Daniel T. Kline

title.none: Finucane, The Rescue of the Innocents: Endangered Children in Medieval Miracles (Kline)

identifier.other: baj9928.9806.001 98.06.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel T. Kline , University of Alaska Anchorage,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Finucane, R. C. The Rescue of the Innocents: Endangered Children in Medieval Miracles. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 268. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-312-16213-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.06.01

Finucane, R. C. The Rescue of the Innocents: Endangered Children in Medieval Miracles. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 268. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-312-16213-8.

Reviewed by:

Daniel T. Kline
University of Alaska Anchorage

Well-known for his previous work, including Miracles and Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in Medieval England (London, 1977), and well-respected for his historical acumen, Ronald C. Finucane offers contemporary readers an important window into medieval life in the engaging and reasoned study, The Rescue of the Innocents: Endangered Children in Medieval Miracles. Following a thematic organization that examines childhood trauma surrounding birth, illness, and accident, Finucane focuses on the miraculous cure of children whose recovery was attributed to the intervention of the divinely blessed. These hagiographical sources, consisting mostly in eyewitness testimony and found in the records of both official ecclesiastical inquiries and ad hoc local compilations, provide the basis of Finucane's historical analysis in a most elusive arena: the emotional lives of medieval families within their specific cultures.

In the "Preface" Finucane briefly sets The Rescue of the Innocents in the context of the recent proliferation of historical studies concentrating on the medieval children and childhood, including Barbara Hanawalt's The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families of Medieval England (New York, 1986) and Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History (New York, 1993), Shulamith Shahar's Childhood in the Middle Ages (London, 1990), and James A. Schultz's The Knowledge of Childhood in the German Middle Ages, 1100-1350 (Philadelphia, 1995), as well as a number of important continental works. Responding to Philippe Aries' now superseded view that the Middle Ages had no understanding of childhood as a distinct phase of life or that medieval parents did not love their children (see Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life [New York, 1962]), Finucane weaves a cultural history of the late-medieval family and its understanding of the place, function, and worth of its children, and in each of five chapters he presents a brief but soundly reasoned, often comparative, analysis of the data revealed in the hagiographical sources ("Overview and Analysis").

Unlike many other types of historical sources, particularly legal records, which lack any reference to the affective domain, the hagiographical compilations Finucane examines extensively document the immediate and highly personal reactions of family, kin, and neighbors to childhood trauma. The "Introduction" (Chapter 1) lays out Finucane's objectives for the study, as well as the guidelines governing his choice of source material for The Rescue of the Innocents(p. 3). He examines eight "extensive" miracle collections, (1) from "saints" both with and without formal recognition, each with at least 100 reported miracles; (2) representing both northern and southern Europe; (3) including both "official" testimony before papal officials and "unofficial" testimony from those more locally attached to the saint or shrine; (4) and deriving from the cult of contemporaneous or "real" historical personages like Thomas Becket rather than legendary or historically removed saints like St. George. Accordingly, Finucane turns to the records associated with Thomas Cantilupe (d. 1282, canonized 1320), Dorotheas (Dorothy) von Montau (d. 1394, not canonized), Thomas Becket (d. 1170, canonized 1173), and King Henry VI (d. 1471, not canonized) from northern Europe, while Louis, bishop of Toulouse (d. 1297, canonized 1317), Chiara (Claire) of Montefalco (d. 1308, canonized 1881), Nicholas of Tolentino (d. 1305, canonized 1446), and Pope Urban V (d. 1370, never canonized) represent southern Europe. Of the 600 total cases involving children, 311 come from the North, 289 come from the South, and these form the database from which Finucane derives his conclusions.

Belying the historical and geographical variety of his material and the quality of his analysis, Finucane, ever the careful historian, demurs that "this work should be seen as an exploratory study, whose tentative findings can be verified, corrected, or negated only through the analysis of many more examples of illness, accident, and 'death' involving medieval children" (p. 6). Finucane concludes Chapter 1 by identifying different material practices by which medieval parents entreated a saint's intercession on behalf of their stricken child and resulted in a cure. Most often, these practices included making vows, offering prayers and going on pilgrimage; presenting cloth or wax votives, often in the shape of the child or the child's afflicted member, at holy sites; bending a coin over the stricken youngster; and "measuring" the child with a length of string, which would then be incorporated into a candle to be lit at the saint's shrine.

Chapter 2, entitled "Dangers of Birth and Early Infancy," draws upon 110 cases (59 from the North and 51 from the South) to describe the kinds of problems during pregnancy and childbirth about which medieval people sought saintly intervention. Saints were invoked for both the rescue of mothers and their children at every stage of parturition -- from assisting the couple in fertility and conception, through helping the mother through traumatic labor or postpartum complications, to aiding in the child's eventual delivery and early life, whether alive or stillborn, normal in appearance or hideously deformed. In one extraordinary account, after falling down the stairs, Christiana Taylor gave birth to a tiny deformed girl, "'a monstrous imitation' of a child," whose hips, thighs, and back were appallingly malformed and who was unable to keep down any food. The little girl, named Ysydora, persisted for nine months, after which time her parents invoked the aid of Henry VI and "took her measure." The child "began improving, mending from that day forward." Finucane notes that "[t]his very unhealthy female infant would seem to have been a prime candidate for immediate rejection; yet through parental care, Isadora Taylor survived -- at least through this dangerous phase of early childhood" (p. 25). Through this lens of problem pregnancies, difficult deliveries, and infant traumas, we also begin to understand the emotional reactions, domestic practices, and religious sensibilities surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy.

Along with these accounts in Chapter 2, Finucane elucidates the roles of midwives, wet-nurses, physicians, priests, and husbands at childbirth and during infancy and discusses "churching," baptism, and limbo and how these religious beliefs shaped the actions of medieval parents. Since according to church teaching an unbaptized child was banished to limbo apart from the presence of God, also potentially bringing shame to the family, medieval parents would beg for -- or perhaps even manufacture -- the "revival" of a dead infant so that the child might be baptized and therefore gain heaven. As a stop-gap measure, as is now more widely known, even midwives were empowered to administer the baptismal formula apart from priests in cases of extreme emergency (p. 44). In Finucane's capable hands, the hagiographical records reveal medieval parents' widely ranging and deeply committed emotional investment in the lives of their children. The chapter ends with a discussion about the vexing question of infanticide in the Middle Ages, which is addressed in the context of "overlaying" or the child being suffocated in bed or while nursing. After reviewing briefly the conclusions of scholars like Hanawalt, Trexler, and Boswell, Finucane allows that the hagiographical materials "do not provide much information on infanticide and abandonment" (p. 50), though these records do seem tentatively to indicate that "male neonates were the objects of parental concern more than three times as frequently as female. In 110 instances, the gender was indicated for 72 children; of these, 56 (78 percent) were boys, 16 (22 percent) girls" (p. 52). Nonetheless, in 18 of these cases, maternal rather than fetal aid was the focus of the miracle.

Chapter 3, "Medieval Families and Childhood Illnesses," concerns 334 cases from the papal and local miracle lists and approaches the problem of sickness through "categories that reflect medieval concepts of illness and disability" (p. 55). Finucane isolates nine basic categories, nearly all of which are recognizable to contemporary readers: (1) Children with Afflicted Limbs; (2) Neck and Throat Problems, Scrofula; (3) 'Gout,' Swellings, and 'Dropsy;' (4) Hernia, Rupture; (5) Stone, Other Genitourinary Problems; (7) 'Fevers' and the Plague; (8) Mental Afflictions: Dementia, Demoniacs, and Epilepsy; (9) Seeing and Speaking: Eye Afflictions and Mutism; (10) Miscellaneous Ailments; and (11) Unspecified Illness. Of these nine categories of childhood infirmity, illness, fever, and swelling account for roughly 50 percent of cases (figure 3.1, p. 97). Interestingly from a contemporary perspective, medieval parents grew alarmed at even the most minor scrapes, bruises, or swelling, for such simple conditions, particularly infections, could easily escalate into much more serious -- and often deadly -- ailments. Although Finucane does not diagnose medieval complaints in modern terms, he does marshal contemporary data at times to offer comparison; he describes research from third world countries to elucidate the prevalence of genitourinary stones among boys in the medieval accounts (pp. 66-67) and comments on the "miraculous" nature of the resuscitation of drowning victims even in contemporary research medical research (pp. 131-32), for example. As in the previous chapter, Finucane detects a gender disymmetry in the higher percentage of boys who receive divine intervention for illness earlier and at nearly double the rate of girls who receive the same attention (69.8 percent of boys versus 30.2 percent of girls; p. 96). These accounts of illness, often graphically gruesome in their detail, reveal not only the depth of the child's affliction and the parents' emotional states but also the extent of medical theory and associated practice.

In Chapter 3, the category of illness less commonly found in modern society is that of the "demoniac," and here Finucane makes an important foray into the cultural dynamics informing medieval perspectives on the etiology and treatment of "possession" (pp. 72-78). In the excessive behavior of a certain Guillelmina -- who exposes herself, curses filthily, eats dirt and refuse, and scratches and tears at her own body -- Finucane sees a "horrific inversion of the behavior expected of Christian children: she was supposed, presumably, to be demure, quiet, docile, and modest. Her actions, in stark contrast to this catalog of idealized proprieties, constitute a bizarre pantomime of the Virtues [sic; 'Vices'?] that sometimes featured in contemporary pulpit rhetoric. For example, [her activities] suggested, even parodied, the sins of gluttony, lust, anger, and perhaps even pride in attacking her natural superiors, her parents" (p. 74). Finucane's description of the "cultural script" informing this account of demonic possession opens the interesting possibility, which Finucane does not attempt systematically, of examining the hagiographical sources for other generic or cultural "scripts" informing the actions of parents who seek the help of saints for their sick children.

Much in the same way the medieval child was put at risk by the "internal" forces of sickness and disease, so the "external" world of the medieval family presented a series of deadly hazards. A child could fall into ponds, wells, streams, ditches, and water buckets; be burned at the hearth or by the cooking pot; be run underfoot by animals and carts; or fall through fences, rickety bridges, and other barriers. In fact, most of the 156 accident reports Finucane examines come from villages in the north, especially England, rather than from the urbes of the South (p. 101). In Chapter 4, "Childhood Accidents," Finucane isolates five basic categories of childhood accident -- (1) Burnings and Scaldings; (2) Drownings; (3) Animals and Work-Related Accidents; (4) The Dangers of 'Play'; and (5) Parental Neglect. One gets a clear sense of the rough and tumble milieu of medieval village and family life from these accounts, for the accidents generally occur during the normal course of work and play. Drownings, for example, the most common accident recorded by the papal notaries, tended also to be the most fully recorded, as in the case of young Joanna de la Wyle, who drowned on April 18, 1288, and then was revived through the intercession of Thomas Cantilupe. This account, which Finucane translates in an appendix (pp. 169-206), comprises "eighteen folios of the Vatican manuscript" and "is probably the single most extensively reported 'miracle' attributed to any saint of medieval England" (p. 117). The transcription, in itself an interesting case study, also helps readers to come to grips with the nature of Finucane's other hagiographical sources, and the interrogation indeed resembles a carefully adduced "script" by the papal legates in search of the truth of Joanna's drowning and subsequent revival.

Finucane's comparative analysis in Chapter 4 raises a number of intriguing questions for historians and social scientists. He finds that of the 156 children injured in the miracle accounts, 101 were boys (65 percent) and 55 were girls (35 percent). Interestingly, these are the same as percentages in many contemporary studies (roughly two to one), excluding injury by firearms and automobile (p. 141). Likewise, children in both medieval and modern society tend to be more prone to serious injury through accident before the age of four, after which the risk drops precipitously (p. 143). Again, taking the cases of drowning as his primary example, Finucane notes that the medieval pattern corresponds to the modern in that younger children are more at risk at home while older kids, "because of their greater independence of movement, higher level of curiosity, and more advanced physical development" (p. 147), are injured more often away from home (p. 146-47). Finucane also confronts the problematic question of parental neglect and child abuse. Certainly, the medieval period saw its share of abusive parents and adults, but not to the extent that would support the popular conception that parents in the Middle Ages were generally indifferent to their children.

The final chapter of Rescue of the Innocents is devoted to Finucane's "Conclusions," specifically in comparing the data from northern and southern Europe for any significant patterns. First, Finucane declares that the hagiographical material unquestionably "overflow[s] with parental anguish, profound depression and grief, and physical and mental incapacity and collapse suffered by parents in their shock at a child's injury, illness or assumed death" (p. 151), whether from the North or South, and although the expression of grief was socially moderated according to the needs of decorum, such prohibitions stopped neither mothers nor fathers of all social classes from articulating their grief, sometimes extravagantly. Second, consistent with comparable studies, Finucane finds that beginning at birth boys were more often the subject of healing and of parental vows than were girls, probably because "in a profoundly male dominated society, male children were valued more highly than female offspring (p. 161). Third, although the North and South represented roughly the same number of miracle cases (52 to 48 percent), the South presented more cases of illness (1.7 to 1), the North more accidents (4.5 to 1), and both an equal number of birth emergencies (p. 163), with the differences due possibly to climate, family structure, the urban context of the southern reports versus the relatively more rural setting of the northern miracles.

As one might expect, The Rescue of the Innocents is fully documented and indexed; Finucane's notes and bibliography are an education in themselves and provide an excellent starting point for further investigation. The book is suitable for the general reader but has much to offer the medieval specialist, whether in history, literature, or the social sciences, and I can see it being used profitably in both undergraduate and graduate courses, especially in conjunction with the increasingly popular "sourcebooks" being used today (Emilie Amt's Women's Lives in Medieval Europe [New York, 1993] comes immediately to mind). Finucane ends The Rescue of the Innocents: Endangered Children in Medieval Miracles with an invitation: "Thousands of cases are waiting to be investigated" (p. 168). We will look forward to Finucane's next foray into the archives and hope that others will both accept his invitation and model their own work after his fine example.