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Coming of Age and the Family In Medieval England

Coming of Age and the Family In Medieval England


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Coming of Age and the Family In Medieval England

By B. Gregory Bailey, Meaghan E. Bernard, Gregory Carrier, Cherise L. Elliott, John Langdon, Natalie Leishman, Michal Mlynarz, Oksana Mykhed, and Lindsay C. Sidders

Journal of Family History, Vol. 33:1 (2008)

Abstract: This article examines coming of age in medieval England through a very broadbased, multiauthored approach not normally found in the social sciences. Among other things, it examines what equated to legal ages for inheriting land and for criminal responsibility; the age-specific activities of young people, especially as revealed through proofs of ages; the spiritual framework of coming of age, particularly through the perspective of confirmation; and the introduction of young people to work in a practical sense and how this was probably bolstered morally through such things as fairy tales. The article also draws on comparative material from the Industrial Revolution. Preeminently, the article demonstrates the exciting potential for further work on how children became adults in medieval society.

Introduction: The novelty of this article is primarily a methodological one. It sprang from a graduate seminar on medieval children at the University of Alberta during the fall of 2006,in which eight students and one instructor participated. From the start, the intention was to pool the energies of the group into a common enterprise of creating a new sort of research statement, to try to get beyond the vast majority of historical studies based on one person’s thoughts, whether it is an article, a chapter in an edited book, or a book itself. (Even in avowedly co-authored works, sections are often written by single authors.) Nor is this like the scientific model of a chief researcher surrounded by a coterie of research assistants, in which the driving force is very much generated by one individual despite the fact that a number of authors may be given. It is true that the undertaking grew out of the personal interests of the instructor initially setting up the seminar, but it very quickly took on a life of its own through the particular interests of the students themselves, rather than being, say, a much more rigorously controlled scientific, or even social science, project. Certainly, at the very least,the intention here was to use a broader collection of minds than is normally the case in writing about history,and to see what transpired.

In the seminar, we started our considerations more generally around the issue of the family in medieval England and then focused more specifically around children in the family and, in particular, the vexed question of “coming of age,” that is, when and how did children become adults in medieval society? These deliberations, of course, had much of their initial inspiration in Philippe Ariès’s famous work on pre-modern children, but the sheer complexities about when children entered the adult world, if indeed they could ever be considered children at all, soon dominated our discussions. In this regard, three main areas came to the fore: the legal distinction between childhood and adulthood, the spiritual separation of the same, and the transition from idle child to working adult (even if this came at a very early age). Also key was how the family was drawn into all three of these: the family as enemy in the case of legal cases, especially over wardship; as harassed accessories to the ecclesiastical process in the case of spiritual matters; and as motivator and beneficiary in the case of work. We also felt it important to try to get a comparative perspective. We limited ourselves geographically to England, but did consult the abundant literature about child labor during the Industrial Revolution as a source of ideas. Our key determination, indeed, was that, contrary to the view that childhood in the Middle Ages is largely a “hidden” topic, there are many very promising, and perhaps unexpected, avenues for future enquiry.


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