Title: Medieval Children
Author: Nicholas Orme
Publisher: New Have: Yale University Press
Publication Date: 2001
Additional Info: xii 387p. 125 ill: 75 color, $39.95 list price (hc)
Nicholas Orme's Medieval Children seems destined to become the standard introduction to its subject, joining such works as Keen's book on chivalry and Lambert's study of medieval history on undergraduate reading lists and the shelves of well stocked history sections everywhere.
Orme's intent, beyond providing a general survey of the life of children in medieval society from birth to adulthood, is to demolish Philippe Aries' thesis that the cultural idea of childhood as a distinct phase of life is a relatively recent phenomenon. In Centuries of Childhood (1962) Aries argued that children were viewed as, essentially, small and inadequate adults and infants (those under age 7) largely ignored. Orme convincingly supports a case for a much greater similarity with modern times in both cultural and individual views.
He also lays out the differences as well, particularly in the role of women. Birth seems to have been an even more momentous event, due to the dangers associated with childbirth. The variety of prayers, relics, and charms used to assure a healthy delivery is detailed. The biggest difference seems to be the lack of official attention paid to girls, who left even less of an impression on the historical record than their adult counterparts.
Perhaps the book's greatest virtue is Orme's vigorous pursuit of details in a wide variety of different types of sources; household records, monuments to deceased children, canon and civil law, art, and literary sources are all used in assembling a picture of medieval childhood. This is especially valuable in the fascinating discussion of children's culture, how they worked, played, and prayed. The examples of toys and games are particularly interesting and well done.
The work is not without its flaws, mostly stylistic. Medieval English Children might be a better title. Although the rest of Europe is included, most of the details come from English sources. Orme also slips, on many occasions, into an overly academic writing style for a book aimed at a more general audience than Orme's previous specialist studies. A bigger problem results from the sheer mass of details and information that Orme musters to support his thesis. It often overwhelms the stories of individual experiences that do so much to demonstrate Orme's point that medieval childhood is recognizable to modern eyes. Eliminating the material from the very latest part of the time period covered (the book ranges up to the beginning of the 17th Century) and giving some of the more documented examples additional space would make for a much more readable work.
On the whole, Medieval Children is a valuable and worthy work. Orme has gathered together widely scattered sources, performing a service that will assist future scholars of the subject immeasurably. And a work that dispels a historical myth and, despite the occasionally leaden prose, humanizes the past is always welcome.
Reviewer Rating: Not explicitely given
Review submitted: 21 Mar 2002
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