intellectually ambitious introduction, there is no chapter of conclusions to draw the strands together. One consequence of this is that the import of the recurrent cross-references from medieval educational to modern psychological theory is never adequately clarified. More importantly, it leaves the counterblast to Ariès and his school uncomfortably incomplete.

Shahar succeeds, very effectively, in demonstrating that the Middle Ages did have a conception of childhood as a definite (and indeed internally divisible) stage in human development, and that any attempt to interpret this attitude to childhood and children as indifference is nothing short of a travesty. But Ariès was not just concerned with attitudes toward childhood and children. Central to his thesis was the contention that the idea of the family, as a powerful and essentially private institution, organized around the children, was a relatively modern one, whose origins he sought to relate to the growing influence in the early modern period of the middle classes and to their quest for a distinctive style and ethos of their own. He thought that this implied something novel in the conception of childhood as well as of the family. What Professor Shahar thinks about this larger perception is not clear, because it is not stated.

Professor Wendy Davies’s Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany is by contrast with Shahar’s book a study that meticulously carries out its aims. The basis of her work is a collection of 280-odd charters of the ninth and early tenth centuries from the monastery of Redon in southeastern Brittany, mostly recording grants to the monastery from small peasant proprietors of the region. Because the texts copied at Redon record not only their donations but also details of previous dealings—sales, mortgages, lawsuits, and so on—affecting the properties involved, a wealth of information about the world in which the donors lived can be wrung from them by painstaking and methodical analysis. Like many scholarly books that relay genuinely original research, Davies’s study makes quite severe demands on the reader, but for those prepared to wrestle with the individual vocabulary of early Breton custom and with the complex detail of charter texts a fascinating picture emerges of the life at a humble level in what already by the ninth century was the last bastion of the Celtic-speaking world on the mainland of continental Europe.

The Redon region was one of mixed farming, with arable cultivation predominating. The basic working unit was the discrete, clearly bounded plot farmed by the individual peasant household, called a ran (plural ranou), varying in size between twenty-five and sixty acres. The basic unit of social organization was the plebs (Breton plou, meaning literally a people), the district around a village with its church, and including the hamlets and isolated homesteads of the area. It was at meetings of the plebs that property transactions were witnessed and authorized, and disputes between kinsmen and neighbors settled. These meetings were presided over by the local machtiern (a minor aristocrat, probably owning lands in the plebs), but he was not the judge; the panel who gave judgments was chosen from among the free peasants. Most of these were holders of a single ran; some 10 percent had more than one property, and perhaps 2 or 3 percent had plots outside their home plebs as well as in it. Priests, who usually came of hereditary priestly families, were prominent among these richer peasants. Unfree serfs made up about a quarter of the population; typically, a serf and his family would be cultivating a ran for a free proprietor who was his master. Money played its part in the economy of this rural society—rents and dues in kind were given a cash value and sales were for cash—but it was by no means fully monetized. We hear nothing whatever of markets, and when peasants traveled it seems usually to have been for legal business rather than to trade or barter.

The two most striking features of this unfamiliar early Breton country world are its intensely local character, and its independence. From the names of witnesses and parties who were recorded as present at the meeting of this or that given plebs in the Redon documents, Davies is able to say something about the movements and journeys of a considerable number of identifiable people. On this evidence, it looks as if at least half the local population hardly ever traveled outside their own plebs; even the more prosperous were seldom more than a full day’s walk from home. With the world beyond their little corner of Brittany their contacts were few and intermittent; the authority of the Carolingian kings of France, even of the counts of Brittany, impinged on them only remotely. This no doubt has something to do with their independence in their own communities. Their machtierns were not lords of the land, as later feudal seigneurs would be, but wealthy men of established family with certain civil functions that entitled them to certain dues. Local meetings of free peasants in their own plebs authorized transactions, judged disputes, and made arrangements for the enforcement of their legal decisions (largely through a surety system). Individual peasant proprietors enjoyed considerable freedom to arrange the division of their inheritance and to sell their properties, subject to interested kinsfolk’s consent. They managed their own lives with surprisingly little direction from above.

All this was not to last, of course. By the end of the ninth century the demands for taxes from higher authorities (from the king, for instance, to pay for wars against the Vikings) were putting pressure on the undermonetized economy. That is why so many proprietors were selling their lands to the Redon monastery, either outright or in order to receive them back on less independent terms. Their descendants would know about the heaviness of a seigneurial yoke in a way that they had not. This renders the more fascinating the glimpse that Professor Davies offers us of an earlier world that had vanished before the eleventh century.

Frances and Joseph Gies in their Life in a Medieval Village take us into another world that we have lost, but lost rather later, at the end of the Middle Ages. Geographically, their study is even more limited than Davies’s, concentrating on a single English village, Elton in Huntingdonshire. But in another way their range is broad, since they have chosen Elton not for its individuality but because it was typical, very like countless other villages of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in England and northern Europe where the “open field” system of agriculture was followed and where the land that the peasants tilled was the property of a manorial seigneur, in this case the Abbey of Ramsey.

At first sight, the way of life of the Elton villagers contrasts in many respects with that of Davies’s earlier Breton peasants. The land of a village like Elton (in which there were some 1,800 acres) was divided into two or three great fields, cultivated on a crop-rotation basis which always left one field fallow. The fields were subdivided into strips (measured as one day’s plowing) which ran this way and that with the lie of the land in bundles (“furlongs”). The strips which formed the holding of an individual peasant were not an identifiable patch, as a Breton ran was, but were scattered in different “furlongs” in the open field, and the lord’s strips (his “demesne”) were scattered among those of his tenants. The cultivation of the field was thus necessarily a communal, cooperative task for all the villagers, whose plowing and sowing of their strips had to be coordinated so that the whole could be harvested together.

The peasant society of Elton was stratified, as that of ninth-century Brittany was: the richer villagers might hold a virgate (fifteen to thirty acres); most held a half or quarter virgate, and the poorest cottagers, who lived by working for others, no more than a hovel and a garden. There was this sharp difference with Brittany, though; the great majority of the Elton villagers were unfree serfs bound to the soil of their lord’s manor and who could not therefore have holdings elsewhere and could not sell their plots even to one another without his permission. Their obligations to their lord dominated their daily lives: they owed service each week to help cultivate his share of the land (and extra service at the seasons of plowing and harvest); they had to bring their corn to his mill to be ground at his miller’s price, their flour to his baker to be baked into bread. The surplus product of their toil, in kind and coin, was thus regularly creamed off to meet the consumption demands of the style of life of the lord, “the man who could always eat as much as he wished.” The abbey and monks of Ramsey took a good deal of feeding.

The life of the villager under the open field system of agriculture and his relations with his manorial lord have been described often. There is not much that is new, consequently, about what Frances and Joseph Gies have to tell; what marks their book is its lucidity and the vividness of its imaginative reconstruction of the past—the detail of its pictures of peasant homes, peasant diet, parish politics, and peasant religion.

One point at which their skill in presentation shows to particular effect is in their account of the activity of the manor court, which brings out how much less emphatically unfree these villagers in practice were than is easily supposed. Indeed, the meetings of this court have decided reminiscences of those meetings of the free Breton plebs that Davies describes (with the difference that the profits from fees and fines in this case went to the lord). It was in this court that villagers sued each other and were sued over debts and inheritances and over failure to do their bit under communal agricultural arrangements, here that property transactions between them were authorized. The jurors who brought in cases against individuals and declared the custom of the manor were chosen among the villagers themselves, and the by-laws framed to facilitate communal agriculture were established by the community in the court. The manorial court, with its impressive capacity for self-regulation, was thus integral to village life, its meetings a principal means of holding its society together as a community. It gave the villagers a measure and a sense of communal identity that did not survive the decay of the manorial system at the end of the Middle Ages, and that became then—like Davies’s Breton society—part of a lost world.

The studies of village society and peasant life by Wendy Davies and by Frances and Joseph Gies seem a long way from the themes and questions that dominate Shulamith Shahar’s inquiries. Yet there is one point at which they touch, inevitably. In southeast Brittany and in Elton there were children, and it is striking that what we hear about them seems to tally rather well with Shahar’s general thesis. The charters of Redon do not tell us much about children, nothing about child-care. From time to time, however, they record grants made to the monastery in order to obtain prayers on behalf of sick children, and some of the longer than habitual journeys that Davies finds peasants making were connected with this kind of purpose. We know more about the children of Elton, and Frances and Joseph Gies’s summing up of their findings might be written by Shahar herself: “Medieval parents have been accused by certain modern writers of a want of feeling toward their children,…the charge scarcely stands up.”

“No society could physically survive, without a tradition of child-nurturing,” Shahar writes. Here, I think, she touches a thread that runs through all three of these disparate books. The past is a foreign country, with norms and behavioral patterns alien to our own. Such norms and patterns are mutable factors, culturally constructed, and to understand the human and social relations of past societies we must reconstruct them in their own terms. But as each book in its own way reminds us, we should never forget that the people who live in that “foreign country” were human beings like ourselves, with feelings, urges, and preoccupations comparable with our own, even though in their different circumstances they may have expressed them differently. This is a point that the history of childhood is calculated to bring home in a particularly forceful way.

This Issue

June 13, 1991