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Medieval Children. (Reviews).

Medieval Children. By Nicholas Orme (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. xii plus 387 pp.).

Nicholas Orme on (English) children, published by Yale University Press, is pretty likely to be a winning combination. Orme has published extensively on medieval education and schools, and Yale has a long-established reputation for producing handsome, well illustrated books on English and British history. It is a good match; both partners live up to expectations.

This is a wide ranging and comprehensive survey of children and the experience of childhood. Though the topic has been of interest to historians for some years, and though medievalists have been successful in overthrowing the hasty generalizations of Philippe Aries about pre-modern European childhood (L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien regime, 1960: translated in 1962 as Centuries of Childhood), there has been no single volume to cover the English waterfront in this full fashion. In the course of 9 chapters Orme traces the young person's pathway into life, from "Arriving" through "Growing Up:" The first large segment of the life cycle: pregnancy, birth, baptism and naming, and the churching of the mother through to when children of both sexes were ready (and often willing) to stand on their own--in marriage, in the eyes of canon and common law, and in their trades and professions. The Aries thesis was that childhood was not seen as a distinct or significant stage in life, and that parents invested lit tle emotional capital in their children because of the plethora of children and the high incidence of mortality. Virtually no recent work supports this view. Orme, in the mainstream of social history, surveys a very wide range of data to demonstrate how children were taken seriously by parents and--of equal importance--by those who defined the medieval norms of behavior, socialization, and relationships. He picks up some of his threads in Anglo-Saxon England, and many lines of argument are bolstered by a reliance on material from 16th and 17th century sources. By jumping over or going around such canonical hurdles as the battles of Hastings, toward the beginning, or of Bosworth, toward the end, Orme presents a case for continuity and slow change. His methodological and explanatory premise is that of many historians who work on the dynamics of private and family life--it being the premise of "our ancestors' similarity to ourselves" (p. 160). The danger of this approach is that it gives us "one Middle Ages" and that change over time--in private life as well as in institutions and public affairs--gets short changed. But the response is that in looking at longue dureee we can assess the impact of such impersonal factors as biological necessity and the way such factors engage in a dialectic with social constructions like family structure, theories of child rearing, channels for the expression of emotion, and the role and use of children as cultural capital. Such a rich volume can only be skimmed, in terms of its many areas of special interest and strength. Much of what Orme tells us is familiar, though he brings the fruits of very wide reading to enrich the discourse. For instance, in the section on "Names" (pp. 35-43), he opens by quoting Cranmer's catechism of 1549, then he moves to an analysis of naming patterns in Anglo-Saxon royal families and the early distinction between monothematic and dithematic names, then he looks at the power of godparents in choosing the baptismal name, then at changing patterns of namin g after the Conquest, and finally at the emergence of surnames (plus a short table showing the family names of William of Norwich and of Gospatric of Cumberland). This is a lot of ground to cover in a few pages; it is a typical swatch from a complex and colorful patchwork quilt.

As one who comes to this study after many years devoted to the history of schools and education, Orme goes to considerable lengths to run down some issues that touch the learning process, pursuing them well beyond the survey approach. He elucidates questions about early speech, lullabies and children's rhymes, how the alphabet and writing were taught, and more along this cognitive-developmental line. Though the quotation may come to us in a post-medieval version, we can still hear the street voices of "our" children in such ditties as "Henry Hotspur hath a halt/ And he is failing lame/ Francis Physician for that fault/ Swears he was not to blame" (p. 137). Did the children knew the politics behind their invocation of Hotspur, and if so, was he invoked in sympathy or derision?

A value-added feature of the book is its 125 illustrations, mostly in color. They amplify the arguments, and because many are drawn from continental sources or printed books they reinforce Orme's theme of continuity over time and, more mutely stated, of strong similarities between English practices and those found elsewhere in western Europe and Italy. If few ever saw the illumination of Aristotle teaching Alexander (p. 240, from Royal Ms. 20 B XX, fol. 10v., in the British Library), the stained glass depiction of children reaching the age of communion or confirmation (from Doddiscombleigh Church, Devon: pp. 216-17) was there for hundreds, or perhaps thousands, over the centuries.

Many questions, of course, remain unanswered--as Orme would be among the first to admit. It took a very wide range of reading, in manuscripts and printed volumes (from Caxton on), to assemble enough material to sustain this study. We know, from the start, that girls are going to be short-changed compared to boys, given the nature of the sources and the pecking order of medieval views about the two sexes. But we should remmeber that it was for his daughters that the Knight of the Book of the Tower wrote his classic volume of advice, and it is to assert the importance and the agency of children of both sexes and of many ages and social positions that Orme has produced this large study. Given that he treats a society that had few worries about relegating children who died unbaptized to the outer reaches, a picture of considerable sympathy and understanding can be--and has been--put together.
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Author:Rosenthal, Joel T.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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