By Nicholas Orme
Past and Present, Vol.148:1 (1995)
Introduction: Anyone wishing to study the history of children in the Middle Ages could well begin with the chapters about them in the famous encyclopaedia On the Properties of Things, compiled by Bartholomew the Englishman in the mid-thirteenth century and translated into English by John Trevisa in 1398. Here are accounts of conception and birth, the functions of midwives and nurses, and the characteristics of infants, boys and girls. The discussion of boys includes a remark worth examining. As Trevisa expressed it, “they love talkynges and counsailles of suche children as they bene, and forsaken and voyden companye of olde men”. Boys, in other words, prefer each other’s fellowship to that of their elders. The observation has a special interest today when the nature of medieval childhood is a matter of debate. One influential writer on the subject, Philippe Aries, has argued that children did not lead separate lives from adults. In his opinion, the mature and the young lived closely together, working and playing in similar ways, with the result that adults did not generally view children as a distinct group or childhood as a special era of life. Shulamith Shahar, the author of the best recent survey of medieval children, takes the opposite view. She grants the fact that people lived in close proximity with one another. But, she asks, were there not differences between the lives of men and women, masters and servants, and therefore also adults and children? For her, there were indeed such distinctions, causing adults to have a well-developed concept of childhood and even of stages within it.
The present article relates to this debate, or rather to one of its aspects. It is not primarily about adults and their relationship with children, but about children and what belonged to them in terms of a culture. What did the young possess by way of goods, activities, speech, folklore and imagination which were distinctively theirs?