By Eve Davies
Rosetta: Papers of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, Issue 8 (2010)
Abstract: Academic enquiry into Byzantine infancy has previously focused on the Byzantine’s textual construction of this perilous life stage, which was often tragically cut short. Looking at hagiographies, histories, legal codes and examples of material culture, there is a substantial quantity of evidence which exposes Byzantine perceptions of the lived experience of infants too. This paper considers the significance of specific Life Course markers (conception, pregnancy, birth, baptism and weaning). The study exploits a range of evidence including textual and pictorial sources in order to compare genres and ultimately acquire a fuller understanding of ideals. Extracts from the sources demonstrate that from the sixth century onwards, the Byzantines attached increased value to a child’s earliest years – including their development in the womb – as a reflection of their personal characteristics and adult life.
Introduction: Scholars are in agreement that the Byzantines were concerned and anxious for their infants’ chances of survival. As a result, historical interest in the life stage of infancy has focused on premature death, including the prevalence of exposure, burial customs as a reflection of societal value, the extent of parental bonds to their newborn infants and their grief at the loss of their baby. Littlewood, Talbot and Abrahamse have explored the high prevalence of infant mortality and Byzantine parental attitudes towards babies’ demise. It has been argued by William Harris and Patlagean that infant exposure diminished following new legislation implemented in the fourth century, which enabled parents to sell their babies, changed murdering an infant into a capital offence and made it illegal for a father to reclaim his child after neglecting it (diminishing the hope that a family could re-establish a relationship with their child once the child had matured beyond the stages of economic dependency). Tritsaroli and Valentin used the results from grave excavations to conclude that there was no evidence of infanticide. In contrast, Rautman and Baun argued that baptism soon after birth symbolised social acceptance into the family unit. This brief summary of existing academic enquiry demonstrates that Byzantines concern for infant survival has become a focal point in academic analysis.
But this mentality of morbidity was not the only type of expression expressed about infants by the Byzantines. The devotion of parents to infants is depicted in the vita of Ioannikos, who lived in the ninth century: ‘But nonetheless <the story> will be told, even if inadequately, since the prattlings of children are dear to their fathers (ἐπεὶ καὶ φίλα πατράσι τά τῶν νηπίων ψελλίσματα) and our best efforts are dear to God.’ The implication of this specific simile is that an infant’s undeveloped speech, though incoherent to most, is highly valued by the devoted parents. Congourdeau wrote: ‘Celui-ci est peu à peu considéré comme un être humain, et non plus comme cette énigme fragile et menaçante, lieu de toutes les terreurs.’ The scope of this article focuses on the lived experience of infants, the portrayal of newborns and toddlers, and the attitudes and ideologies attached to the process of conceiving and raising a small child. Although the survival of a Byzantine infant was continually endangered, adults nevertheless recounted their attachment to babies with fondness and affection.