Juanita Feros Ruys: Sound parental advice is timeless

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Modern parents may be surprised to find relevant guidance in medieval text.

Child-rearing advice in ancient texts can still ring true for today's parents.
Child-rearing advice in ancient texts can still ring true for today's parents.

Are you a helicopter parent, hovering around your offspring at all times? Perhaps "snowplough" or "free range" is more your style. Or maybe you should give medieval parenting a shot. Much of the advice on raising children in ancient texts still resonates today.

A great number of premodern - medieval (c.500-1500) and early modern (c.1500-1800) - advice texts appear to be concerned with regimenting behaviour, imposing emotional control (especially upon young women) and supplying long lists of dos and don'ts - the former generally aimed at boys, the latter at girls.

Reading texts that advise young women to keep their eyes demurely lowered, their hands and feet still, and not to go gadding about town like a "giddy girl" can arouse the ire of the modern reader.

We might wonder why premodern parents blindly enforced such social expectations, instead of encouraging their children to subvert them. Yet medieval and early modern parents, penning advice texts to their children, often wrote under straitened circumstances without any assurances about their own life or that of their child.

For Dhuoda, a woman living in the 9th century in what is now the south of France, the advice (Liber Manualis) she wrote for her 16-year-old son William was literally a matter of life and death.

Caught up in the in-fighting over the Carolingian kingdom by Charlemagne's sons after his death, William was being held as a hostage to enforce his father's loyalty to the Emperor.

Again and again Dhuoda anxiously admonishes her son: Be loyal to your Emperor, be loyal to your father.

Unfortunately, with the rebellion of his father against the Emperor, William could not do both. He followed his father. And both were put to death.

Illustration / Rod Emmerson

A number of pregnant authors in the early 17th century were aware of the era's high perinatal death rate and wrote advice for their unborn, given they might not be able to give their children any life guidance in person.

Several authors were sadly prescient, dying in childbirth. What mother, facing death and a limited opportunity to advise her child, would advise them to flout social norms, rather than observe them?

What of table etiquette? We can laugh now at texts of advice, which first began to appear in Europe in the 12th century, that warned young men not to blow their nose on the tablecloth or wipe their hands on the communal bread.

Yet such texts have their place. They remind us, for one thing, that every cultural practice or form of behaviour, however "natural" or "obvious" it now seems, has a history.

Did premodern parents care for their children's happiness? Perhaps most disturbing for modern readers of medieval parental advice texts is how little the emotional constitution of their child appeared to concern parents.

But personal individual happiness, especially if gained at a cost to social cohesion, is a very modern concept. Medieval parents wanted their children to be many things - loyal, steadfast, honest, brave (boys), demure (girls), circumspect, respectful, respected - but "happy" was not explicitly one of them.

In a sense, happiness was assumed as the inevitable outcome for the child who lived his or her life right. Blessedness - a more sublime form of happiness, perhaps - would result if the child lived a good life, made a good death, and passed through to the next life that had no end.

This is not to say that medieval parents had no concept of their own child's individuality. In Hamlet, Shakespeare ridiculed what had, by his time, become the sort of "old-fashioned" advice offered by medieval parents to their children through Polonius and the sententious advice he offers his son Laertes.

Every line Polonius utters contains solid medieval parenting advice - stay silent rather than speak, dress well but not ostentatiously, neither lend nor borrow money - and every line is meant to depict a querulous old man out of touch with new mores.

Yet Polonius ends with the words:

This above all: to thine own self be true.

In a way that collapses the historical divide, this could form the core of parenting advice today.

Dr Juanita Feros Ruys is a senior research fellow and associated director of the Medieval and Early Modern Centre at the University of Sydney.

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