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Global Youth


An interdisciplinary research centre that examines what it means to grow up in a global world


Adolescence and Belonging in Medieval Europe, c.1000–c.1250: A new British Academy Project

By UCL Global Youth, on 11 November 2021

Guest post by Dr Emily Ward, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of History at UCL

The two and a half centuries between c.1000 and c.1250 were years of religious, socio-economic, legal and political change across the European continent. Many of these changes directly affected the lives of young people. Expanding urban centres brought increasing opportunities for work, education and social activities. New monastic orders turned to adolescents and youths to invest in their vision and participate in their efforts. The introduction of greater definition and additional restrictions around inheritance, wardship and legal majority altered aspects of rites of passage. My current project, funded by the British Academy (PF20\100057), seeks to illuminate how adolescents navigated the transition to adulthood at this time of wider societal change across medieval Europe. I adopt a comparative methodology to examine the experiences of young men roughly aged between twelve and twenty-five across four different environments: knightly (young squires and knights), monastic (adolescent novices), urban (students and apprentices) and clerical (non-monastic religious).

Pairing adolescence with the politicized concept of belonging draws attention to the impact of change on young people from different backgrounds and social statuses. That adolescence is culturally and socially constructed will hardly be news to those reading the Centre for Global Youth’s blog, but the historical significance of this stage of life is perhaps less widely appreciated. Adolescence is still viewed as something of a modern ‘phenomenon’ even though, both today and in the past, these are years which are pivotal to understanding how belonging is ‘constructed across one’s lifespan’ (Lähdesmäki et al., 2016).

Across the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adolescence was recognised as a crucial time for forming social bonds, moulding expectations of conduct, determining personality and influencing moral development. During these years, young people often learnt, developed and practiced the customs and skills deemed appropriate to their place in society. Tensions between familial expectations and an individual’s personal will can be brought into sharper focus during adolescence, a time when many young people left home or made decisions regarding the communities and social groups within which they ‘belonged’. When John, the adolescent son of a knight from Northampton, defied his parents’ wishes to join the small Franciscan community in his hometown in the opening decades of the thirteenth century, he did so by publicly communicating his desire to belong to the brethren instead of to his family (De adventu fratrum, ed. Little, 1951).

In addition to exploring adolescent belonging from a personal perspective, my project also considers facets of political and institutional belonging, while remaining aware of the need for flexibility to encompass the often overlapping and intertwined nature of these two aspects. Because adolescence was deemed to be a time when young people could still be moulded by those around them, adolescents often faced constraints on their speech, actions and behaviour. I will be considering questions such as: how did different areas of medieval society attempt to exclude (or include) young men? How did adults exert control over adolescents’ social, romantic and sexual relationships, their physical and psychological development, and their life choices and independence? And what can we determine of adolescent acceptance, or resentment, of the political, legal or institutional restrictions and expectations imposed upon them?

Examining adolescent experiences and notions of adolescence throughout medieval Europe poses several challenges. Participatory research – a crucial aspect of modern youth studies – is, of course, impossible when centring on the lives of young people who lived several centuries ago. Consulting a wide variety of surviving sources helps overcome this by shedding light on different aspects of adolescence over the period. Letters and autobiographical writings recall some of the conflicting expectations and social pressures adolescents confronted. Chroniclers and biographers stress adolescence’s significance as an educationally formative phase of life when young men learnt their roles in a military environment, often testing themselves against their peers. Collections of exempla furnish a range of moralising tales and cautionary stories of young adolescents in monastic communities which can be revealing of adult attempts to regulate adolescent behaviour. Similar efforts to influence and control young people’s sense of ‘belonging’ can also be observed in pedagogical tracts which present ideals of adolescent conduct. Literary works further augment this impression through representations of fictional adolescent lives which were intended to resonate with the experiences and emotions of their audiences.

Examining the multifaceted ways in which ideas about belonging entwined with concepts of adolescence and adolescent experience provides a valuable lens through which to consider young people’s place in medieval society, elucidating facets of wider societal change between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.

About the author:  Dr Emily Joan Ward is a medieval historian and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based in the Department of History at UCL. Her first monograph, Royal Childhood and Child Kingship: Boy Kings in England, Scotland, France and Germany, c.1050–1262, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press (2022). Her research interests include life cycle and gender, rulership and authority, and documentary culture and historical writing.

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