The Importance of Children
There has been a general, vague perception that, in the Middle Ages, children were not valued by their families or by society as a whole. Perhaps no time in history has sentimentalized infants, toddlers and waifs as has modern culture, but it doesn't necessarily follow that children were undervalued in earlier times.
In part, a lack of representation in medieval popular culture is responsible for this perception. Contemporary chronicles and biographies that include childhood details are few and far between; literature of the times rarely touched on the hero's tender years; medieval artwork offering visual clues about children other than the Christ Child is almost nonexistent. This lack of representation in and of itself has led some observers to conclude that children were of limited interest, and therefore of limited importance, to medieval society at large.
Leaving aside the wisdom--or lack thereof--in drawing conclusions solely from popular culture, it is important to remember that medieval society was primarily an agrarian one, and it was the family unit that made the agrarian economy work. From a purely economic standpoint, nothing was more valuable to a peasant family than sons to help with the plowing and daughters to help with the household. Children were, essentially, the primary reason to marry. It has even been suggested that cases of premarital pregnancy among women who married their children's fathers might be due to the necessity of ensuring fertility before going ahead with a wedding.1
In towns and cities, children would grow to become the laborers and apprentices that made a craft business grow. And here, too, there are signs that society as a whole understood the value of children. For example, in medieval London, laws regarding the rights of orphans were careful to place a child with someone who could not benefit from his death.
Among the nobility, children would perpetuate the family name and increase the family's holdings through advancement in service to their liege lords and through advantageous marriages. Some of these unions were planned while the bride- and groom-to-be were still in the cradle.
In the face of these facts it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that people of the Middle Ages were any less aware that children were their future then we are aware today that children are the future of the modern world. And if it is reasonable to accept that medieval society valued children, how strong an argument can really be made that medieval individuals lacked affection for their offspring?
A Question of Affection
Few aspects of life in the Middle Ages can be more difficult to determine than the nature and depth of the emotional attachments made among family members. It is perhaps natural for us to assume that in a society that placed a high value on its younger members, most parents loved their children. Biology alone would suggest a bond between a child and the mother who nursed him.
And yet, it has been theorized that affection was largely lacking in the medieval household. Below are some of the assumptions, generalizations, and unfounded theories that have been put forward to support this notion.
- Infanticide was rampant. Anyone capable of
extinguishing the life of a helpless newborn was incapable of
feeling or expressing love for an infant.
- Infant mortality was sky-high. Mothers could not afford
to make an emotional investment in a child when there was a good
chance it would die before its first birthday.
- Child labor was common. Children began an
apprenticeship, entered service, or worked behind the plow before
they reached 10 years of age.
- Discipline was extreme. The average medieval father
would sooner cuff his son than embrace him.
- Popular culture virtually ignored children. There were no tender odes to darling tots, no portraits of big-eyed waifs, no songs of blissful childhood. There were also no parenting manuals to tell eager young parents the correct way of raising a child.
In forthcoming articles, we'll take a closer look at these points and the evidence that refutes them. Please join me next time for The Medieval Child, Part 2: Entry into the Medieval World.
1. Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 196.
Sources and Suggested Reading
The links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants.
Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in
by Barbara A. Hanawalt
Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England
by Barbara A. Hanawalt
by Nicholas Orme
and the Family in the Middle Ages
by Frances and Joseph Gies