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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 160

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Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 400 pp.

Contradicting Philippe Ariès, Lloyd de Mause, and Lawrence Stone, Orme holds that childhood existed in the Middle Ages. Children, Orme observes, were regularly portrayed as children on tombstones and were indeed seen as individuals of consequence. By the thirteenth century, the killing of newborn children was treated as homicide, and as early as 1118 abortion was punished. (Mothers who aborted an embryo less than forty days old had to do penance for three years, and if the embryo was older, she had to do penance for seven.) Children said prayers written especially for them ("Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, / Bless the bed that I lie on") and adults addressed babies, according to one Bartholomew (thirteenth century), in a special language. It was only later, apparently, that some adults found fault with baby talk: Sir Thomas Elyot (T. S. Eliot's forebear) argued in 1531 that the language spoken to children should be "clean, polite, perfectly and articulately pronounced, omitting no letter or syllable"—which means that the opposite was by and large the case. As for schooling, William Horman in 1519 published an encyclopedia of English and Latin sentences that seems specifically directed at children since it contains a section in which a variety of games and toys are described. Some seventy-five games and toys are also reflected in the painting by Pieter Bruegel entitled "Children's Games" (1559), and some of these entertainments have survived down to the computer age. Rattles, for example, existed already in Aristotle's time; the English word rattle first appeared in Horman's book Vulgaria ("I will buy a rattle to still my baby for crying"), which, according to Orme, implies that rattles were mass-produced, a conjecture he supports with archaeological findings. He cites canon laws recognizing that children's moral responsibility began only at the age of twelve, and secular laws exempting children from adult punishment up until their teens. The evidence that Orme musters is convincing, not only that children existed in the Middle Ages, but that medieval and modern ideas of childhood were actually comparable or even similar. The question thus arises: Why did historians ever desire to argue otherwise?


Nadja Reissland

Nadja Reissland's current research concerns social interactive factors in infant development. She is a lecturer in developmental psychology at King's College, Aberdeen.



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