Medieval Children

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Nicholas Orme, a renowned medievalist with fourteen historical studies to his credit, traces in Medieval Children all the salient aspects of childhood from pregnancy and childbirth, through baptism, naming, early education, family life, birthdays, the roles of siblings, clothing, sleeping habits and facilities, child abuse, punishments, and sexual awakening. His research is admirably detailed, his writing style lucid and engaging.

Medieval Children, which draws heavily on literature, history, religion, and art, is enhanced by fifty black-and-white and seventy-five color illustrations. It contains as comprehensive a bibliography of medieval studies as one is likely to find anywhere. Orme’s documentation, gathered at the end of the book, is extensive but unobtrusive.

Of particular relevance are Orme’s revelations about sexual abuse among medieval children. The clergy and cloistered monks were notorious for their sexual dalliances with young boys. Orme notes, “monks had a reputation for pederasty as early as the twelfth century.” He also comments, however, upon children’s positive religious relationships and the church’s role in helping mold them as adults.

Medieval society routinely punished children severely. Some children as young as ten were executed for offenses that resulted in the deaths of others or for offenses against property, although the general tendency was to grant pardons to such youthful offenders and release them. Corporal punishment was a fact of life in medieval society.

The chapter entitled “Words, Rhymes, and Songs” is valuable for its reproduction of children’s verses and songs. Orme also presents unique information about the toys with which medieval children played.