Child death, grief, and the community in high and late Medieval England
By Danielle Griego
PhD Dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2018
Introduction: William of Canterbury, one of the authors of the Thomas Becket miracle collection, reports in a twelfth-century miracle that an eight-year-old boy named Phillip was looking at rocks by a lake located in the county of Cheshire, when he slipped and was overtaken by the water (aquis obrutus est). When he did not return home, his father, Hugh Scot, searched for him everywhere in the village and found his body submerged in the lake. Hugh was sighing and groaning (suspiriis et gemitu) after extracting him from the water, and when Phillip’s mother heard about his death, she indulged in tears and wailing (lacrymis indulget et plactui).
Rather than preparing the boy’s corpse for a funeral, his parents attempted to revive him by suspending him by his feet in order to drain the liquid from his body, and when that did not work, by giving him holy water associated with Thomas Becket (aqua sancti Thomæ). According to William of Canterbury, because of the devotion of the parents (devotio parentum) and divine intervention, Phillip began to show signs of life, making his father leap forth (exsiliente) from his seat with excitement.
In the Spring of 2015, I read the account about Phillip from Cheshire in the Thomas Becket miracle collection while searching for descriptions of medieval mortality for a conference paper. I was struck by the poignancy of the account, specifically by the imagery of Phillip’s father and mother seeing their son’s lifeless body sprawled on the ground, and of their refusal to accept his death demonstrated by their desperate attempts to revive him. Not just English mothers and fathers, but whole communities would have witnessed alarming rates of child mortality in the Middle Ages, a concept which is somewhat foreign to our modern minds.
Today, the heartbreaking news about child death, in most cases, is viewed as “unexpected” or “rare.” However, the medieval corpus reflects the grim reality that child death was common. Children perished from complications during birth, illness, foul play, and from infortunia, or accidental deaths that occurred around the household and community. Death rates were only heightened with the onset of the Black Death and episodes of famine in the fourteenth century. The amount of emotional trauma brought on by child death is incomprehensible, which brings me to my next observation about the excerpt in the previous paragraph. Another aspect of the miracle story that caught my eye was the emotion portrayed within the account.
Top Image: Detail of marginal miniature of the Massacre of the Innocents. British Library MS Stowe 17 f. 261v