By Anna Hansen
Paper given at Sagas and Societies – Conference at Borgarnes, Iceland (2002)
Abstract: Drawing especially on the research of the past decade, including works such as Shulamith Shahar’s ‘Childhood in the Middle Ages’ (1992) and Sally Crawford’s ‘Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England’ (1999), I have come to the conclusion that representations of children in the Icelandic sagas suggest that the thirteenth century Icelanders acknowledged an early phase of life, childhood, which was distinct from the latter phases of life, adulthood. Unlike Western twentieth century attitudes towards childhood, however, the thirteenth century Icelanders did not sentimentalize childhood, but rather viewed it as a learning stage, a crucial period for the acquisition of culture. My paper will examine specific representations of children from the Icelandic Íslendingasögur, detailing what we can learn about thirteenth century Icelandic attitudes towards children from such representations.
Introduction: In his 1962 book, Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Ariès made the following assertion:
In medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist; this is not to suggest that children were neglected, forsaken or despised. The idea of childhood is not to be confused with affection for children: it corresponds to an awareness of the particular nature of childhood, that particular nature which distinguishes the child from the adult, even the young adult. In medieval society this awareness was lacking.
Although Ariès’s views were accepted and elaborated upon by some scholars (Lloyd DeMause, for instance, characterised the medieval attitude towards children as one of indifference) the opposition to his conclusions, especially from medieval scholars, has been intense. In particular, the last decade and a half has seen a number of studies produced to counter Ariès’s claim. For example, Shulamith Shahar, in her 1990 book Childhood in the Middle Ages, argues that a concept of childhood existed in the Central and Late Middle Ages, that scholarly acknowledgement of the existence of several stages of childhood was not merely theoretical, and that parents invested both material and emotional resources in their offspring.