Fundamentally medieval – as any other historical – childhood matters. I find myself saying and thinking this a lot these days as I keep working on and re-working the introduction for my book on medieval village childhood. For many years the study of childhood has resided firmly on the margins of historical enquiry, if it existed at all. The discipline of history was not alone in this, as both archaeologists and sociologists have bemoaned the fact that the study of childhood was not considered important by research until quite recently. How can this be? After all, everybody was a child at one point, children and young people are everywhere and would in pre-modern societies most certainly have constituted a much larger proportion of the population than they do now. Arguably they are a much more important subject for research than the traditional pursuit of the examination of diplomatics, battles and political machinations of the high and mighty, unless, of course you think that children do not matter because you feel that they had no agency, or that their agency – limited as it was- of little or no consequence. Sound familiar? It should, as similar views were help about the history of women. The reasons for this type of perspective can probably be found in an overwhelming androcentric perspective which has dominated the various disciplines. (See especially Dawson and Alanen for further discussions of this) The view that everything revolved around adult men who ran politics and cultural exchanges and dynamics, has blinded researchers historically not only to the history of women and gender, but also children, who are – of course – culturally very much associated with women. The research on children thereby probably suffered a double disadvantage; they were seen as less important than men and less important than women. Added to this a widespread view which perceives children not so much a entities in their own right, but mere appendage to adults, small beings who are in a liminal state before ‘becoming’ adult – hence more ‘important’ people, and we have a situation where children are not only neglected as a valid research topic, but also people who research them are frequently asked ‘but why children?’ (See Alanen’s excellent discussion of the idea of childhood conceived as an adult to be in below)
Ok, here is why: They are interesting people in their own right, they did have agency – always and yes, even in medieval society, and no, they were not seen as ‘little adults’. They had agency of sorts in law, in economic production, in the production and performance of culture. Anybody who thinks children have no effect on culture – even adult culture – is sorely mistaken. That medieval society had a view of childhood as distinct from adulthood is now happily not really questioned anymore, but is also, however, secondary to my own interest in the young people themselves. (The seminal works by people including Shahar and Orme on medieval childhood were crucial in putting to rest the idea that medieval society had no concept of childhood) The perspective on the history of childhood must now shift from a top down – developmental perspective – to a bottom up one which tries to focus on the children rather than on OUR view of what we think medieval adults thought of them, although this is clearly part of the equation. Androcentric views of the past are also presentist in conception. a look into the past desiring to seek what we know and comparing the past to our own lives. So we think that we know what childhood means and ask ourselves what it looked like in the past, so the danger is that we look in the past for what we think we know of the present in the context of childhood this is a view based on rather traditional developmental views of childhood as ‘not adult yet’. So what we find will by definition be shaped by what we seek – this was Philippe Ariès’ core problem, even if he very much desired to circumvent it. Instead the life of a child is in a constant dialectical relationship with adults and other children, They are not passive recipients of culture, they are not only vulnerable victims, they have views and perspectives, responsibilities and wishes. Do the sources exist? yes they do, but the same sceptical question was asked regarding the history of women – the problem, it was said, was a ‘lack’ or dearth of sources on women, hence research has to be limited. This, we now know, is also incorrect, generally speaking, we see what we decide to see, it is merely a matter of asking the right question of our sources. Children ditto.
For further reading on these issues see for example:
L. Alanen, ‘Rethinking Childhood’, in: Acta Sociologica, vol 31, no. 1 (1988) pp. 53-67.
P. Ariès, Centuries of Childhood (1965)
W.A. Corsaro, The Sociology of Childhood (fourth edition, Sage, Los Angeles, London and New Delhi, 2015)
N. Orme, ‘The Culture of Children in Medieval England’, in: Past and Present, vol. 148, no. 1 (1995)
Shahar, Childhood in the Middle Ages, (London and New York, 1992)
H. Dawson, Unearthing Late Medieval Children; Health, status and burial practice in Southern England (BAR British Series 593, 2014)