The Baby and the Bishop

Today I thought I would share with you one of my absolute favourite quotes from a mediaeval text. First, however, some background.

In the 1960s, the sociologist Philipe Aries popularised an interpretation of mediaeval society that argued that in the Middle Ages, childhood was not recognised as a distinct phase of life. Instead, mediaeval peoples regarded children simply as smaller adults, and showed them little special attention or affection. His thesis was quickly taken up throughout the 60s and 70s, and contributed to the longstanding portrayal of the mediaeval period as a ‘Dark Age’ of European history, utterly alien to modern sensibilities.

Fortunately, a group of historians has worked to combat this thesis since the 1980s, demonstrating that mediaeval thinkers very clearly perceived childhood as separate from adulthood. In society, children were expected to adhere to different expectations–on everything from church attendance, to gender-relations, to household work–than their adult peers. Rather smugly, these mediaevalists also argued that a child’s lifestyle in the Middle Ages was far more comfortable than that experienced by child labourers both in the Industrial Revolution and in the sweat-shops of today.

A manuscript illustration of children playing, (Orme, p.61).

For me, the following quote, which captures so perfectly the squirming individuality of the very young, absolutely contradicts the idea of the Middle Ages as 1,000 years of child-blindness. It also offers a wonderful glimpse into the individuality, and the humanity, of the peoples of the past:

“I saw a child of about six months, who, when he [Bishop Hugh of Lincoln] made the sign of the cross on its forehead with the holy oil, expressed such great delight by the movement of its limbs that it reminded one of the joy of the Baptist, leaping up in the womb. The tiny mouth and face relaxed in continuous chuckles, and it seemed incredible that, at an age when babies generally yell, it could laugh in this way. It then bent and stretched out its little arms, as if it were trying to fly, and moved its head to and fro, as if to show that its joy was almost to great to bear. … Those present were amazed at the unusual spectacle of the bishop and the infant absolutely happy in each other’s company…” (from the Magna Vita Sancti Hugonis, ca. 1200)

Learn More: 

Nicholas Orme’s Medieval Children (New Haven, 2001), is a good place to start exploring the lives of the little people in the Middle Ages.

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