The concept of childhood is subject to many culturally and historically specific assumptions that in turn inform literary representations of children. Moments in narrative where children give voice to their own emotions and thoughts offer valuable opportunities for researchers to understand medieval relationships between emotion, society and the sense of self.
Image: MS Douce 276 fol. 63r (Book of Hours, Northern France, beginning of 16th Century). Courtesy of the Bodleian Library.
'Childhood' is a concept that offers a highly elastic repository for beliefs concerning the nature of identity, agency, humanity, society and the structure of self. Philippe Ariès famously questioned the existence of childhood in medieval Europe; while his view is still influential, there is much research that contradicts his assertion. We have little direct access to the perspectives of medieval children, but we do have numerous literary representations of children giving voice to their pleasures, their fears, their hopes, their beliefs. The child's voice in Middle English literary narrative does not offer us direct access to the world of medieval children, but it does provide a fertile space for exploring imaginative elaborations upon the concept of childhood during this period.
The representation of children’s voices was chosen for this project because of the inherent presence of emotion in vocal intonation, often supported by emotional expression in the form of bodily gestures and facial expressions. These embodied 'natural' emotions are shaped by, and meaningful in relation to, the cultural and historical circumstances in which they are produced and understood.
The voice of the child in literary narrative offers a space for exploring a 'self in process', where assumptions about the relationships, responsibilities and expectations of society are played out in the process of shaping the 'natural' material of the child. Thus, in the imaginative space offered within literary narratives, the emotions expressed in children’s utterances provide valuable insights for modern researchers into connections made between emotion, society, and concepts of self in medieval England.