Category Archives: children

Defining the Child

Children’s literature, and more importantly for my purposes, the academic study of such literature, has gained significant prominence over the last ten years. Perhaps before I go further I should offer the disclaimer that I am hardly an authority on the genre, and have very limited experience with it outside of having read it to my own children, having had it read to me as a young child, and a brief summer course in Child Lit I took while obtaining my MA. Consequently, it was the course on Child Lit that demonstrated the full range of topics available for academic discussion – I had not until then ever considered Child Lit as anything more than entertainment for children.

I was fascinated, and while I admittedly have not spent large amounts of time on the topic, I ended up outlining the historic/psychological/socio-cultural implications of childhood extending from the Middle Ages into modern times. Perhaps I will turn all my findings into a paper one day. Yet at the moment they are rather scattered, so please bear with me.

In the meantime, I argued that children’s books, if traced through time, could be used as reflections of the way society viewed children at any given point, and the interrelation between these views on children and the messages adults provided for children within literature. In other words, the values outlined within the pages of Children’s Literature speak to the ways in which children were perceived and tell us today the roles children played through history.

My research began with Philippe Aries since no searches for “child” or “childhood” in almost any database will yield less than at least five references to his work. I also used Nicholas Orme who counters Aries’ argument almost to a point of literary attack. After perusing several more authors (sources below), I formed some of my own observations of how children and subsequently childhood historically progressed through the mirror of society, the children’s book.

There appears to be a disproportionate amount of research that believes Aries argued children didn’t exist. I am startled by this egregious misrepresentation of his findings, and even more so for the relative ease with which it has made its way through the grapevines of academia, mutating into a distorted outline of findings on childhood over several hundred years. In reality, he only postulated that it wasn’t until the mid seventeenth century that children, and by extension childhood, were seen as they are now. While he may have overstepped in his analysis when stating that children did not at one point in history receive love from their parents (a point he later counters), his overall argument relied on the treatment of children, and not the emotional implications of having them. Without actual proof to rely upon (and fodder for future research, although I am fairly certain Margery Kempe’s Book II would serve my purposes), I cannot fathom that in the Middle Ages mothers loved their children any less than they do now. However, I do believe this love was not exhibited in the same ways. Tracy Adams argued that women were perceived to not love their children as a result of their position in society and their lack of power in the household that reflected upon the power they wielded over their offspring. As women were unable to have a definite say in the upbringing of children, they consequently chose to distance themselves from these children and allowed the dominant roles in the household to intercede as these women subsequently removed from themselves all control or position in a child’s life. Ultimately this did not define the mother’s love for her children or the emotional attachment involved with the process that in this scenario seems completely irrelevant, but rather defines the societal demands placed upon the mother and child, specifically those outlined by Aries.

I think I may be defending Aries here, and if that is the case, then I do so only because despite that I feel his methods were rather faulty, I cannot help but pay homage to him as a pioneer in the study of the concept of childhood. Nor do I find many of his results to be inaccurate. In fact, starting an all out academic war against his theories is in itself a dated process. Yes, he was wrong on many fronts, but he was also equally right on just as many, and more importantly he paved the way towards the study of childhood – an objective that wasn’t terribly prominent before.

To fully understand this, it would be better to look backwards from the present day;  you don’t even have to look far to begin seeing the discrepancies of child rearing between generations, and further, to tie this into the messages that children’s books focused on which should cast some light on the ways children were viewed. Before even attempting to delve into a historical analysis I will show a very modern, and personal example.

When I was little I distinctly remember having a book read to me that outlined how I was supposed to help my mother sew a dress. The imagination played no role in this type of book (one of many), while today I read to my daughter about talking ponies forming friendships. Both books have a moral, or lesson to be learned, but obviously one is more utilitarian than the other. Arguably social skills are just as important as sewing skills, but the difference is in the expectation on children’s behavior. My daughter is taught social skills as a means to making friends and spending her time playing with them, while I was taught how to sew (albeit for reasons unknown since I can barely reattach a button), and, if memory serves me correctly, how to iron. However, this brings forward another question: do modern day children lack social skills, or did children in previous eras lack them due to paucity of materials delineating proper social behavior? I believe the answer illustrates not only how the expectations placed upon children have changed, but also serves to trace the types of environments children lived in.

For example, in my modern day anecdote I was not taught via anthropomorphic horses how to relate to other little girls my age because it was understood I would learn these skills through the experience of interacting with others on a very regular basis from a very early age. My children on the other hand have the advantage (depends on who you ask) of being in daycare where they too learn these skills, but for those children who are not in a school setting until six or seven when they attend elementary school, today’s society does not always offer much in the way of interaction. Children as young as four and five are not allowed to roam the streets and neighborhood park and play until sunset lest their parents wish to either be arrested or have their custody taken away, or both.

I understand I am diverging greatly from my original topic and this hardly has anything to do with medieval childhood, but I wanted to point out the disparity in ideology between even two very modern times in order to segue into the ways children were treated and what was expected of them in much earlier periods (and what better way to smoothly segue and transition than to blatantly tell you I am doing so?).

The Auchinleck manuscript, often known for its hagiographical texts, also houses a very personal aspect of medieval history – the family dynamic. The Seven Sages of Rome, central to the manuscript is ripe with implication of an intended audience for the manuscript that is perhaps not at first perceivable – the family, and consequently a younger audience within this unit. Once again to pull you into our modern times and provide a parallel example, think of the multiple youthful protagonists of our hero stories (now movies), and our coming of age tales, all catering to a young audience that is facilitated by the parents or caregivers who must provide this form of entertainment for the child.

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(Auchinleck MS, folio 326r – Since the Seven Sages contains no artwork outside of flourishes on the initials, here is an illustration from the segment on King Richard within the Auchinleck – depictions of kings and knights in medieval manuscripts were just as appealing to children then as they are now)

Returning to Aries, he looked at the societal configurations of the medieval period, mapping the role of children in the home. Yes, children will play, their imaginations will get the best of them, but once playtime was over, they were also expected to fulfill certain roles that extended beyond keeping their rooms neat and picking up their toys. Children as young as eight would be sent off to other homes to learn trades or pay off family obligations. And this was within what would be considered middle to upper class families. In poor families the children were simply expected to earn their keep. No one had time for fantasy when there was water to be brought, bread to be made, wood to be cut, laundry to be beaten, and numerous other chores. This is not to say that children performed all or any of these chores, but much like I was taught to sew (to little avail) when I was four or five, so were these children shown much more difficult tasks at young ages as a means of exposure for future use. Basically everyone had things to do, and the nuclear family as we perceive it today was just not there, nor did the modern dynamic exist.

I have to briefly pause here and mention the overwhelming number of references I found to hagiographies of children while conducing this research. While there is no apparently neat way of inserting my findings here since they appear to be completely unrelated to the rest of this brief analysis, I have to remark that this may not be fully accurate. Child hagiographies, for their myriad abnormalities of realty, shed light upon the distinction between reality and the desired, and thus demonstrate the reality of childhood in the Middle Ages via various means of negating those traits that appear superfluous or unrealistic. In short, through carving away the unbelievable we are left with a rather accurate portrayal of childhood.

More over, as education began to gain importance, so did the idea that children were not simply miniature adults, but rather the future of society. Once public (for those of you across the pond, private) and more or less standardized education became prominent, this idea of the child as something special took hold. Children, long before holding the title of heirs and being cherished for the upholding of the blood line, became the gateway to the future in a broader, globalized sense where the child was seen as the conduit for future generations and what would be invested in the current generation of small children would benefit others later on. This altruistic stance was not easily adapted, and the time in which it became well practiced is still under debate, but it appears that around the seventeenth century education overthrew the desire to create trade workers. Thus another facet of caregiving had its inception and educational progress became something to monitor, overreaching well beyond the higher classes into the wealthier middle classes who could nevertheless afford to educate their children as opposed to sending them off to work.

As a newly educated class of children emerged so did the family dynamic shift. Children had fewer chores, more study time, and if logic serves properly, these chores still needed to be completed, leading to families seeking out solutions for their needs. The socio-economic implications of educating children is well beyond the scope of my research, but I have a hunch that broader education shifted much of the ways employment functioned from as early as the twelfth century onward.

Yet, it is during this period when children began an education that the materials used to educate them became scrutinized. Books were not owned in the dozens, and only some children had the luxury of hailing from literate families in the early middle ages. Even so, those who owned books had few specifically designated for small children who were often left to navigate family volumes, and were most likely quite entertained by illuminated manuscripts should any be available. While multiple manuscripts often had amusing miniatures, decorated initials, and bas-de-pages, one source in particular was terribly appealing to small children, the bestiary. However all of these sources functioned as distractions and didn’t often serve as formal instructional material.

Three cats and a rat, 13th century.

(British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 30v – clearly such images would entertain children, especially considering how much they already entertain adults)

Educational material had been around for hundreds of years where Books of Hours, or Primers served as the primary pieces for instruction in various ways, from reading to forming a compendium of proper Christian behavior. Picture books  or pictures in books had been optimal for the illiterate for decades, and even rolls designated to church settings often had miniatures embedded upside down in order to face the audience, properly spilling over the lectern during worship so those facing the front could see the pictorial depiction of the sermon.

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(Bridwell MS 13, Book of Hours, Hours of the Virgin, Calendar: August folios 9v-10r – Such decorated manuscripts served a twofold purpose to instruct and as can be seen from the types of decorations, to entertain. The various miniatures and marginalia contain important information such as the labor of the month, picking of the grain, and harvesting that are well connected with the month of August for those who cannot read the title of the month in red on the first line of folio nine. However, some images are solely there to serve decorate purposes, such as the creature at the top of folio ten, or the bunny, enlarged below, “reading” in the corner of folio nine)

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(Bunny detail)

But little existed solely for children, especially in any sort of secularized milieu. Enter Child Lit. It was in no way recognizable to the children’s books we have today, but such texts provided enough information for small children. They were whimsical, colorful, and most importantly imparted moral teachings – essentially the medieval predecessors to our children’s books.

N.B. As I research this topic further I hope to find specific examples of medieval children’s lit, along with further historical evidence. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed!


Adams, Tracy. “Medieval Mothers and Their Children: The Case of Isabeau of Bavaria in Light of Medieval Conduct Books.”

Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood.

Classen, Albrecht, Ed. Childhood in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: The Results of a Paradigm Shift in the History of Mentality.

Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages.

Hanawalt, Barbara. Growing Up in Medieval London.

Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Children.

Reading Time

I am trying to teach my daughter how to read. Ok, so I have no clue what I am doing. I guess this is why you need all sorts of special certificates to teach these kinds of things in school. It is totally different than regular teaching, and there is supposedly some sort of methodology.

Of course going into it I had no idea about any of this other stuff either. I mean, *I* learned how to read, so why could I not teach someone else? Right? Except, yes, I know there was in fact a time when I was little and illiterate, and then something happened and I was no longer illiterate, even though still little. Yes, something happened. Some sort of process took place. And I don’t remember any of it. I have no recollections of a time when I didn’t know how to read.

So I went to one of those instructional stores for elementary and preschool kids hoping to get some advice and materials that might help with this process. Of course my first instinct was to take out one of the dozens of books Ally has and use it teach her how to read. That is apparently not how you do it.

I knew of one reading resource. I vaguely remember advertisements for it, but at that point I was already reading. In fact I think I was in middle school or high school or something. But I remember thinking it was pretty interesting. So, when I got to the child learning store I told them I wanted to teach my daughter how to read, and asked if they had Hooked on Phonics. I might as well have walked in there and told them I wanted to murder small babies and tiny kittens. They gave each other the “who allowed this woman to have children?” look and then informed me that that is a terrible way of teaching children to read.

They spent about half an hour telling me why Hooked on Phonics is Satan’s spawn, but nothing they said was terribly convincing. The longer they talked the more it sounded as though they weren’t so much advocating against Hooked on Phonics as trying to sell me something else. I became suspicious.

So I went online. Hooked on Phonics does indeed have a slew of people who don’t, for myriad reasons, agree with the methodology employed in teaching children to read. But it also has just as many people who vouch that their children received the desired results.

To make a long story slightly shorter, I went on Amazon and bought a starter kit for Ally. If she learns nothing from it, then we will have spent a few hours together and I am out $50. Worse things have happened.


When did disciplining your child stop being a thing? It often occurs to me that a lot of parents appear to be afraid of their children, when really it should be the other way around. I remember growing up I had a deep seated fear of my parents. I have to preface this with stating that they weren’t abusive or unnecessarily cruel. However, if I misbehaved, God help me.

And the punishment always fit the crime. Whining and general brattiness got no more than a slap across the face. Failure to stop, or anything more serious and my mother would not hesitate to remove the strap from her purse and put it to good use. A few times I tried resisting, or worse, swatting her away, but I quickly found out that was useless and then my father would have to become involved, holding me down for prolonged discipline. My point in sharing this is that most people reading this today are probably totally freaking out right now thinking I was maliciously beaten. And really, I wasn’t.

I am not sure how I feel about corporal punishment. I have swatted my children a few times for general brattiness, and I have physically removed them from stores and other venues kicking and screaming while being shoved in the car, but I have never used things on them, or slapped more than their hands. But having had experienced more than that, I can’t say it scarred me for life, or really did anything to me.

I am in no way saying that what my parents did is the answer to anything, but I can’t help wondering at what point the relationship between parents and children become so skewed.

What prompted this post was a trip to the grocery store. A woman was there with her daughter that looked to be about 3 years old – only a few months younger than Ally. The child wanted something and the mother said no. Then the child started crying and the mother said no. Then the child started screaming and the mother handed her the item she wanted. All the child learned was to scream louder next time.

I don’t know what the woman’s discipline tactics are since all I saw was an isolated event, and don’t even know all the details. I guess what bothered me was that she appeared to have no authority over her child. I think I would have had less of a hard time with this if she had let her child continue screaming. Not how I would have handled it, and yes, a screaming child at the grocery store is annoying (yet not the end of the world), but she would have exerted some control in the situation.

This happens all the time, so what exactly happened in the last thirty years to invert the parent/child dynamic? And I totally mean “invert” because there have been several occasions where the parents actually seemed to be afraid of their children, doing, saying, or giving in to *anything* just to pacify their angry child. And this is why I began this post by discussing corporal punishment. I am well aware that it is not just frowned upon, but in some cases illegal, but there seems to be correlation between the decline of corporal punishment and the increase in undisciplined children. Just an observation.

If I were to slap my daughter at the store for throwing a temper tantrum and not heeding my warning to stop, someone would surely call CPS. When my mother did it, not only did no one flinch, but it was practically expected. I was never big on temper tantrums (wasn’t really part of my personality, and I learned very early on that they would not grant me anything), but should I have done it, it would not have only been acceptable for my mother to take matters into her own hands, quite literally, but any other adult in the vicinity. We were living in New York, I was about six, at the grocery store playing with something I should not have been playing with, and one of the store attendants took it away from me, swatting my behind in the process. My mother hadn’t seen what I had done, but because the lady was upset with me I must have done something wrong so I got a strong glare from her just in case I even thought of doing anything else. Seriously folks, if you think hitting your own child in public is bad, try doing it to someone else’s these days. Blood bath in aisle five….

But aside from actually touching someone else’s child, you can’t even verbally discipline them. Somehow that is not okay. They are someone else’s precious jewel, can do nothing wrong, and if the mother didn’t see it, then it obviously didn’t happen. When I was a child I was never asked if what the other person said was true. If someone went to my mother and said I did something, it didn’t matter if I had done it, could have done it, probably did it, or thought about doing it, because as far as my mother was concerned, I did it. That too instilled fear in me because while I had some control over the things I did, I had absolutely no control over what others told my mother. However, my punishments were brief, and I learned to just take them and be done with it. My parents didn’t believe in taking things away, grounding me, or withholding anything. I got the strap, and I was done. Cookies anyone?

By the time I was seven I never had tempter tantrums, behaved exceedingly well in public, addressed people correctly, was getting perfect grades, kept my room clean, and hardly if ever talked back to my parents. In other words, I had the fear of God in me (or my mother’s purse strap… same thing).

Again, I don’t know if physically punishing children is an answer to anything, and just because it worked on me does not mean it will work on all children. Not to mention there are surely other parents like me who will practically cry at the idea of *really* hitting their children, and that wouldn’t do well for anyone. But seriously, when did child discipline of any kind just stop? And is it coming back any time soon?