History : May-Jun 2016
10 MAY/JUNE 2016 DAILY LIFE the Middle Ages, but from the begin- ning, children were seen as objects to be managed. French medic Bernard de Gordon’s popular work Lilium medicinae (Lily of Medicine), a medical encyclopedia completed in 1305, detailed common in- fant care practices. After cutting the um- bilical cord, the newborn’s nose, mouth, eyes, and anus were cleared, and the ba- by washed. A lead ball was placed on the baby’s navel before swaddling, partly to prevent crying, which was regarded as unnatural and even demonic. Boys received a warmer welcome than girls: They were less often abandoned, were entrusted to the best wet nurses, and breast-fed longer. No matter their whereby “the mother loves her own child, embraces and kisses it.” Historians differ as to whether such tender notions were the exception or the rule. Some question whether people in the Middle Ages un- derstood the concept of “childhood” at all. The period certainly offers startling- ly severe reflections on children, such as those of the Italian scholar Philip of Novara, who saw a child’s affection for its carer as a survival tactic: “[W]ithout this, they will be so dirty and annoying in infancy and so naughty and capricious that it is hardly worth nurturing them.” Coming Into the World Regarded as a married woman’s duty, childbearing was highly valued during F rom Oliver Twist to “Little Or- phan Annie,” the horrors and hardships of childhood are popular fodder for storytellers. But these recent fictions have nothing on the distant realities of children in Europe in the late Middle Ages (1300- 1500), a period in which, even before the horror of the Black Death from 1347, child- hood was often dangerous and brief. Historians struggle to build a coher- ent picture of childhood in Europe at this time, in part because descriptions of child-rearing are scarce. In his ency- clopedia De proprietatibus rerum On the Properties of Things, 13th-century schol- ar Bartholomew the Englishman endors- es breast-feeding as a bonding exercise The Hard-Knock Life: Childhood in the Middle Ages The scourge of infant mortality blighted Europe during the Middle Ages, but childhood was certainly no picnic either. Disease, famine, abandonment, and abuse were just some of the hardships faced by children who survived infancy. THREE STAGES OF CHILDHOOD “THE SIX AGES OF MAN” (left), a 15th- century French illustration, depicts different life stages for boys before adulthood set in at age 14: swaddled infant, toddler with a walker, and young child at play. BRIDGEMAN/ACI FRENCH CHILDREN PLAY the games la grenouille and hautes coquilles in this ivory panel from the 14th century.