By Christian M. Zottl
Concilium medii aevi, Vol.9 (2006)
Introduction: Considerations regarding the experience and understanding of medieval childhood will swiftly remind the historian dealing with these problems of major limitations concerning the possible investigation and exploration of historical societies and their specific mentalities. An observation of the past – and here particularly the Middle Ages – does not only imply a spatial-temporal distance, but also, due to its very nature, suggests mental and material differences. Thoughts, feelings, fears, and approaches to life within most medieval societies will retain their puzzling character as long as we only scratch along the surface. However, if we wish to become ‘acquainted’ with the people of this widely unknown epoch, and want to understand their actions, habits, judgements, and decisions, then we have to be willing to accept them with all their peculiarities in order to fully apprehend their time and background. The characters we will encounter within this essay may have lived at other times, but they likewise thought, felt, experienced, rejoiced, and – depending on their outlook on life and their patterns of behaviour – achieved spiritual or material values; and all this makes them interesting for us today.
As historians, we primarily lay claim to mediating a truth that we deduce from analysing the sources available. Although we are anxious to leave 21st century values and ideas aside when dealing with historical societies, we still have to be aware of the fact that all research interests projected onto the past and its people eventually derive from contemporary questions and problems. Consequently, it is even more important to let sources speak for themselves and not to force our answers on them. The aim of historical analysis should therefore be to understand; not to judge. So, it may be noted that when referring to the Middle Ages. we are visualising almost a thousand years that must not be seen as a cultural unity. In its beginnings (which differ geographically), cultural elements and social relations of the preceding, late antique societies were still dominating. Only gradually, in the course of increasing Christianisation (including the centralisation onto Rome) and textualisation (at least within some social circles), an explicitly medieval, European source-culture developed which contrasted starkly in character from those of outer-European civilisations. Taking these developments into account, we nowadays distinguish between early, high and late Middle Ages.