No criticism of the abuses affecting children in monasteries is more revealing and significant than St. Anselm [of Canterbury]’s admonition to a certain abbot who had complained to him of his difficulties in controlling the obstreperous boys in his charge, declaring that “we never give over beating them day and night, and they only get worse and worse.” Even the barest summary of Anselm’s remarkable answer may convey the import of an argument that not only underscores the weaknesses of a system, but offers an impressively positive statement of a new and more sympathetic approach to the rearing of children. Pointing to the destructive effects of the use of force and “injudicious oppression” upon the personalities of their young victims, Anselm declared that “feeling no love or pity, good-will or tenderness in your attitude towards them, they have in future no faith in your goodness but believe that all your actions proceed from hatred and malice against them; they have been brought up in no true charity towards anyone, so they regard everyone with suspicion and jealousy.” Then he demanded, urging his benighted colleague to greater empathy, “Are they not human? Are they not flesh and blood like you? Would you like to have been treated as you treat them, and to have become what they are now?” Finally, stressing, as did Peter Damian and others, the importance of firm but gentle molding and shaping in the rearing of the young, he insisted that they must have “the encouragement and help of fatherly sympathy and gentleness” and that teaching and discipline should be adapted to the temperaments and capacities of individuals. …
Concern for the physical care and training of young children becomes more articulate and specific in a growing number of didactic works of the thirteenth century; such treatises, displaying often also some sense of the needs of children at different stages of development, point to ways in which, with increasing literacy among laymen, more favorable values and attitudes, as well as useful pediatric information, may have become more widely diffused, at least among the more prosperous classes. Despite the obvious limitations of these writings as mirrors of childhood realities, their popularity suggests a felt need for works offering guidance for parents, and while some of them reflect the clerical perspectives which have dominated this study, in others, more novel, parental views are directly stated.
Representing the churchman’s approach, Bartholomew of England provides, in one of the earliest and most influential of popular encyclopedias, a precise description of the physical constitution, emotional qualities and habits of children, and conveys as well a now more articulate sense of early childhood as a carefree and playful stage of life. Little boys (pueri), he tells us, echoing a common thought by no means universal opinion, are so called because of their “purity,” since as this age the insufficient development of their organs makes them incapable of sexual activity and they are not ashamed of their nakedness. Despite their innocence, however, they are capable of guile and deceit, and so in need of discipline and teaching. Painting what will seem to many a fairly lifelike picture of small boys, he describes them as “living without thought or care, loving only to play, fearing no danger more than being beaten with a rod, always hungry and hence always disposed to various infirmities from being overfed, wanting everything they see, quick to laughter and as quick to tears, resisting their mothers’ efforts to wash and comb them, and no sooner clean but dirty again.” Little girls, in Bartholomew’s hardly original view, are better disciplined, more careful, more modest and timid, and more graceful; because of the likeness of sex they are also, he thought, dearer to their mothers than boys.
Strongly urging the careful education of girls in reading and writing, Vincent of Beauvais maintained that these pursuits would keep them busy and thus distracted from “harmful and idle thoughts.” They shoul, in his view, be trained in the “womanly arts” as well as in letters, and both boys and girls should be carefully instructed in the duties and responsibilities of marriage. As a theorist of education and an adviser in the rearing of the young, this most zealous of medieval encyclopedists was not particularly original, but he drew on traditional and contemporary learning in the development of ideas that display a genuine concern for the actual needs and capacities of children at different stages of early life. Like his contemporary, Master Aldobrandino of Sina, Vincent repeats with slight variations the Soranian precepts concerning the physical care of children, ideas now readily accessible in learned circles. In a suggested regime for for the young child, he provides for frequent baths, at least two daily, careful feeding and ample playtime; to similar recommendations Aldobrandino adds the advice that the child should be given what he asks for and relieved of what displeases him. When at six the child begins school, he should be taught slowly and without forcing, being allows plenty of time for sleep and diversion. With others among his fellow-clerics, Vincent of Beauvais advocates a moderation in instruction and discipline in which we may perceive the significant assimilation and diffusion of ideas expressed by St. Anselm and his contemporaries a century and a half earlier. Teaching without beating is the ideal commonly stated, although Vincent suggests that in the matter of discipline distinctions should be made between those children for whom physical coercion is unnecessary and disastrous and others whose temperaments seem to require it; even in this case discipline should never be sudden and unpremeditated but should spring from motives of love and foresight rather than a mistaken sense of kindness. It is this attitude and this conception of the child’s sensitive nature that were poetically summed up, around 1200, but Walther von der Vogelweide:
“Children won’t do what they ought
If you beat them with a rod.
Children thrive, children grow
When taught by words, and not a blow. …
Evil words, words unkind
Will do harm to a child’s mind.”
In some ways less enlightened are several works representing a paternal view of child-rearing, which may in their stress on the importance of discipline and correction provide a closer reflection of the actual practice of parents. For the elderly Philip of Novara, the infant and small child possesses three great gifts: he loves and recognizes the person who nurses him, he expresses pleasure and affection for those who play with him, and he inspires a natural love and sympathy in those who rear him. Like the great Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, in the preceding century, this father believed that parental love increases as children grow older, but he cautioned strongly against the excessive and indulgent display of affection, which may encourage children to be bolder in their naughtiness. They should not be permitted to do everything they wish, but should be firmly corrected while they are young, first with words, then if necessary, by beating, and as a last resort by “imprisonment.” Parents and their surrogates should, he advised, be especially watchful for early signs of tendencies to such vices as theft, violence and blasphemy which may lead the child to a bad end. …