Medieval Children
By Dr. Gila Aloni

Cultural Context

Is maternal love a modern invention? What about childhood? How did people define "infancy" in the Middle Ages? What was the nature of the relationship between parents and children?

The answers to these questions are not easy to find because, "of all social groups which formed the societies of the past, children are seldom seen and rarely heard in the documents [and thus] remain for historians the most elusive, the most obscure."(1) In 1964, Philippe Ariès, in Centuries of Childhood,(2) propounded the pioneering thesis that childhood was invented in the early modern period — the end of the 16th century through the 17th century.(3) Medieval parents, claims Ariès, were emotionally indifferent to their children. He attributes this phenomenon to the high rate of infant mortality: "the general feeling was, and for along time remained, that one had several children in order to keep just a few."(4) Parents "could not allow themselves to become too attached to something that was regarded as a probable loss."(5) Furthermore, since death was such a frequent occurrence, parents did not express deep sorrow at the loss of their children.

According to Ariès, "childhood was not recognized as a distinct phase of life."(6) He supports his theory with evidence from various aspects of everyday life, such as children's dress, games, and education: "as soon as the child abandoned his swaddling band ... he was dressed just like other men and women of his class."(7) There were in fact three stages of childhood in the Middle Ages: enfances, puerita, and adolesance. Enfances "begins when the child is born and lasts until seven and in this age that which is born is called an infant, which is as good as saying not talking. After infancy comes puerita, the period of training and education (seven to fourteen). After puerita comes the stage of adolesance, in which "a person is big enough to beget children."(8) According to Ariès, children passed immediately from infancy to adulthood because of the apprenticeship system. According to this system, once children reached the training stage, parents sent them away to serve as apprentices. While living in another household, they would help the head of the house in his trade. In this way, through direct contact with the adult world, a child could learn an occupation.

Ariès is not the only historian who subscribes to the "indifference and neglect" theory, nor is he the only one to explain it in terms of the sociopolitical and medical context of that era. Others have claimed that, as a result of the high rate of infant mortality, parents were emotionally indifferent to their children. Tucker's investigation of 14th-century children's burials supports this idea. Noting that medievals did not bother to record the dead child's sex, he concludes that the whole issue of their death was unimportant to them.(9) Another explanation for the relative disregard of children is frequent childbearing, which "put less value on the product."(10)

But to claim that parents limited their emotional attachment to children because they would probably die and be replaced by new births, is not the same as to claim maternal indifference. Elizabeth Badinter suggests that in earlier society maternal love did not have the same social and moral value it has today.(11) In fact, says Badinter, maternal love has not always existed. She provides a social and political argument to prove this lack of maternal love. Bourgeois mothers used to leave their children in the care of nurses. These women did not want to sacrifice their social life to care for their children. They believed that breast-feeding weakened them and destroyed their beauty. The wish to be free and take part in society life made maternal indifference socially acceptable, even valued.

Historians cite the "experiences of the epoch" to explain the lack of close relationship between fathers and their children.(12) Since men usually married at a later stage in their lives than women did, the father was seen as an older, distant but powerful, figure."(13) In addition, fathers were often away from home for business or affairs of society. And since life expectancy was shorter than today, fathers often died while their children were still young.

The historians cited thus far all agree that awareness of children's needs and the parent-child relationship developed gradually throughout history. But the history of medieval children is not as one-dimensional as it may seem. It is "as complex as the history of any social group and even more elusive."(15) There are those who hold opposing views concerning the theory of the discovery of childhood and emotional bond between parents and children.(15) Even among historians with clashing theories, however, all agree on one thing: Physical violence was perceived as the means to educate children. In the medieval hierarchical patriarchal society, fathers had full control of their children's lives. It is evident in both the literature and historical accounts from the era. This paternal power had its roots in ancient societies. As explained by David Herlihy,

In Roman practices, for example, the newborn baby was at once laid before the feet of him who held the Patria Potestas over it, usually the natural father. ... The holder of parental authority ... could reject the baby and order its exposure. Infanticide, or the exposure of infants, was a common and accepted social practice in classical society, shocking perhaps to modern sensibilities but rational for these ancient people."(16)

The motivations for infanticide in medieval societies are twofold: the shame of seduced and abandoned women who wished to conceal illegitimate births, and the financial hardship that could result from the birth of another family member. As noted by Herlihy, "the killing or abandonment of babies in medieval society was the characteristic resort of the fallen, the poor, the desperate."(17)

It is helpful to look to the literature written at the time to learn more about the power medieval parents, specifically fathers, had over children's lives. Geoffrey Chaucer's Physician's Tale provides an especially illuminating example.

"take thou thy deeth, for this is my sentence" — A Literary Case(18,19)

In the Physician's Tale, Chaucer tells of a father who sentences his 12-year-old daughter to death and then executes her without being either judged or punished for his actions. The father, whose name is Virginius, explains that by killing his daughter, Virginia, he prevents her sexual dishonor. Earlier in the story, we learn that Appius, a judge, first sees Virginia when she and her mother come to town to visit the temple. He desires her and decides to have her for himself, though not by marriage — the respectable way in his society. Appius bribes a man named Claudius and organizes a false trial in which Claudius claims that Virginia is a servant who has been stolen from his household. As the judge of the town, Appius hears the case and decides in favor of Claudius. Appius orders Virginius to bring Virginia to court. Virginius goes home and presents his daughter with two choices: death or shame. Before she can decide, however, Virginius kills her. He cuts off her head and brings it to the judge.

Virginia's tragedy is that her father brings into his own house the injustices he experiences in the city that Appius governs. A close reading of the tale reveals that the prime motive for Virginius's act is his inability to distinguish between the loss of his daughter's virginity and his own wounded pride. Her sexual dishonor is too much a personal issue for him. The difficulty in distinguishing between the child and the parent, viewing the child as a separate entity, is a problem specifically relevant to Chaucer's era, when children did exist independently as children. They were merely part of the adult world, "mixed with adults as soon as they were considered able to do without their mothers or nannies."(20)

Chaucer's tale questions the right of a father to control his child's life, however. This becomes clear through a comparison of the story and Chaucer's sources, Le Roman de la Rose and Livy's History of Rome.(21) Chaucer keeps fairly close to his sources, but departs from them in two passages: the description of Virginia's maidenly virtues and the dialogue between Virginius and his daughter just before he kills her.(22) This dialogue proves most telling on the subject of parental control.

The fact that, as Jerome Mandel points out, the scene "from the time Virginius goes home to the moment before he cuts off Virginia's head is entirely Chaucer's invention,"(23) is significant. It indicates Chaucer's predominating interest in the father/daughter relationship. Virginius pretends to offer his daughter a choice between "two weyes outer deeth or shame"(l. 214). Yet, as the grammatical structure of his speech shows, Virginia does not really have a choice. These lines are a long monologue, rather than dialogue. This is clearly seen through the phrases "thou must suffre"(l. 215), "thou deservedest"(l. 216), and "take thou thy deeth"(l. 224). Moreover, Virginius's speech reveals that he has already decided what he will do: "allas that I was bore"(l. 215), he cries. Not only does Virginius lament his being born, but he also speaks as if he might take his own life: "O deere doghter, endere of my lyf"(l. 218), and then "O doghter, which that art my laste wo,/ And in my lyf laste joye also"(l. 220-221). The repetition of the possessive "my" suggests that Virginius is unable to see his daughter as other than an extension of himself.

Because Virginius views his daughter as an extension of himself (a theory supported by the similarity of their names), it seems that he decides to slay his daughter more to protect his own name and honor than to prevent Virginia's sexual dishonor. Indeed, he says to his daughter: "take thou thy deeth, for this is my sentence"(l. 224).

Oddly, Virginius avoids using his social power and influence to save his daughter from Appius. One of the first things we learn about Virginius is that he was "strong of freendes, and of greet richesse."(l. 4) In addition, Appius knows that Virginia has many friends and thus that he cannot have her "by no force ne by no meede/...for she was strong of freendes"(l. 133-135). As Mandel notes, no tale in the Chaucerian canon emphasizes and repeats a point ("strong of freendes") that is irrelevant. The emphasis shows that Virginius had a choice. Rather than slay his daughter, he could have risen against Appius with the support of his people.

Only after Virginius finishes his speech deciding her fate does Virginia speak. She asks her father for an alternative to death: "is ther no grace, is ther no remedye?"(l. 236) Her appeal emphasizes the fact that the decision is in his hands, rather than Appius's. His brusque response — "no certes"(l. 237) — shows his lack of sensitivity and concern for her plight, as well as the absoluteness of his decision.

Chaucer tells the story of Virginia within the context of two biblical examples of child sacrifice. There is an explicit reference to the sacrifice of Jephtha's daughter (l. 240-241) and an implicit reference to the sacrifice of Isaac. A close examination of these biblical cases suggests that neither text legitimates child sacrifice. "Both Rabbis and Church fathers regarded Jepatha's vow as rash and follish, his sacrifice as illicit and displeasing to God."(25) In the story of Abraham and Isaac, Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son only as a religious obligation — besides, God eventually intervenes to save the child. Virginia's tragedy results from Virginius misunderstanding and abusing his rights as a father.

The end of the tale is problematic. Although it is Virginius who kills Virginia, the only one who receives punishment is the judge. Virginius is neither condemned nor punished. Moreover, the end of the tale portrays him as a man full of pity, for he pardons Claudius, Appius's collaborator. But this is actually an indication of his cruelty as a father. He could pity a stranger — an altruistic act that enhances his image in the eyes of his society — yet could not have mercy for his daughter when she begged him for it.

As the tale progresses, the reader becomes the judge. Using the biblical allusions, Chaucer obliges his audience to interpret Virginia's murder as inappropriate. He calls attention to the injustice of Virginia's death and questions the norms within his society.


(1) David Herlihy, "Medieval Children." The Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures. Karl Lackner Bede and Kenneth Roy Philippe eds. (Austin: Texas University Press, 1978), p. 113.
(2) Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood (Middlesex: Penguin, 1979).
(3) Ariès, p. 45.
(4) Ariès, p. 36.
(5) Ariès, p. 37.
(6) Ariès, p. 110.
(7) Ariès, p. 48.
(8) Ariès, p. 19.
(9) M. J. Tucker, "The Child as Beginning and End: Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century English Childhood." The History of Childhood. Lloyd de Mause ed. (London, New York: Harper and Row, 1974).
(10) Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror. (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 56.
(11) Elizabeth Badinter, "The Myth of Motherhood: A Historical View of the Maternal Instinct" (Tel Aviv: Maariv, 1980).
(12) Herlihy, p. 129.
(13) Herlihy, p. 120.
(14) Herlihy, p. 130.
(15) See for example, Allen M. Barstow, "The Concept of the Child in the Middle Ages." Children's Literature, n. 4 (1975): 41-44. Linda A. Pollack, The Forgotten Children (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). Shulamit Shachar, Medieval Childhood (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1990). Stephen Wilson, "The Myth of Motherhood. A Myth: The Historical View of European Child-Rearing. Social History, 9 (1984): 181-98. Mary M. McLaughlin, "Survivors and Surrogates: Children and Parents from the 9th to the 13th Centuries." The History of Childhood. Lloyd de Mause ed. (London, New York: Harper and Row, 1974), p. 110.
(16) Herlihy, p. 113.
(17) Herlihy, p. 118.
(18) All references are to Larry D. Benson ed., The Canterbury Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press., 1988).
(19) There is relatively little research on the children in Chaucer's work. But one of the earlier and more informative articles is by Derek S. Brewer, "Children in Chaucer." Review of English Literature, n. 5 (1964): 52-60. See also Charles A. Owen Jr., "'A Certein Numbre of Conclusiouns': The Nature and Nurture of Children in Chaucer. Chaucer Review 16 (1981-1982): 60-75.
(20) Ariès, p. 395.
(21) For an analysis of Chaucer's sources, see Anne Lancashire, "Chaucer and the Sacrifice of Isaac." Chaucer Review 9 (1974): 320-326.
(22) Lancashire, p. 320.
(23) Mandel, Jerome. "Governance in the Physician's Tale." Chaucer Review 10 (1976): 316-325, p. 322.
(24) The Biblical allusion is from Judges 11:29-40. Jephtha was a general of the Israelites, who vowed to sacrifice whoever came forth to welcome him on his return if he defeated the Ammonites. When he returned, his only daughter welcomed him. Jephtha told his daughter of his vow and sacrificed her.
(25) Richard L. Hoffman, "Jephtha's Daughter and Chaucer's Virginia." Chaucer Review 2 (1967): 25-26.