Notes on Chapter 2: Children and Childhood in ancient medieval Europe by Hugh Cunningham


So on we go to Chapter 2. I’ve found this week that my original plan of writing for two hours first thing in the morning might, and might not work. I’m hoping it will, a problem I have had is going to bed to late and night, and waking up too tired to think and read, plus other commitments I have, to my children and other work. So, I carried the UMA around with me in my heart, dipped in and out of Chapter 2 as and when I had the opportunity, and now that we reach the weekend I’ve had the chance to sit down properly and give it my full attention. My intention for the coming week is earlier nights, and persevering with morning reading and writing. It’s a tricky balancing act this, especially considering the needs of my son and daughter.

Anyway, lets get on! As per usual, direct quotes and in bold, the rest is my own thoughts.

Cunningham’s Children and Childhood makes part of the ‘Introduction to the history of children and childhood’, part of the first module of the UMA – The history of childhood and the emergence of children’s rights.

Cunningham starts with the thought that the “early modern and modern centuries ideas about childhood and child-rearing were likely to have their origin in two sources: the classical inheritance and Christianity. The actual practice of child-rearing was likely to be influenced by the way children had been reared in medieval society”(p18). This is a big part of why I am including the history of children and childhood in the UMA. In order to understand why things happen as they do now, you need to track back to see the patterns and origins of learnt behaviour. Behaviour and belief systems I believe result from inherited learnt experiences, consciously and subconsciously, but if you want to understand them, and even attempt to hypothesise on breaking cycles, you first have to get back to the origins to truly understand them and their functions.

Chapter 2 seeks to “set out classical and Christian inheritance, and to make an assessment of medieval thought and practice with regard to children” p18.

Greek and Roman thought and practice:

Cunningham looks at four aspects of this (p18):

  1. Practices of infanticide, sale of children, abandonment and wet nursing.
  2. Inherited language about children and childhood originating in Greek or Latin and any baggage that comes with that.
  3. Legal structures that carried over into mediaeval/early modern worlds from Rome – particularly patria potestas, the overriding power of the father. 
  4. Ways of thinking about childhood and advice given on child-rearing and education in the classical world that continued to be influential up to the period at least 1900.

So already some really interesting things to be thinking about. Before I keep reading I really want to dig in a bit more into the concept of patria potestas.

“Patria potestas, (Latin: “power of a father”), in Roman family law, power that the male head of a family exercised over his children and his more remote descendants in the male line, whatever their age, as well as over those brought into the family by adoption. This power meant originally not only that he had control over the persons of his children, amounting even to a right to inflict capital punishment, but that he alone had any rights in private law. Thus, acquisitions of a child became the property of the father. The father might allow a child (as he might a slave) certain property to treat as his own, but in the eye of the law it continued to belong to the father.

Patria potestas ceased normally only with the death of the father; but the father might voluntarily free the child by emancipation, and a daughter ceased to be under the father’s potestas if upon her marriage she came under her husband’s manus, a corresponding power of husband over wife.” – Encyclopaedia Britannica

A quick search on Google brought me to a fascinating archive by Max Dashu called Suppressed Histories, and this particular article.

Having had a look through Max’s site, I can see there is loads worth exploring. So, before I carry on with Cunningham, I am going to take some time looking through Suppressed Histories, and the concept of patria potestas and other roots to the subjugation and concepts of power over women and children. Considering how this is still so visible today, it makes sense to me to dedicate real time to getting to the historical bottom of it.

I started this post on the weekend, and I am finishing it now, Tuesday morning – this just goes to show how much flexibility I need to do this study, and why doing it as a UMA is essential. I know there is no way I could complete it within the constraints of external demands. By doing it as a UMA I can take as long as I want, I can fit it in to the actual space I have, without feeling that I am not doing enough or at the right time, I can adapt to what else is going on around me. This work couldn’t happen otherwise.

Thanks for following.


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