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Response to Review no. 254

I am grateful to Dr Crawford for her careful description of my book, and for her very kind and positive responses to it. She has identified several of the problems that face anyone wishing to write a long history of medieval childhood: the chronology, the topics to be covered, and the approach to be adopted.

First there is the question of when to start. In principle, the history of childhood in Britain goes back to the earliest prehistoric archaeology, but I am primarily an historian of written sources and my ambition was to begin with when these first survive in significant amounts: in the seventh century AD. The problem here was that while I was researching my book, I knew that Dr Crawford was herself working on Anglo-Saxon children, and I anticipated that she would (as she did) write a careful and wide-ranging book on that subject, which appeared only a short time before I had to surrender my own manuscript. Her book goes into detail impossible to replicate in my larger compass, but I would politely dissent from her judgement that mine is ‘only a book. about thirteenth- to sixteenth-century childhood with occasional reference to the earlier period’. First, I have looked at aspects of Anglo-Saxon childhood, notably the history of name-giving, baptism, confirmation, and communion which play less of a part in Dr Crawford’s book. Secondly, her book, good though it is, is necessarily limited by the relatively sparse nature of its evidence. Anglo-Saxon childhood needs a wider context for its understanding: partly by looking back to the classical world, and partly by looking forward to the better-documented era after the Conquest which forms the heart of my book. That era suggests patterns and issues relevant to the Anglo-Saxon period, unlikely to be discerned by working only within its borders.

A lengthy chronology causes other problems. How does one suggest change and development in children’s history? The most concrete change is one to which Dr Crawford alludes: a child in the ninth century was a child then, with all that entailed in economic, social, and cultural terms, while a child in the sixteenth belonged to the economy, society, and culture of its era. It is not feasible in a one-volume history of childhood to do justice to the sweep of change in all these respects, and in doing so one would lose sight of the child in the wider landscapes of English history. Some readers will expect one to identify more narrowly periods or aspects of significant change as far as children were concerned. I found this difficult. Having been a research historian for forty years, and having undertaken research from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present day, I have constantly been made aware of how much there in common between different periods, and how often changes are of detail rather than principle. The dangers of identifying periods or turning points in the history of childhood are amply demonstrated by Aries’s attempt to distinguish a point at which ‘modern’ childhood begins.

It would have been easy (but meretricious) to identify some earlier ‘discovery of childhood’ than that postulated by Aries. A bid on behalf of the fourteenth century could produce some apparently good cards: the consolidation of legal concepts of childhood, the depiction of children on tombs, and some pioneering literary works for children: Chaucer’s Astrolabe and The Book of the Knight of the Tower. But there is little to show that these developments are connected, and so much depends on what chances to survive that I was not tempted to use these cards to build a house. I agonised more about the twelfth century, and whether it represented a watershed in attitudes to children. Certainly there was more demarcation between children and adults in certain matters of religion by about 1200 than in about 1100. By the later date, children were held to be ineligible to receive communion, get married, or take monastic vows, and were excused confession and the penalties of sin. This reflects more pervasive legislation by the Church, involving a need to make special arrangements for children. But the points that have just been mentioned affected most children rarely or not at all. It would be unsafe to argue even from such evidence that attitudes to children changed much during this period. King Athelstan agonised about the age of criminal responsibility as did the judges of Edward I, and Bartholomew’s discussion of childhood in his thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, owed much to Aristotle and to Isidore of Seville.

A further problem was the variety of topics and people to be covered. I wanted if possible to cover everything: birth, upbringing at home, the standard of living, education, religion, children’s culture, training for work, and so on, so as to establish bridgeheads at least for future study. As Dr Crawford notes, I decided to omit formal schooling because it such a big subject, and has been written about elsewhere. Here, in particular, I hope that students of childhood will look at my own and other people’s recent work. Less tractable still were people: millions of them at any one time, and the individuals changing from year to year. People are (and were) different from one another, and it is quite impossible to quantify these differences today, let alone in the remote past. All one can do, in the middle ages, is to show the breadth of attitudes that existed among adults and the variety of experiences among children, so that someone with a particular question to ask, or a piece of evidence to place, can understand the range of possible answers.

If I were to be categorised as an historian, it would probably be as a believer in continuities – which is no doubt linked with being a social, religious, and cultural historian rather than a political one. So, when Dr Crawford questions my use of the term ‘the medieval child’ over long periods, and asks if the ninth-century child’s experience can be compared with a sixteenth-century one’s, I would answer with a qualified ‘yes’. True, no two children, even in the same household at the same date, have the same experience, and one might insist so much on the primacy of individual examples that no history could ever be written other than through lists and dictionaries. But history as a discipline exists to explain the past and, in order to do this, has to make compromises and state approximations. The skill lies in producing summaries that are as accurate and universal as possible. Some comparisons can be made between children in the ninth and sixteenth centuries. Apart from the constant features of childhood – care, play, accidents, and the acquisition of adult knowledge, skills, and prejudices – they also shared other things such as the predominantly agricultural life, the circumscriptions of distance and transport, and some similarities in religious institutions. Their elders too had long-enduring notions about childhood, which had classical origins or parallels and were current throughout the middle ages. There is surely an extent to which one can talk of a ‘medieval child’: someone who was baptised and brought up in a church with Latin liturgy and whose education was more often based in a household than a school, while equally recognising the differences of detail and context in different times and places. And, the earlier one goes back, the more historians of childhood have to look at other periods for clues if they are to make sense of the limited sources available to them. A wise historian will ask both what there is in common between two pieces of evidence, and what distinguishes them.

No book can ever say the last word, and no sensible historians wish their work to suffer the fate of Tout’s Administrative History or Knowles’s Religious Orders: deterring others from exploring the subject for decades. My own wish is to move children from occasional walk-on parts in the production of history to regular appearances centre-stage. There will always be difficulties in doing them justice: difficulties like those of women’s history, only worse. Medieval girls too come off worse against boys, just as women do against men. But I hope that the joint result of Dr Crawford’s work, my own, and that of other current scholars will be to lead historians and archaeologists to make childhood a standard issue when studying homes, churches, towns, trade, books, society, politics, or whatever the topic may be. How were children a factor: not just as passive recipients, but as active influences on what took place?’