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Socialising the Child in Late Medieval England, c. 1400-1600 by Merridee L. Bailey (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 161-162 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0082

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As its opening line clearly articulates, 'This book addresses the socialising roles of the late medieval household and the school' (p. 1). It is a deceptively straightforward opening to a book that offers important new ways of understanding the construction of late medieval and early modern English society from childhood into adulthood, and which helps to cross largely artificial boundaries of period specialisation across a wide spectrum of issues ranging from religion to literacy.

The first chapter addresses courtesy poems. It is a thorough discussion, focusing on key elements of the literature in nuanced ways. Merridee Bailey shows, for example, how the quality of 'meekness' was an important part of the performance of household service, and more broadly, a contributor to the maintenance of social hierarchy. Yet Bailey is attuned to the nuance of the socialisation process, where the desirable and cultivated quality is necessarily balanced against future problems. In the case of meekness, there was a need to avoid allowing it to degenerate into weakness. There is much of interest in this discussion, and I found Bailey's awareness of how the literature and the realities of physical space interacted to be particularly fascinating. Emphases 'on the hall' (p. 22), and later on the street (p. 171) serve as useful reminders of how the smallest act could have social significance in medieval or early modern spaces. Less historically particular, the socialisation of children has certain aspirational, anthropological references that are also interesting: 'pike not thi nose' (p. 21).

The second chapter, addressing the readership of the material, continues these nuanced approaches to the source material, the secondary scholarship, and wider physical and social spaces. As with nose-picking, warnings about over-fashionable sleeves getting dirty in food bowls has a pragmatic and timeless ring to it, but as Bailey notes these comments were probably understood as overt or oblique references to sumptuary legislation (p. 49). While tackling these methodological and contextual issues, Bailey continues to chart changes in the socialisation process as revealed through the literature under study. It is an example of literary history at its best: the author consistently manages a dialogue between literary sources, historical scholarship, and non-literary primary sources, to create a methodological feedback loop and a whole-of-society picture.

The third chapter on 'Virtue and Vice' illustrates this nicely as, in addition to the theme of the chapter as titled, it grapples with the complex and not always well-understood relationship between early print culture and late medieval manuscripts. Bailey does well to highlight this in light of an argument that suggests an important, if gradual, shift in the nature of the surveyed literature occurred in the late fifteenth century. Aspects of the printed literature point to a greater moralising focus and a more particular 'family' socialisation setting, for example. This analysis is dependent upon not only Bailey's reading of that printed material, but also a sensitive treatment of 'the type of courtesy literature that was privileged by the presses in relation to the overall body of courtesy material which existed' at the same time (p. 84).

Continuity is the overall impression given in the chapter that specifically addresses sixteenth-century books, as the moralising, family-centred approaches to child socialisation of the late fifteenth century continued to be key themes throughout the sixteenth century. Yet Bailey notes 'a self-conscious appropriation of traditional courtesy narratives and a desire to indicate a continuity with older texts' (p. 148), which is an interesting contribution to our overall sense of sixteenth-century England. Coupled with another of Bailey's findings that 'there was more continuity between Catholic and Protestant literature than is often recognised' (p. 137), this chapter usefully helps to realign our understandings of society more broadly, based on what that society hoped to impart to its children. There was greater social conservatism in the construction of morality and behaviour, even as other sources suggest sectional discord.

The role of the socialisation of children in the English Reformation, and the eventual success of the Elizabethan Settlement, are considered in the final chapter and the points that Bailey makes here again have important implications for a wider appreciation of social and religious change...

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