Textuality, Subjectivity, and Violence:Theorizing the Figure of the Child in Middle English Literature
Kline, Daniel T.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 12 (1995)
The Corporation of London’s Letter Book G (fol. ccxcix) records the following event: on Monday, 21 March 1373, a certain Alice de Salesbury was convicted of kidnapping a minor child, Margaret, the daughter of London grocer and citizen, John Oxwyke, in the Ropery. After stealing the child, de Salesbury reportedly stripped the child “that she might not be recognized by her family” and carried her away. The record calls Alice a beggar, and she kidnapped and disguised Margaret Oxwyke so the child “might go begging with the same Alice, and gain might be made thereby.” For this crime, the mayor and aldermen sentenced de Salesbury to stand at the thewe, the London pillory for women, for one hour.
This briefly noted incident marks the intersection of several of late-medieval London’s socio-political hierarchies, particularly those preoccupied with issues of gender and class–and I would add to that list age and family. These hierarchies operate across several registers. First, economic concerns, defined both by wealth and by the classical “oikonomia” or “rule of the household,” are engaged here, for the Oxwyke child is transmuted through dress and disguise from her position in a wealthy family into a new relationship with a false mother, for whose profit she will beg. Second, discipline and social control become evident in that the child, though kidnapped, is successfully returned to her parents, and the captured kidnapper is forced to submit silently to public humiliation and punishment at the thewe, thereby reestablishing the conventional social and familial order. Third, because an official interpretation of the event is transcribed into the legal discourse of the city archives of London, the account is prey to the slippery operations of textuality. Seen as a whole, these three registers–the economic, the legal, and the textual–form the coordinates within which questions of personal identity and individual subjectivity arise, for the child’s previous identity as a grocer’s daughter, momentarily threatened and transformed into that of a common beggar-child, dissipates in the wake of the kidnapping, prior to her successful return to her original status in the Oxwyke family. The cultural order of late medieval London is thereby sustained by a narrative that shows the identity of Margaret Oxwyke to be malleable for a variety of purposes, both legitimate and illicit. At the same time, the Letter Book G account constitutes Alice de Salesbury as an undesirable underclass beggar-woman in need of control and reinforces the socially sanctioned position of the London grocer, John Oxwyke.