Narratives of a Nurturing Culture:Parents and Neighbors in Medieval England
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 12 (1995)
A current trend in thinking about the problems of neglected children and unruly youth is to look more seriously at the community we have lost rather than the family we have lost. Recent newspaper articles speak of community members being inhibited from taking any role in intervening with someone else’s children for fear of lawsuits. Governments have increasingly stepped in where a more informal community of neighbors fears to tread. In studying the medieval world, one of the assumptions has been that a strong sense of community and corporate organization generated not only cooperative action but also emotional loyalties. We who study medieval society have been as remiss in ignoring this simple truth about the past as have modern social commentators.
Medieval historians and others have focused too much attention on a one-cause battle–proving that a concept of childhood existed in the Middle Ages and thereby proving that Philippe Ariès, Lawrence Stone, and the other early modern historians were wrong as usual.1 By concentrating our attack on one front only, definitions of childhood, we have neglected the two-way relationship between parents and children, and we have overlooked entirely the importance of community in raising and protecting children. It is time to turn our attention toward the dynamics of the relationships among the three. We have followed Ariès too closely in trying to point to a clearly defined concept of childhood, to a parental attitude toward children that can only be loving if it is cast in the mold of twentieth-century sentimentality about childhood. Our interest in community responses to children and childhood has been limited to cultural expressions of love of children rather than to the discipline, training, and oversight that the community might be willing to assume in rearing children.