Historical Principle: The Power of Cultural Assumptions

In a prior Daughter of Time post, I address the issue of age in the Middle Ages:
Warriors in the Middle Ages started quite young. Edward, who became Edward IV, was leading wars at the age of 18...Since the average life expectancy was about 40, 18 obviously meant something different than it does now although this is complicated by math. So many children died in childbirth, 40 is low almost by default. However, the fact remains that nobody took for granted the expectations of our modern age regarding life and death. On the other hand, sources have pointed out that members of the merchant and peasant class did not treat 18 as adulthood in the sense that reaching 18 automatically meant ALL the accoutrements of adult life. Outside the upper classes, people in the Middle Ages actually did wait to get married until their mid-20s, mostly for financial reasons. As far as Shakespeare is concerned, Romeo and Juliet truly are as young as we think they are.
In other words, the operative difference between how age was treated in the Middle Ages and how it is treated now is not that people in the Middle Ages weren't aware of prepubescence, pubescence, and full adulthood. One reason Henry VIII was able to annul Catherine of Aragorn's marriage to his brother and marry her himself was that most people believed Catherine's assertion that  Arthur had not reached the point where he had matured enough to consummate anything.

The differences lie not in supposed medieval stupidity (oh, they thought child were little adults!) but in the underlying assumptions of how children and adults should be treated. As I state in the original post:
What strikes me in any overview of the Middle Ages is the sheer expediency of the ruling classes: the kid looks old enough to be married even though he hasn't hit puberty? Hey, let's marry him to a princess. The young man can lift a sword, so give him an army.
In sum, a major part of understanding history is understanding the questions and issues that don't get asked, don't get raised. Why didn't medieval people send their kids off to craft camp? Or give them Montessori-type educations?

I currently completed a response to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's utopia novella Herland (1915). I was struck by two of her assumptions (one modern; one medieval):

(1) Gilman promotes childhood as a time of growth that contains specific characteristics, characteristics that should be nurtured and allowed to thrive.
(2) Gilman believes that children can be formed by education.

Gilman was right about the specific characteristics. She was chillingly wrong about "forming" children to a theoretical outcome. That is, Gilman wasn't promoting education in order to give kids basic skills (go forth and do whatever you want!) but, rather, to make those kids into certain types of people. Keep in mind that Gilman, like many progressives of her era, believed equally in "breeding."

The idea that children are "blank slates" that can be formed/pressed into proper adults is an incredibly medieval idea.

It is also the fundamental problem of any utopia: the confidence belief that the system can override normal human tendencies and idiosyncrasies--as His in Herland addresses.

Another fundamental problem with utopias is the lack of awareness regarding actual work--see Fruitlands. But then Gilman was a woman of the upper classes and appears to have made all the usual assumptions of her class when it came to servants.

Assumptions of any class/time period are incredibly powerful, so powerful we might not see them until aliens show up and are shocked--shocked, I say!--by our weird tendencies to assume that children should interact with other children or that babies should be carried or...whatever. It isn't so much how society raises our children that tokens the time period but all the things it never occurs to that society to do--

Like, "Hey don't give that kid a sword and put him in charge of an army!"

No comments: