Socialising the Child in Late Medieval England

To mark the publication in paperback of her acclaimed book Socialising the Child in Late Medieval England (York Medieval Press), Dr Merridee Bailey (Associate Member of the Faculty of History, University of Oxford) has kindly written this introduction to her work, highlighting the many forms in which parenting advice may be given and what a rich glimpse it can give us into a society’s priorities and values.

How we raise our children is a topic which generates millions of keystrokes on computers across the western world. Newspapers, social feeds, twitter and blog posts are filled to the brim with parents (and often outside observers) commenting on parenting styles, advising whether to take an authoritarian approach to discipline, if it’s better to be friends with our children, or to adopt a ‘free-range’ parenting style which gives them more autonomy and independence. The technologies we use to communicate these ideas – the web, social media – might be new, and so might some of the specific issues and terminology (we talk about helicopter parents and ‘tiger moms’) but our concerns with how to raise children aren’t novel at all.

‘I aduyse euery gentilman or woman hauyng such children desyryng them to be vertuously brought forth to get and haue this book to thende that they may lerne hou they ought to gouerne them vertuously in this present lyf’.

When we strip Geoffroy de la Tour Landry’s 14th century advice of its old fashioned tone, what’s left is the counsel that parents need to be conscious of their parenting choices and to make clear and fitting decisions for their children’s behaviour and future lives. de la Tour Landry even manages to manipulate anxious parents by advocating his own book as an essential text for them to read.

When I began researching the topic of late medieval childhood I was primarily drawn to the surviving texts which shape our understanding of childhood in this period. Courtesy poems in manuscripts and in early printed books were full of unfamiliar prosaic advice – don’t spit, don’t put bread in your pocket, don’t dip your meat directly in the salt cellar – but also more complex instructions about how to carefully monitor other people’s reactions to your behaviour to win their approval. These lessons make sense in a highly hierarchical society, but the sources also reveal the deep strategizing that guided behaviour. Children and parents were pro-active creators of their reputations.

It’s this strategizing which broadens the history of childhood into a history of social identity and systems of belief. Just as today’s opinions on raising children will, in time, act as markers of 20th and 21st century ideologies and social priorities, so too are historical sources about childhood offering us knowledge of medieval society in toto. Just spare a thought for the future historian who has to trawl through mumsnet’s millions of posts.

Today’s preoccupation with childhood explicitly extends to thinking about children’s emotional welfare and their emotional lives. The rise of the history of emotions, which is still very much in its own infancy (or perhaps it’s in the stage of pueritia, which falls after infancy but before adolescence), will open our explorations of historical childhood to new questions about medieval children’s emotional lives. Scholarship on historical childhood will continue to branch out in further directions over the coming decades. Investigating children’s emotional lives is already foregrounded by the current turn to emotions but I suspect there’ll be developments in global histories of childhood, childhood grief, and – the holy grail – to understand children’s experiences from their own perspectives.

PS. The advice not to spit still holds good.

Socialising the Child in Late Medieval England, c. 1400-1600 by Merridee L. Bailey is available in paperback (9781903153765, May 2018) and hardback (9781903153420, November 2012).

This guest post was written by Dr. Merridee L Bailey, a social and cultural historian of late Medieval and Early Modern England. She is an Associate Member of the Faculty of History, University of Oxford.

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