Childhood Studies Medieval and Anglo-Saxon Childhoods
by
Sally Crawford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0091

Introduction

Medieval childhood has been a growing area of interest and research since the mid-20th century. One of the key challenges for researchers has been to test the extent to which a “medieval” childhood is different from a “modern” childhood. At first, historians focused on the attitude of medieval society toward children and on whether “childhood” was regarded as a separate and particular stage in the life course. More recently, research has also broadened to include perspectives on a medieval child’s own experiences of childhood. These approaches are important for separating “juvenility,” based on biological development and chronological age which are largely universal to the human condition, from “childhood,” which is tied to biology but reflects the culture and society in which the child is raised. In the medieval period, for example, the extent to which the child’s experience depended on the influence of the church or court to shape and control ideas about what a child was, what childhood meant, and how long childhood was supposed to last are key areas of research. One of the challenges of medieval childhood as an area of study is that religious texts and other contemporary literature, which are the predominant sources of evidence, contain much idealization and manipulation of children and relationships between adults and children. A further strand of the study of medieval childhood looks at the physical remains of childhood as evidenced through archaeology. This study has been overwhelmingly dominated by burial archaeology, but more recent attempts have brought children’s material culture into focus. Childhood still remains outside the mainstream of historical study, especially within an archaeological framework, but there is increasing awareness that the study of medieval childhood is essential to understand medieval society as a whole.

General Overviews

The modern study of medieval childhood began with the publication of Phillipe Ariès’ Centuries of Childhood (Ariès 1973). In this groundbreaking work, Ariès studied documents from late medieval French court society and came to the challenging conclusion that, although medieval people may have cared about their children and looked after them carefully, they did not have an idea that childhood was a separate, and different phase of life, and did not particularly distinguish between childhood and adulthood. Subsequent scholars have investigated a broader range of documentary and archaeological sources to find copious evidence that, across the medieval period and across Europe, attitudes toward children and childhood were, to an extent, culturally conditioned, and that different parents and carers adopted different strategies in their attempts to nurture their children to adulthood. One early and highly influential critic of Ariès was Barbara Hanawalt, whose study of medieval English court cases involving children (Hanawalt 1986) offered a very different perspective on medieval attitudes to children and the idea of childhood. In France, Alexandre-Bidon and Lett 1999 countered Ariès by providing a much broader picture of French medieval society, looking at attitudes to childhood across the whole 1,000 years of the medieval period. Cultural aspects of medieval childhood—the age at which children were sent to school, the extent to which children’s activities and behaviors were conditioned by gender and status, and the age at which they took on adult status in law, for example—are an important barometer for understanding medieval society as a whole. Shahar 1990, an important work, was the first to take a broad view of childhood across medieval Europe as a whole. More recently, Orme 2001, a beautifully illustrated volume, has broadened the scope of historical study by giving serious attention to children’s voices and children’s agency in the medieval period, though the author restricted his study essentially to High Medieval England and arguably goes too far in recognizing continuity and correspondence between medieval and modern childhood. Heywood 2001, a readable volume on childhood, is useful for placing medieval childhood in the context of its time and culture, and in demonstrating how ideas about childhood changed through the medieval period. Heywood’s volume is linked to a series of BBC radio programs on childhood in the past, reflecting the extent to which the study of childhood has moved away from being a specialist discipline. Newman 2007 is a useful introduction for the general reader.

  • Alexandre-Bidon, Danièle, and Didier Lett. Children in the Middle Ages: Fifth-Fifteenth Centuries. Translation by Jody Gladding. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    English translation of Les Enfants au moyen age: Ve-XVe siècles. Paris: Hachette Litteratures 1997. Historical and archaeological evidence is used to draw out a rounded picture of medieval French society.

  • Ariès, Phillipe. Centuries of Childhood. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1973.

    E-mail Citation »

    English translation of L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Regime (Paris: Plon, 1960). The essential starting point for studies of medieval childhood. Ariès’ work is controversial, and his arguments still inspire debate.

  • Hanawalt, Barbara. Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important study of peasant families on the basis of the documentary evidence.

  • Heywood, Colin. A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times. Cambridge UK: Polity, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A broad introduction to the history of medieval childhood, in an easily readable form. Very useful for a general reader.

  • Newman, Paul B. Growing Up in the Middle Ages. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    A concise introduction to the subject for the general reader.

  • Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Children. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Highly readable, well-illustrated, and scholarly book, drawing on archaeological and documentary sources and offering rich and varied examples of English medieval childhood, mainly from the 13th century onwards. Orme particularly focuses on child agency and child experience, drawing on material produced by children themselves to provide, for the first time, children’s voices in historical writing.

  • Shahar, Shulamith. Childhood in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    An exceptionally well-written, scholarly volume. This was one of the first serious attempts to look at childhood in the Middle Ages from the perspective of a broad range of documentary sources, covering a wide variety of European sources. Fascinating and thought-provoking.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down