Saturday, March 14, 2015

Parents and Children in 12th Century

by Helena P. Schrader

Writers and readers of history and historical fiction will agree that for all the changes in technology and fashion, human emotions have remained remarkably consistent. Love, hate, jealousy, greed, ambition and anger can all be found in any era of history. But this is not to say that the social customs governing the interaction between the sexes or between children and adults have always been the same.  As a test reader brought home to me the other day, modern man often forgets that intra-family relationships could be very different in ages past.

English families in the 12th century were very different from what they are today. First and foremost, in a feudal society where one’s station in life was largely determined by what one was born to be, family meant much more than it does today. The family into which one was born determined one’s social status and — at least for first born son — the profession as well. The youth of noble families had two options, arms or the church.  Merchant and tradesmen’s sons were likewise expected to work in the parental trade or learn a similar trade. For peasants there was no choice at all; all were destined to till the soil.


Even within a specific strata of society, family played a much more important role than it does today.  Because blood ties determined not just status but inheritance and access to patronage, everyone was very conscious of who their blood relations were — not just within the immediate family but aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins, including those once, twice and thrice removed.  The wealthy and powerful had an obligation to their poor relations, while the poor and unfortunate turned to the strongest members of the family for support. Younger sons, who had no lands to inherit, sought service under the banner of their more distant relatives. For example, the young William Marshal, who as a fourth son had no paternal inheritance and after being knighted owned only his horse and his armor, sought service with his mother’s brother, the Earl of Salisbury. Guy de Lusignan, the fourth son of the Poitevin baron Hugh de Lusignan and equally destitute, trailed after his elder brother Aimery, who had become Constable of Jerusalem. The pattern repeated itself ten thousand fold.

Marriages, of course, were made to serve the interests of the wider family and were concluded between families not individuals.  This practice led to children being promised (betrothed) at very tender ages.  Marguerite Capet of France comes immediately to mind; she was betrothed to the three year old heir of Henry II of England before she had lived a single year; she could not yet even speak much less consent. Not only did the betrothal take place before she could possibly understand what was going on, Marguerite was turned over to the keeping of strangers so she could be reared in the territories she had been dowered with. She then “married” Henry the Young King at the ripe old age of three (3). Her bridegroom was five (5).

Not all marriages were so extreme.  Henry and Marguerite were the children of rival kings, but child marriages were by no means the exception among the nobility and this brings us to the very core of family structures: the rearing of children and parent/child relationships. Obviously, the very high rates of infant mortality had an impact on the relationships between parents and children.  The allegations of some historians that medieval parents could not “afford” to become too attached to their children because they lost so many of them have been soundly refuted by historical evidence of intense grief on the part of parents as recorded in wills, chronicles, letters, etc.


The high levels of infant (and maternal!) mortality did, however, make life less certain for all, and families were constantly in flux — children and mothers died, making younger children suddenly heirs or heiress but also step-children of a second, third or fourth wife. Children might be raised by step-mothers or step-fathers as one or the other biological parent died and the remaining parent remarried, or they might be raised by older brothers or sisters, if both parents died, while girls, as we have seen, might be raised not by their parents but by their in-laws.  Children unlucky enough to be completely orphaned became the wards of their father’s overlord and were raised either in his household or a location of his choosing.

To suggest that the relationships between children and their step-parents, parents-in-law or guardians were less affectionate than in modern families would be presumptuous. Humans have the capacity to love small children regardless of the blood-ties. But in such a fluid world it is also inevitable that many children did find themselves in the care of adults that for one reason or another did not feel strongly about them or even resented and hated them. In short, high rates of mortality among parents probably did more to undermine family ties than the high rates of infant mortality.


On the other hand, noble children were raised by nurses and nannies not by the noblewomen who gave them birth, much less the barons who sired them. Wet nurses were almost universal in this period, and no household account is complete without nurses, nannies and servants of the nursery. Arguably, children may have received more affection and physical attention from these hired/surrogate mothers than from their biological mothers, but the role of these servants must also not be exaggerated. Servants might be life-long retainers, but they might also come and go as circumstances called for. Above all, in feudal society, servants remained servants and children of noble blood learned very early on to respect and “love” their betters and their peers not their social inferiors.


Childhood was short in any case. For royalty, it was not uncommon for children not only to marry but to be set up in their own household, surrounded by a complete staff of officials, at a very early age.  For example, Henry the Young King, the eldest surviving son of Henry II, was set up in his own household at the age of eight. Edward of Woodstock, Edward III’s heir 150 years later, was set up in an independent household at the age of three. To be sure, small children did not control their own destinies, but at the latest by the age of seven they were being taught their future duties, whether that was by serving as a page in another household or by serving as the head of an independent household under the tutelage of an appointed guardian. This custom may well account for the often tense relationships between fathers and sons, something so well illustrated by Henry II’s problems with his rebellious sons.

On the other hand, the reason sons were sent away to train was because of the widespread belief that parents were too fond of their children to discipline them. By letting others (not strangers but more distant relatives) do the hard work of teaching rambunctious youths their manners and obedience, parents retained the privilege of being indulgent and tender to their children. Like sending a child to boarding school in latter centuries, the custom of sending children away for their education did not necessarily weaken the bonds of affection between parents and children but may, at least in some instances, have actually strengthened them.


But no essay on parental relations in the 12th century would be complete without the story of William Marshal .  John Marshal an adherent of the Empress Matilda in the bitter civil war of the early 12th Century, gave his fourth son, William, as a hostage to King Stephan as a pledge to not to reinforce the garrison of a besieged castle. He broke his word, and when King Stephen reminded John Marshal that his son’s life was forfeit, Marshal reportedly replied: “Hang him, I have the anvil and hammer to make more and better sons.”  And yet, when Stephen did not hang the six-year-old and William eventually returned to his paternal home, there was no apparent recriminations or hostility between them. Furthermore, the very custom of demanding hostages suggests that most fathers would not risk their sons’ lives. The story of Marshal is remembered in large part because it was so unusual — and because it seems to have been such a pivotal moment in William’s own life; it appears to have set him on the course of absolute and unwavering loyalty to his own word, as if by never breaking an oath he could prove his father had been wrong to break his. Furthermore, William Marshal’s relations with his own children appears to have been closer to what we would consider normal in the 21st century, with every indication of deep affection.

The historical record has left us with examples of dysfunctional families like Henry II and his “devil’s brood,” but also families with close and intense ties such as Balian d’Ibelin, who sought a safe-conduct from Salah-ad-Din to bring his family out of beleaguered Jerusalem. We should not doubt that love was as strong then as now, but be conscious that the factors outlined above made families substantially different from what they are today.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Helena P. Schrader is the author of numerous works of history and historical fiction.  She holds a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg.  The first book of a three-part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187 and later took part in the Third Crusade, is now available for sale.  Read more at: http://helenapschrader.com or follow Helena’s blogs: Schrader’s Historical Fiction and Defending the Crusader Kingdoms.

A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin
Book I



A landless knight,
                A leper King
                                And the struggle for Jerusalem.






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6 comments:

  1. Interesting and excellent post and agree with most of it.
    However the comment "it appears to have set him on the course of absolute and unwavering loyalty to his own word, as if by never breaking an oath he could prove his father had been wrong to break his," has different interpretations depending on how you read the background history. William Marshal's father may have taught him unswerving loyalty and you do your duty whatever the cost. John Marshal lost an eye in a literal firefight while defending the retreat of the Empress from Winchester. He stood hard at Wherwell Abbey against the forces of William D'Ypres giving her time to make her escape. And John Marshal was the last man standing as King Stephen made his bid for Wallingford in 1152. He detoured to take Newbury in order not to have John Marshal coming at him from the rear and the Marshal held him up sufficiently long enough to give Wallingford a little more breathing space while waiting for Henry II to arrive. So John Marshal was faced with a dilemma. Yield Newbury and see the whole Angevin cause go down, or give up his son. Young William Marshal could well have learned from his father how to stand hard in the gale, and it served him in good stead when he had to give up his own sons to King John. Interestingly, the 'Hammers and Anvils' speech is only reported in a single source (Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal) and may be a literary trope rather than hard fact - we just don't know.

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  2. Interesting and excellent post and agree with most of it.
    However the comment "it appears to have set him on the course of absolute and unwavering loyalty to his own word, as if by never breaking an oath he could prove his father had been wrong to break his," has different interpretations depending on how you read the background history. William Marshal's father may have taught him unswerving loyalty and you do your duty whatever the cost. John Marshal lost an eye in a literal firefight while defending the retreat of the Empress from Winchester. He stood hard at Wherwell Abbey against the forces of William D'Ypres giving her time to make her escape. And John Marshal was the last man standing as King Stephen made his bid for Wallingford in 1152. He detoured to take Newbury in order not to have John Marshal coming at him from the rear and the Marshal held him up sufficiently long enough to give Wallingford a little more breathing space while waiting for Henry II to arrive. So John Marshal was faced with a dilemma. Yield Newbury and see the whole Angevin cause go down, or give up his son. Young William Marshal could well have learned from his father how to stand hard in the gale, and it served him in good stead when he had to give up his own sons to King John. Interestingly, the 'Hammers and Anvils' speech is only reported in a single source (Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal) and may be a literary trope rather than hard fact - we just don't know.

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  3. Another wonderful and informative post. Really opens up what a different world it was so many centuries ago.

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  5. Agree with Elizabeth Chadwick. There is a lot of history going on underneath the Histoire's superficial accounting of the siege at Newbury and the 'anvils and hammers' comment, which may or may not have been actually said, could have different meanings other than what appears on the surface. The Histoire's view of John is very positive, and gives him praise and approbation. As for John breaking an oath to King Stephen, it couldn't have happened because, per the Histoire, Stephen would not accept an agreement with him, he would only accept a hostage. I seriously doubt that John that would have surrendered easily and bring the long hard-fought cause crashing down. Being the last man standing between Stephen and Wallingford, he would have fought as long as he could. Since John and his exploits were the favorite subject of William's tales over the years, and William used John abilities as a leader of men, and used his military expertise to train his own men, it looks like William would have been proud of his father.

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  6. Thank you both for fleshing out the story William and his father! As you both say, the relationship was clearly complex -- which is reflective of medieval relationships generally, as I hope my article made clear.

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