Book of the week: medieval children

14th September 2001 at 01:00

Medieval Children
By Nicholas Orme
Yale University Press pound;25

In a wealth of fascinating details, following the unfolding of a child's life from birth through play and education to the church and disease and death, Nicholas Orme examines the experiences of centuries, beautifully illustrated from manuscripts and church brasses.

Nothing has been left out, from toilet training to reading at home, from school customs to religious affiliations. The narrative is held on a thread of argument, urging that we listen to these voices from long ago and find an answering echo today. Orme is especially persuasive when it comes to family bonds.

Since, he suggests, it is hard to credit that parental love and childish vitality changed dramatically with the introduction of Enlightenment ideas in the 17th century, we can assume pretty much the same levels of emotional attachment throughout history.

This is an appeal to common sense, and it works fairly well. Orme backs it up with a wealth of evidence, lucidly collated.

It would work better if he employed more of the kind of literary evidence that more populist historians such as Simon Schama and Lawrence Stone have used so effectively: diaries, memoirs, letters and even poems and plays may reflect the life of the times more vividly for the lay reader than coroners' inquests and parish registers.

Orme does quote from the medieval mystery plays and the famous Paston letters of the 15th century, but his style is to heap detail on detail from factual records such as statutes, registers and chronicles.

The past does not come alive in all this material. We have no time to ponder each example. A brilliant sourcebook, but a cumbersome read.

A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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