Certain things stay with you. I have always been touched by this description which I came across a long time ago. It’s from a narrative of the life of Mary Magdalene — found in a late 14th century Scots collection of saints’ lives — and portrays a moment of child’s play.
& as thai yed one the sand,
A child thai saw hym playand,
As yonge childir ar wont to do
And as they went onto the sand/they saw a child playing/just as young children are inclined to do…
This is no ordinary little boy — he’s the offspring of a king and queen, a longed-for child miraculously granted by the Magdalene in return for their conversion to Christianity. This vision is a key moment for the story’s medieval listeners and readers, expressive of a specific spiritual framework – confirmation of the saint’s intercession and of divine grace. But it is also a humanly beautiful one, for the father had believed that his child was dead. Instead, the little boy is very much alive, playing in an unselfconscious, instinctively child-like way, as the storyteller notes. This is a religious marvel; but also a little wonder of love resurrected.
Coming across this image again made me think about where else, if at all, we find children in medieval Scottish literature. Where do we see states of infancy, childhood and youth, and the bonds between parents and children, portrayed? Much work has been done in the past two decades to recover the material and social lives of children and adolescents in a range of medieval cultures, and thereby to begin the vital work of restoring visibility to a group traditionally so underrepresented in historical and cultural scholarship.
Yet it was only in 2015 that a volume solely devoted to Scotland’s medieval and early modern young was published; this is Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent’s groundbreaking collection, Children and Youth in Premodern Scotland. As they write in their introduction ‘young people were everywhere, and their experience and lives have much to reveal about medieval and early modern society’. Amongst many things young lives, as Ewan and Nugent point out, recalibrate our understanding of ‘urban economic development, consumption patterns, clan politics, personal piety, medieval kingship, court life, slavery, constructions of gender, the history of emotions, and the dynastic concerns of noble houses’ (p. 3).
As the volume’s essays illustrate, imprints and traces can be mined from records, archives, and other material sources, though it is harder to hear directly hear the voices of children and young people themselves. The image of the boy on the shore seemed to crystallise that sense of how the child-figure in medieval writing is somehow remains elusive, vivid yet just out of reach. Perhaps in literary texts above all, this sense of near absence, or distant intimacy, is heightened.
Literature, of course, isn’t straightforwardly mimetic of historical experience. So a poem composed in the voice of a father to his son, as we shall see later, can only suggest how representations of the young are mediated through a series of aesthetic conventions and ideological viewpoints, frequently shot through with uncertainties about authorship and transmission. In that respect, any portrait of the young in medieval Scots writing is a partial and cracked mirror. But for that very reason even the most fragmentary surviving text can tell us much about the imaginative matrix of desires — emotional, social, cultural — which cluster around children and young people. And, at the end, I’ll return to the ‘yonge barne’, the little boy, on the shore.
For this short post, I have chosen a small handful of texts for illustration from imaginative literature composed in Scots from the 14th to the early c16th centuries. ‘Medieval Scottish literature’, of course, encompasses much more linguistically and culturally than this. The rich and diverse body of Gaelic material in this period needs a post of its own so is not, for the moment, discussed here. For simplicity’s sake, I have modernised Scots orthography and provided English translations; all references to primary sources are given at the end. My thanks to Jane Bonsall who provided the illustrative images for this post.
The allegorical child
We needn’t look far before we find the figure of the child portrayed in emblematic and allegorical ways. William Dunbar’s well-known and bleak poetic litany of death’s powers, familiarly known as ‘Lament for the Makaris’ [Lament for the Poets], shows us ‘the bab full of benignite’ [the baby full of goodness] lying at his ‘moderis breast sowkand’ [sucking at his mother’s breast] — a fragile symbol of mortal innocence.
Dance of Death: Image of child dying of the plague. Hans Holbein (1497-1543) Woodcut, before 1538. Facsimile, London, 1892. Annotated by Shona Kelly Wray.
In one of Robert Henryson’s lyric poems, ‘The Thre Deid Pollis’ [The Three Death Skulls] , the young are darkly exhorted to remember their mortality by gazing on the ‘gaistly sicht’ [horrible sight] of their ‘holkit ene, oure peilit pollis bare’ [our hollowed-out eyes, our skinned, bare heads] which, once upon a time, were much more alive and lovely. Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid famously gives us one of the most potent and horrifying visions of death and the maiden.
Now is deformit the figour of my face;
To luik on it na leid now lyking hes.
Sowpit in syte, I say with sair siching,
Ludgeit amang the lipper leid, `Allace!’
[Now the outline of my face is disfigured/Noone is now inclined to gaze upon it/Absorbed in sorrow, I say with a heavy heart, ‘Alas!’, resident amidst the leper folk]
If the child/youth-figure in these moralistic poems is a haunting reminder of the ruthless potentiality of death, we find a counterpoint in vernacular religious literature. There is a strong Marian lyric tradition in late medieval Scots poetry which ornately evokes adoration both of the Christ-child, and the maternal love of the Virgin Mary: liturgy, prayer, and nurture can be tenderly combined, as in this example:
Blist be thi haire hed eyne face & neise
Blist be ye halss breast bane bak & rib
Blist be thi palpis yat couth this one appleiss
Blist be thi handis that wande him in the crib […]
Blessed be the hair, head, eyes, face, and nose/Blessed be the neck breast bone back and rib/Blessed be the breasts that could satisfy the son/Blessed be the hands that embraced him in the crib […]
Nativity of Mary:
A midwife presents St Anne, naked except for a white cap, with the baby Mary. Ranworth Antiphoner, (1400s) fol 257.
The temptations of youth
Looking beyond these allegorical and emblematic representations brings us to an imaginative world where the focus is fixed on the very human and earthly dimensions of the bond between the young and adults – parents, caregivers, teachers in loco parentis. We find boys and young men being instructed, implored, and besieged in all kinds of ways in medieval Scots writing. In The Spectakle of Luf, for example, ascribed to one ‘M.G. Myll’, in St Andrews on the 10th day of July in the year 1492 (the epilogue is very specific!). The text is presented as an example of ‘wisdom’ literature based on an unnamed Latin source which, for ‘gud and proffitable’ [good and instructive] purpose, needed to be translated ‘in to our wulgar and matarnall toung’ [vernacular mother tongue] — and, he adds, if any ‘ladyes and gentillwemen’ [ladies and gentlewomen] in particular want to complain, they can do so to the Latin author, not himself. The reason why they might soon becomes clear.
The young male reader of the treatise is subject to a fierce litany of advice, all of which largely pivots on the central core frailty of susceptibility to desire — explicitly defined as the ‘delectatioun of luf of wemen’ [salacious pleasure in the love of women]. In that sense, the Spectacle reads as an angry echo-chamber of the standard warnings, caveats, and expedient advice encased in the traditions of medieval antifeminist writings. Conceived as a conversation between a father and son, ‘a gud old knycht’ and a ‘yong squyer’ [a good old knight and a young squire], it’s divided into seven discreet sections. These neatly reflect the successive ‘categories’ of womanhood — increasingly stratified by age, social class, and religious status — who are bound to set about the son’s corruption.
Artfully, the father summons the toppling weight of scriptural, philosophical, and literary exempla to convince his son how reasonable he is. So he implores that ‘for in this warld Is na maire evillis na thar Is in young wemen quhen thai be set thereto as I sall mak ye till understand and thar be ressoun in thi brest’ [for in this world there are no greater evils than those in young women when they are so inclined, as I shall make you understand, and thereby implant reason in your breast]. Then he reaches first for his book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here, he tells his son how he can read of Stella, the ‘dochter of young age’ [the young daughter] of King Nysus who beheaded her father whilst he slept because she desired the love of King Mynos who, at the time, happened to be besieging her father’s city.
The son remains wonderfully obtuse throughout his seven stages of learning — he thinks it’s best to ‘luf in sic a place quhar It may be kepit secreit that akk be it childer be gootyn’ [love in such a way that it can be kept secret in case children are conceived]; his patient father suggests otherwise. At the end the latter presents himself as a model of how not to live a fully ‘masculine’ life: a man exiled from the ‘hushald’ [household] which he didn’t govern with enough ‘maistrye’ [power], now left with three gifts from his wife: ‘ane ald harr and dotand heid, ane emptyff and twme purss, and ane pair of beidis of sabill’ [an old daft weak-minded head, an empty and denuded purse, and a pair of mourning beads ie rosaries]. The Spectakle, then, manifests a great deal of anxiety around the process of growing up. The adolescent male is the site of such projected anxieties and fears but women are entirely to blame for this predicament.
Another, much lengthier ‘father-son’ dialogue exists in medieval Scots literature, entitled Ratis Raving, composed anonymously in the second half of the 15th century. But, at least in its prologue, seems to portray a much more curious and compassionate interest in childhood. Its prologue portrays maturation as a process as natural and organic as the growth of a tree — those figurative branches can grow strong and healthy provided there is the properly nourishing soil in which to take root; or become misshapen and withered if the proper moral and spiritual path isn’t followed. Although a conventional metaphor, the condition and potentiality of each stage in the young life-cycle is fascinatingly laid bare. In particular the poem charts the two defined stages of infancy and early childhood: from birth to 3 years old; and from 3 to 7. In the first we see how:
Than buskis child to spek ore ga,
And to wyt quhat is na & ya,
Sa lang can nocht ellis cheld think
Bot one the met, and one the drink,
On noryss, and on slep, thai thre;
Syk is the formest propyrtee,
Rycht as a best child can no mare,
Bot lauch ore gret for Joy & care,
Then the child attempts to speak / And to know what is no and yes / For so long the child can only think about food and drink / on nourishment and sleep, those three;/Such is the most definitive quality / that a child can do no more / But laugh away / heartily for joy and care
The infant’s basic primal instincts (for nourishment), and the capacity to articulate contentment or unhappiness, are here described, simply but engagingly, I think, in language which is almost gently rhythmic.
Holy Family at Work:
Holy Family at work in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves; Netherlands (Utrecht), c. 1440; Morgan Library MS M.917/945, p. 149.
In the next stage, the child’s developmental capacities are elaborated, and here we find — in a treatise so intent on the fostering of ethical and moral sense — what is a rather beautiful elaboration of child’s play. This is explicitly not the age in which the child’s morally reflective capacity or agency is yet developed; rather
Sa lang havis child wyl alwaye
With fluris for to Jap and playe;
With stikis, and with spalys small
To byge up chalmer, spens and hall;
To mak a wicht horss of a wand;
Of brokin breid a schip saland;
A bunwed tyll a burly spere;
And of a seg a swerd of were;
A cumly lady of a clout;
For a long time a child will always play with flowers / With sticks, and with small twigs / To build a bedroom, pantry, and hall / To make a strong horse out of a slender branch/or a sailing ship out of a piece of broken bread / A ragwort [makes for] a fiercesome spear / And a sedge a sword for war / a lovely lady [ie a doll] out of a cloth
Dolls, ships, swords, and the like ‘grow out of’ of the most ordinary everyday things. Naturally, given such creativity, the child’s day, the poem, acknowledges, is quite filled up; but there is no sense that this is not part of that ‘tree-like’, natural growth; these are activities which do not expressly nurture ‘gud Judgment’ (l. 1143) and make it neither the ‘best’ nor the ‘verst’ [worst] stage of human life. Rather, it simply accepts that the young child has a capacity for curiosity and inventiveness, for making and discovering ‘play’. It is very definitely not, I think, a negative depiction of ‘ignorant childhood’.[i]
But just as this child grows swiftly into the next stage of maturity (7 to 15), and into the period when ‘resone’ firmly implants ‘her’ roots (she is a feminised power in this text) instructing ‘quhat to do, and quhat enschew’ (l. 1227), so too does the text ultimately grow into a work of conventional, exemplary wisdom, akin to the Spectacle’s moral worldview. Still, Ratis Raving is very significant for the attention it pays to a distinct concept of early childhood and its developmental cognitive stages; and for doing so with an imaginative sympathy which brings ‘childlike-ness’ into nearer focus.
Girl with hobby horse and bells; youth with instruments
Bodleian Library MS. Douce 118, Psalter. fol. 034r, 13th century (end), France, Artois, Latin. “Marginalia. Crowned female with hobby horse rings handbells, and youth, in jester’s hood with bell, plays pipe and tabor.”
Children and emotion
I’d like to return to where this post began with the genre of the saint’s life. This was, of course, one of the most powerful and popular narrative forms of affective devotion in the Middle Ages. The traditions of insular hagiography in northern Britain have deep roots in the Latin, Irish, and Gaelic languages. Intended to praise, inspire, and teach these are, naturally, didactic texts, describing the miraculous work of saints. And if these lives portray the saint as a child or youth, they do so in ways which usually indicate their potential divinity or grace.
Yet — as shown by the opening example of the boy on the shore reunited with his father — we also witness the portrayal of children in ways which depict them as the locus of love, tied to parents and caregivers by bonds of affection, not just authority or chastisement. In the late 14th century Scots collection of saints’ lives, children are quite often an essential part of the narrative arc within each life. This is partly because of the close generic affinities between saint’s life and romance (and folktale too) for children are the agents of separation and reunion between families; longed for by childless kings and queens; or unwanted and cast off to sea in a casket to be ‘foderit’ [fostered] elsewhere. Here we also see children as ‘affective agents’ — possessed of emotion.
In the legend of ‘Theodera’ [St Theodora], the titular saint says goodbye to the child, whom she has fostered for nine years, when she knows death is near:
for-thi the barne scho tuk hir til,
& kyssit It with gud wil,
& sad: “dere sone, wit thu
That I mon pas of this lyf nou;
Thar-for to god I commend the,
That he thi helpe & fayre be.
& thu til hme pray Ithandly
& faste, as thu ma, gudely,
& to this brethyre of this abbay
Thou serwe treuly, I the pray!’
and then she took the child to her/And kissed him with good intention/and said, ‘Dear son, you need to know that I’m going to pass out of this life now/Therefore I commend you to God/that he help and look after you/and you have to pray very diligently to Him/ and intently and excellently/and I pray that you must faithfully serve the brothers of this abbey!
Later, the child is discovered grieving, or ‘gretand’ [weeping] beside her lifeless body. Even though she’s been received into the community of saints, she is still dead to the child. That irreducible knowledge registers poignantly in the child’s instinctive response towards Theodera — new-made saint but in that moment his surrogate-mother and carer.
This is an apt time to return to the little boy who plays on the shore in the life of Mary Magdalene. I suggested that this was significant in portraying a child instinctively at play. As we saw, this was also a celebratory moment for his father: the ‘resurrected’ child is the sign of new life and joy where previously he had been the bearer of death. In this earlier part of the story, the dying child is not portrayed as a static emblem or allegory but rendered in a vividly poignant way. Unable to care for the ‘yonge barne’ [little child], the king lays him to rest in the grave of his mother, at the breast which cannot nurture:
For to make a gannand grawe;
Thar-for thai socht & fand a cawe,
& of It in the maste priwe place
Thai lad that body, that ded was,
In riche atyre & dressit wele,
Wappyt in a furrit mantele;
& layde the chylde til hir breste,
Hed & mouthe the papis neste;
& gretan sar thine passit away, […]
They looked for a suitable grave, and found a cave, and in the most secluded place they laid the dead body; [she was] beautifully attired and dressed, wrapped in a fur mantle; they laid the child to her breast, his head and mouth nearest to her nipples, and then they moved away in tears […]
The loss of the child, as well as his mother, precedes (and, indeed, is the precondition of) the king’s penitential journey to the holy land and the visitation by St Peter. Both journey and vision bolster his wavering faith but the ‘lost child’ hauntingly remains an imagistic and emotional memory throughout this part of the narrative before the final reunion scene. The young boy is therefore a symbolically charged figure, invested with a great deal of the text’s spiritual and emotional energies.
I would suggest, however, that this isn’t a reductive symbolism. Whilst he is the site of affect, he is also an ‘affective agent’, possessed of emotion himself. We watch the little boy withdraw when he sees the father (whom of course he doesn’t recognise), and the boat’s crew, approach the shore:
& quhare his modir lay he socht,
& crape vndir hyre mantil rath,
In hope to hyd hym fra thar [the shipmen and father] skath….
and he sought out where his mother lay/and in distress crept under her cloak/hoping to hide himself from the danger they might bring
The men too are afraid, the story notes, unsure what they are seeing. Following the little boy, they find him seeking intuitive refuge in the body of his mother, laid out as she was when they left her:
Thai lyftyt upe the mantil-lape,
& fand the child at the pape,
lyand rycht as he sukit had,
bot he cane gret, for he was red.
They lifted up the flap/hem of the cloak/and found the child at the breast/lying as if he were sucking [at her breast] but he was crying because he was afraid.
This is another poignant and powerful visual moment, bringing the figures of child and mother into fetishised and distressing focus. But it leads to the further discovery that the Magdalene has assumed the role of foster mother, nourishing the child throughout the king’s two-year absence. He thanks her simply: ‘Thu has me gyffine this litil knafe,/& fed hyme twa yere one this hil.’ [You have given me this little fellow/whom you’ve fed for two years upon this hillside]. And, feeling ‘sa Ioyful’ [so joyful], he kisses ‘his sone, that he na cuth fyn’ [he kisses his son so much that he can hardly stop].
We don’t know for sure for whom these Scots saints’ lives were composed. They are likely to have been popular, being based on the most widely collected and translated collection of Latin saints’ lives in medieval Europe, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend. And the fact that they exist in the vernacular already suggests a lay audience given the official position of Latin in the church. We know, too, that vernacular female saints’ lives were often intended, or held a particular appeal, for women; these saintly women were not only ‘aspirational role models’ but in their earthly struggles potential sources of emotional and empathic affinity. (Interestingly, a woman’s name — ‘Katherine Grahame’ — is inscribed in c17th century hand in the manuscript, suggesting one of its post-medieval owners).
I therefore wonder whether the particular narrative care with which these particular lives expound grief for lost children, and the grief of children, might be a consequence of this. This is not intended in a reductively essentialist way; grief is not exclusively gendered. I also recognise the problematic way in which these texts portray ‘mothering’, and the ideally productive female body as the adulatory locus of nurture, both physical and spiritual. Indeed, all the texts briefly touched upon here may only reflect back the prescriptive, authoritarian nature of models of youth and adolescence demanded by society, culture, and religion.
But if we look carefully in the corners or margins of these Scottish texts, we can also find surprisingly attentive configurations of play and creativity. And imaginatively they help us grow closer to understanding those relationships of being and belonging, love and grief, felt reciprocally between children and those who care for them.
This post written by Sarah
[i] As Takami Matsuda suggests in her study, Death and Purgatory in Middle English Didactic Poetry (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997) ,p. 184.
Legends of the Saints in the Scottish dialect of the fourteenth century, edited by W.M. Metcalfe, Scottish Text Society (Edinburgh, 1896), 3 vols
Ratis Raving and other early Scots poems on morals, edited by R. Girvan, Scottish Text Society (Edinburgh, 1939)
‘The Spectakle of Luf’ and the Marian poem ascribed to Walter Kennedy can be found in The Asloan Manuscript: a Miscellany of Verse and Prose, Scottish Text Society, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1923-5)
Elizabeth Ewan and Janey Nugent (eds), Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)
Elizabeth Ewan and Janey Nugent (eds), Children and Youth in Premodern Scotland (Martlesham: The Boydell Press, 2015)
Aspects of this work were first presented at the symposium, ‘Parenthood and Childhood in the Middle Ages’, University of Edinburgh 8-9 October 2015. My thanks to Dr Rachel Delman and Dr Phoebe Linton, co-organisers of the event, and all those who attended it for their advice and suggestions.