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A Will of their Own? Children’s Agency and Child Labour in Byzantium

A Will of their Own? Children’s Agency and Child Labour in Byzantium

By Youval Rotman

Imago TemporIs. medIum aevum, Volume 11, 2017

15th century image by the Master of Isabella di Chiaromonte

Abstract: This paper examines the relation between three concepts: a child’s will, children’s agency and child labour. Addressing the current debate about children’s agency, this paper shows how these concepts were developed in Byzantine society in order to advance a religious agenda that encouraged the child to run away from home in favour of a new life in a monastery.

Children were attributed with a will of their own and acted upon it before they reached the age of puberty. This perspective took the child out of the private sphere by attributing agency to it. The paper addresses the current debate about children’s agency revealing the conceptualization of this term as motivated by an economic agenda in which the need to profit from the child’s labour plays an important role.


Introduction: Modern political discourse about child labour was developed in the 20th century in relation to the human rights movement with the objective of eliminating the work of children. Nevertheless, in recent years a different attitude has become more and more prevalent in the international political discourse, which is cautious towards active political intervention in other cultures, and stresses instead the children’s need and will to work in order to gain a sense of ‘agency’ for themselves. This term designates the link between a child’s activity and a child’s will, and allows perceiving the child as a social entity. A child’s agency defines its ability to bring its will into action, and turns the child into an active agent.

Click here to read this article from the University of Lleida

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