Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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‘Parenthood and Childhood in the Middle Ages’, Edinburgh 8-9 October 2015

Rachel Delman (University College, University of Oxford)
Phoebe C. Linton (University of Edinburgh)


Parenting and Childhood Conference Report Image[1] From 8-9 October 2015 the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh hosted an international and interdisciplinary conference on ‘Parenthood and Childhood in the Middle Ages’. Generously funded by the Royal Historical Society and supported by the Edinburgh Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, this two-day conference brought together almost 40 academics from all career stages, including established academics, early career scholars, independent researchers and postgraduate students. The 22 speakers came from a range of countries, including Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, Canada and the USA, as well as more local cities; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, York, Manchester, Newcastle and London.

[2] The theme for this conference was initially inspired by the co-organisers’ experience of the Gender and Medieval Studies gathering at the University of Winchester, 9-11 January 2014. Having shared research interests there, the organisers decided to plan a conference that would approach the broad and ever-expanding field of medieval gender studies from a more specific angle. They discussed how concepts such as ‘family’ and ‘the home’ have assumed an important place in scholarly discussions of the social, economic and political life of the middle ages, yet they also recognised that approaches to the themes of motherhood, fatherhood and childhood have nonetheless remained disparate and self-contained. They accordingly decided that parenthood and childhood would form the dipartite focus of the conference. Building upon the growing interest in these areas, the organisers’ aims were to facilitate dialogue between researchers working on these different areas, and to highlight the value of doing so for future research in the field.

[3] Though nominally a conference on the Middle Ages, an awareness of periodicity came through strongly both during presentations and in questions and discussion afterwards, since the papers spanned the 9th to the 16th centuries. This meant that the sometimes disconnected subdivisions of early-medieval, late-medieval and early modern studies were considered more closely in relation to each other. Indeed, the keynote speaker Dr Sarah M. Dunnigan (University of Edinburgh) addressed the late medieval/early modern divide in her paper, ‘Childhood and Youth in Late Medieval and Early Modern Scottish Literature.’ Dunnigan’s paper provided an imaginative and thought-provoking analysis of the ways in which Scottish literary texts conceive the relationship between parents and children, authority and perceived transgression. She argued for the particular significance of literary culture in moulding and nurturing expectations of youthful conduct, as typified by verse miscellanies like the Maitland Quarto.

[4] The range of materials discussed by speakers also highlighted a variety of similarities and differences across broad geographical boundaries. Although the focus of the conference was primarily on Central European history and art, studies of family in as distant and culturally distinct places as pre-modern Sweden, Islamic Iberia and the Middle East were also included.

[5] While the papers on the first day offered a variety of topics and perspectives, education emerged as the overarching theme. Sessions included ‘Motherly Models’, ‘Fathers as Educators’, and ‘Fosterage and Surrogate Families’. The above-mentioned keynote, which completed the first half of the conference, engaged with the theme of education, whilst also anticipating the core theme of the second day, emotion. The papers in the second day emphasised the place of affect within the history of the family, with the sessions consisting of ‘Emotional Concepts of Family’, ‘Alien and Absent Children’, ‘Material Records of Growing Up’ and ‘Commemorating the Family.’ The papers within these sessions touched upon issues such as the loss of parents or children and the commemoration of familial relationships through a variety of media. Overall, the two days’ themes pointed to four sub-strands of thought: space, bonds, status and memory.

[6] Space was a recurrent strand, since speakers considered in different ways how the family unit is a place of education, whether domestic or political, secular or religious. Ana Miranda (University of Lisbon) and Robert Grout (University of York) spoke about the paternal instruction of children in the contexts of the learned elite in Muslim Spain and the mercantile class of Christian England respectively. An especially interesting aspect of discussion common to their papers was the notion that parents, as well as children, were seen to be capable of making mistakes and thus equally needed instruction in order to learn appropriate behaviours. An alternative image of paternal education was imagined by Daniel Brown (University of Cologne), whose analysis of the Historia Normannorum by Dudo of St Quentin raised the idea of book-as-father in teaching the duke how to be an appropriate ruler of his people.

[7] On the other side of the parental spectrum, Jane Bonsall (University of Edinburgh) suggested a direct relationship between the differences in Middle English versions of Tristan and Isolde in courtly narratives and the absence or presence of Isolde’s mother’s educating influence. In a religious context, Hannah Shepherd (University of Edinburgh) explored how conceptions of female childhood were formative in the maturation of a specifically feminine spirituality when adulthood was reached.

[8] Considering the relationship between human and godly spaces, Dr Simone Sari (Independent Researcher) illustrated how a Spanish Vita Christi framed religious practice within common domestic and enclosed spaces like the convent as the location from which divine space in the palace of heaven could be accessed, enabling mortal families to join the holy family. A recurrent idea throughout these papers was of how the education of children in exclusive, elite or otherwise distinct social places encouraged their socialisation and integration into public spaces, ultimately conflating personal life of the family with the wider social and political world.

[9] Our dialogue progressed from family spaces to the bonds between people within them, a highly nuanced theme during both days of the conference. Considering the subject of feelings within the medieval and early modern family, Dr Janay Nugent (University of Lethbridge) reversed the parent-centric view of familial love to question the love of children for their parents, as well as the role of their feelings in a social context. Consequently the question of how love frequently transcended conventional boundaries was raised, despite often being viewed in scholarship as having been of secondary importance to more practical concerns about land, money and influence. Issues of space and education mentioned above are often seen in terms of theoretical binaries with fathers instructing sons and mothers their daughters; likewise such instruction can be divided as pertaining to the more active political sphere versus the domestic household. However, as Dr Lucinda Dean (University of Stirling) demonstrated, society was rife with both lateral and horizontal connections that reveal the historic existence of alternative forms of non-biological parenting, and which also complicate and conflate the perceived binaries of public and private. Dean’s paper on Scottish godparents and godsiblings explored how de facto adoptions were a common practice among the premodern laity. The exchange of children between families created affinities and networks between individuals and groups, which reached far beyond their natal homes. In this respect, motherhood presented the opportunity for the creation of bonds between groups, and these informal networks importantly often underpinned the more formal expression of power through official patriarchal structures.

[10] Fosterage within religious communities was also emphasised by Thomas O’Donnell (University College London). O’Donnell discussed Irish mystical sources, suggesting the role of foster-carer could help practitioners achieve closeness to God with particularly vivid anecdotes of parental care in saints’ bodily nurture of giant beetles and sucking of snot. These visceral yet comical images illustrated how devotion was sometimes re-imagined as an alternative form of non-biological motherhood, offering more individual spiritual exemplars of nurture by synthesising religious and secular family models. Godelinde Perk (University of Umeå) argued with examples of Birgitta of Sweden, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe that the trend in artificial application of child or parent models on unrelated figures in fact enhanced the authority of devotional practices by employing yet transcending typical configurations of family. Thus a salient connection between these different papers was the notion of the performativity of parenthood, where the adoption of children in medieval and early modern periods made familial constructs available to those who were not biological parents.

[11] The impact of social status on the expectations and realities of parenthood and childhood was repeatedly raised throughout the conference. The papers responded to the uneven source survival for this period creatively and imaginatively, with the discussions spanning the entire social spectrum. In her consideration of royal baptisms in late medieval Scotland, for example, Dean showed how illustrious social status was a crucial factor governing the choice of godparents for a royal infant. At the other end of the scale, Janine Bryant (University of Birmingham) and Dr Miriam Müller (University of Birmingham) highlighted the immense value of coroners’ and manorial court rolls for shedding light on the everyday challenges and hazards facing peasant children in late medieval England. Müller and Bryant’s papers also provided a rare and valuable glimpse into peasant life as it was actually experienced by contemporaries, circumventing the often highly stylised impressions gained through literary and narrative accounts. Moreover, their papers illuminated the more ‘ordinary’ experiences of daily life, which have often been ignored in favour of exceptional or more unusual examples.

[12] The impact of social status on individual and familial identity was powerfully demonstrated in Esther Bernstein’s (City University of New York) comparative reading of the romances of Horn and Havelock. In her discussion, Bernstein argued that the upbringing of the two male protagonists, one raised by royalty and the other by fishermen, profoundly shaped the men’s characters as rulers.

[13] The aforementioned attention placed on the performativity of parenthood also raised questions about the preservation of power and status. Several of the papers showed how access to parental models was important for the enhancement of authority in various contexts. Grout, for example, highlighted how clerical authors consciously utilised the paternal narrative voice in order to convey an authoritative tone in advice literature, while Sari emphasised the importance of Marian motherhood for reinforcing Isabelle de Villena’s authority as abbess of the Real Monasterio de la Trinidad of Valencia. The notion of motherhood as a means of accessing and displaying social, economic and political power came across strongly in Dr Richard McClary’s (University of Edinburgh) discussion of the architectural commissions of the royal women of the Seljuk dynasty. McClary highlighted how these women were able to circumvent their limited visibility at court by using their architectural commissions to make a prominent statement about their piety and wealth as the mothers of sultans. Access to power through the family was also central to Hanna Kilpi’s (University of Glasgow) discussion of familial relationships and Anglo-Norman charters. In her paper, Kilpi explored how the issue of charters by lesser aristocratic women under their parents’ names reveals the importance of lineage to female expressions of power in twelfth-century England.

[14] A more visceral take on the power of blood ties was provided by Grace Timperley’s (University of Manchester) consideration of inheritance romance narratives. Focusing on instances of bloodshed, Timperley emphasised the transformative nature of acts of violence against children in these texts, which sever the protagonist from his family and birth rights and induct him into the adult, martial world, where he emerges as a hero. Anxiety surrounding lineage and bloodlines was also central to Kathy Hardman’s (University of California, Riverside) discussion of childlessness in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and at the court Richard II. By comparing Chaucer’s version of the story to Boccaccio’s text, Hardman highlighted how the positive presentation of Criseyde’s childlessness by Boccaccio is completely lacking in Chaucer’s Middle English adaptation. Although careful not to read Chaucer’s text as a direct commentary on the political circumstances of Richard’s reign, Hardman nonetheless used the comparison between literature and reality to highlight pertinent and widespread social anxieties surrounding lineage and futurity in late medieval England.

[15] Discussions of lineage and social status were also closely linked to another of the conference’s themes, memory. Several of the papers explored the centrality of the family to commemorative practices. Harriette Peel (The Courtauld Institute of Art), for example, showed how parents in late medieval Flanders often included images of their deceased children in their own effigies to comment on the interrelationship between individual and familial identities. Moreover, through her focus on the context of these monuments within the highly visible and public space of the late medieval church, Peel showed how these representations of deceased families became widely accessible as sites of devotional contemplation and instruction for their viewers. The celebration of familial ties within secular, domestic settings was explored through the papers of Dr Amy Orrock (Independent Researcher) and Oliver Fearon (University of York and The Burrell Collection). Considering the shifting character of English portraiture between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Orrock explored how visual representations of the ‘middling sorts’ became less concerned with the inclusion of pious motifs and more preoccupied with the lifelike representation of their sitters within their domestic environs. In her discussion, Orrock emphasised how these representations celebrated their subjects as part of a broader and ever-growing nexus of individuals, to include servants and deceased relatives, the latter of whom were skilfully included through the depiction of a portrait within the portrait.

[16] The celebration and crystallisation of familial connections was also presented through Oliver Fearon’s consideration of the heraldic stained glass commissioned by the Knightley family of Fawsley Hall in Northamptonshire. In his discussion, Fearon showed how social upstarts used heraldic display as a means of forging and crystallising a memory of familial longevity, enabling them to navigate the complexities of their contemporary political circumstances. Fearon’s paper laid heavy emphasis on the locational nature of memory, highlighting how the display of heraldic motifs in prominent locations within the gentry residence, such as the Great Hall, powerfully proclaimed the family’s longstanding regional importance to neighbouring elites.

[17] In contrast to the highly stylised and controlled instances of commemoration considered by Peel, Orrock and Fearon, was Dr. Cordelia Beattie’s (University of Edinburgh) discussion of the 1561 will of Margaret Lane. Through her exploration of the relationship between text and marginalia, Beattie argued that the scribal defacement of Margaret’s will with monstrous images can be read in light of the connections made in sixteenth-century thought between the morally corrupt female body and foetal deformity, and also as a comment on the ‘unnaturalness’ of a married woman making a will at this time. Beattie argued that to the medievalist, Margaret comes across as a sophisticated and astute parent, who shows an active concern for her daughter’s future, yet through the eyes of the sixteenth-century cleric, she is presented to us as an individual who defied the expectations and norms of her contemporary society. Beattie’s paper offered a powerful reminder of the challenges the modern scholar faces when approaching their source material through the lens of post-medieval thought, and also of the distance between medieval and modern conceptions of parenthood.

[18] The richness and diversity of the discussions over the course of the two days attests to the family’s now central place in medieval scholarship. Once treated as a marginalised or specialist topic, the papers highlighted how a consideration of the family can unlock diverse and wide-ranging aspects of medieval life, from the social and cultural to the economic and political. Moreover, the discussions emphasised that medieval conceptions of the medieval family were far from fixed or static, but constantly in flux, with familial networks expanding and contracting not only over the course of an individual’s lifespan, but more broadly over time. In this respect, the conference’s uniting of the often disparate and self-contained strands of ‘motherhood’, ‘fatherhood’ and ‘childhood’, did much to highlight the complexities of the word ‘family’, reminding us that the term encompassed a broad and diverse range of relationships, just as it does today. The papers revealed the immense value of considering ideologies and actualities of parental and childhood experiences side-by-side, bringing us ever closer to a more nuanced understanding of family life as it was actually lived and understood in the medieval world. Yet, it was also apparent that there is still much work to be done in this field. The presence of shared themes and conclusions across geographical, temporal and disciplinary boundaries highlighted the rich potential for future studies to explore medieval family life through comparative and interdisciplinary approaches.

[19] The conference also highlighted that for many medievalists, parenthood is not just a topic of scholarly inquiry, but a daily reality. Our second invited keynote speaker, Dr Rachel Moss, was unfortunately unable to attend, due to the proximity of her labour date to the conference. Despite her absence, however, Moss’s timely blog post, ‘Academic Bodies, After Labour’ provided food for thought as the conference came to a close, and her subsequent posts have importantly highlighted the impact of conferences and academic events on present day experiences of parenthood and childhood.

[20] The organisers would like to express their thanks to the Royal Historical Society (RHS) and to The Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS) at the University of Edinburgh for providing the funds and space, which made the conference possible. In addition, thanks are due to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who have provided funding for the organisers’ doctoral research. Last but not least, warm thanks also go to Lucinda Dean, Elizabeth Elliott, Lucy Hinnie and others, who live-tweeted the conference proceedings. For a Storify summary of moment-to-moment reactions and highlights of all the delegates’ papers, see

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