Child-centered law in medieval Ireland
By Bronagh Ni Chonaill
The Empty Throne: Childhood and the Crisis of Modernity, edited by R. Davis and T. Dunne (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Introduction: The study of medieval childhood has come a long way in the last two decades and recent publications have argued convincingly how several well-known theories on historical childhood current in the 1960s and 1970s can now be put to rest. Such theories proposed not only an evolutionary model of how childhood should be viewed across the ages, but also questioned the very recognition of childhood within medieval society.
However, as Hanawalt correctly observed, the current challenge is to achieve a greater awareness across the popular and scholarly communities of the progress made on medieval childhood, in order to recognize, debate and move on from the inheritance of Aries et al. This contribution aims to serve that purpose, in addition to highlighting a unique, early medieval source on childhood, which has been surprisingly absent from discussions to date.
Much that has been written about medieval childhood focuses on the later Middle Ages and the world of the town and court. The range of source for this period (journals, letters, guild registers, household books, court registers, manuals and much more) permits the historian with a detective’s eye to create a composite picture of childhood. At times it has been lamented by scholars that children were not the primary forces of many extent medieval sources and that such scant information survived from early medieval times on a given topic.
Fortunately, the historian of early medieval Ireland does not face such predicaments in the search for the child as a detailed body of legal discourse survives. This is the largest collection of legal material written in a vernacular for pre-1200 Europe, with the published edition running to 2,343 pages.