Bringing up a child, the medieval way

January 09, 1994|By Patrick T. Reardon | Patrick T. Reardon,Chicago Tribune

Title: "Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History"

Author: Barbara A. Hanawalt

Publisher: Oxford University

Length, price: 300 pages, $27.50 Did medieval parents in London love their children? Did those children have an adolescence before becoming adults?

As Barbara A. Hanawalt points out in "Growing Up in Medieval London," modern readers might be confused at the need to ask such seemingly self-evident questions. But they'd be surprised at the answers that most historians give.

The dominant view of historians today, Ms. Hanawalt says, is that parents had to be callous toward their children because so many died in infancy. This callousness is thought to be behind the medieval practice of sending children to live with another family as an apprentice or servant.

In addition, the popular view among such experts is that a child immediately became a grown-up around the age of 7. Historians note that medieval Londoners didn't have a word for "adolescence," and many period illustrations of children make them look like little adults.

Ms. Hanawalt disagrees, and in her scholarly study she uses a variety of detective methods to examine arcane documents of the period to show that parental love and a transition period of adolescence were the rule rather than the exception in 14th- and 15th-century London.

She writes that sermons of the time "emphasized fortitude for mothers who had lost children. . . . In spite of the injunctions to bear up under the strain of losing children, one woman was said to have gone insane because of her child's death."

As for apprenticeships, they weren't proof of callousness but rather of love. Parents "loved their children so much that they sent them off to other families so they could learn better and be disciplined. . . . They perceived the arrangement not as getting rid of a child but as establishing his future."

The records of the time also show that adolescence was a major period in a person's life that, particularly for men in apprenticeships, could extend well into the late 20s.

Indeed, for some, such as journeymen who finished apprenticeships but weren't yet able to establish their own shops, adolescent limbo extended even further -- sometimes with unsettling consequences.

The journeymen, "kept in an adolescent stage beyond what seemed to them a reasonable age, were considered a dangerous group by London's adult establishment," Ms. Hanawalt notes.

Moralists of the time hated the way adolescents acted, though they couldn't agree on the reasons.

"If [medieval] adults seem as perplexed as modern moralists, psychologists, and parents about this stage of life, it is because they were fully cognizant that it existed and that it was different from childhood and adulthood," Ms. Hanawalt says. "Medieval moralists came up with the same explanations that we moderns use because of the similarity between behavior then and now among adolescents and the expectations of those who had to deal with them."

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