Medieval Children

By Benjamin Schwarz

March 2002 ATLANTIC

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Medieval Children
by Nicholas Orme
Yale, 388 pages, $39.95

A little learning is just enough to get things completely wrong: on those admittedly very rare occasions when the subject of pre-modern childhood comes up in conversation among self-described sophisticates, they inevitably insist that “childhood” is a modern concept and that medieval parents were largely indifferent to their offspring. Such views are mere parroting of the received wisdom, most famously promulgated in the 1960s by the then-trendy social historian Philippe Ariès, who, relying far more on theory than on evidence, asserted that the deep bonds of love and care between parent and child that we now associate with the nuclear family were essentially nonexistent in prior times. Over the decades, though, careful historians have been dismantling that interpretation. Nicholas Orme’s exhaustive and fascinating portrait of medieval English childhood is the latest and perhaps most cogent of such works—and it demolishes the Ariès thesis. Orme, a distinguished if at times recondite historian (Early British Swimming and The Minor Clergy of Exeter Cathedral are among his previous fifteen books), examines and assesses a breathtaking range of source material—from primers, diaries, and poems to coroners’ records and ancient shoes—and concludes, in a triumph of judicious scholarship and common sense, that medieval children were “ourselves, five hundred or a thousand years ago.”

Ariès asserted that because the death of children was so common, parents, expecting the worst, were less emotionally attached to their offspring than are parents today. True, an astonishing number of children died (probably at least 42 percent before the age of ten), but Orme convincingly—and heartbreakingly—argues that parents cherished their children no less, and grieved no less at their loss, than do modern parents. His survey of a vast and complex subject is lightened by his obvious fascination with some of its more obscure details (children’s emotional and religious world view, their reading habits, and the everyday dangers they faced), which makes his work both authoritative and eccentric. Orme’s is one of the most beautifully and intelligently illustrated academic works I’ve encountered; in this and in his sensitive, reasonable, and lucid weighing of confusing and generally sparse evidence, Medieval Children is a model of accessible scholarly history.

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