Babysitters and Breadwinners: Constructing the Social Role of Fatherhood

The nobull kyng dwelled at hom,
Wyth full hevy chere;
Wyth karefull hert and drury mone,
Sykynges made he many on
For Egarye the clere.
And when he sawe chylderen play,
He wepte and sayde, “Wellawey,
For my sone so dere!”
Such lyf he lyved mony a day,
That no mon hym stynte may,
Fully seven yere.

In the Middle English romance Emare, the heroine (using the assumed name Egare) marries a king. The king goes away to war, and the pregnant Emare gives birth to a son, Segramour. The king’s wicked mother writes a letter to the king falsely claiming that Emare has given birth to a monster. Rather than casting out his wife, though, the king asks that she be treated kindly. So his mother burns his letter and forges another, which orders that Emare and her child be put out to sea in a boat. The king returns and discovers what has happened, and his grief is poignantly recorded in the extract above.

I thought of this extract today after reading an article about parental instinct. As the author explains, recent research indicates that:

the neural underpinnings of the so-called maternal instinct aren’t unique to women, or activated solely by hormones, but can be developed by anyone who chooses to be a parent.

The research compared male same-sex couples with heterosexual couples who had all become first-time parents. When comparing the “parenting network” of pathways in the brain, the male partner in the heterosexual pairings showed weaker activation of the amygdala-centred network, which would indicate that mothers might naturally be “wired” to respond in a nurturing way to their infants – that is, that they had a “maternal instinct”. But then when the researchers looked at the same sex male couples, they found that their amygdala networks were responding much as women’s did. It would be easy to respond to this in a homophobic way and read the men in homosexual relationships to be more “feminine”. But there is no scientific reason to think this is true. Instead what the research seems to be showing is that it is time spent as a primary caregiver is what activates these networks. Gestational parents (let’s remember that not everyone who gives birth is a woman) may have an advantage of pregnancy and birth to spur on the activation of that network, but by and large what really seems to be happening here is that mothers are socially conditioned to play the role of primary caregiver and so reinforce those neural connections, while fathers are encouraged to play a secondary caregiving role.

One of the issues I address in my book is that, without really any evidence at all, medieval fathers are assumed to have been autocrats with little interest in their children’s lives beyond issues of familial duty. When I first started researching medieval fatherhood, it shocked me how many assumptions were made about premodern fatherhood (and parenthood generally) without really much recourse to source-based evidence. I assumed that fatherhood, clearly so deeply enmeshed into the daily fabric of medieval life and imagination, would have received a great deal of critical attention, but it had not. Here I may as well quote myself -

There is plenty of evidence that many fathers and stepfathers enjoyed good relationships with their children. Critical assumptions about medieval fathers have focused on the formal and hierarchic relationship between fathers and children, and have assumed that these structures resulted in cool and rigid relationships that were unable to become truly affectionate. I have demonstrated, however, that father-child – particularly father-son – relationships did not work despite these structures; they worked because of them.

Medieval society constructed father-child relationships that were built around a very clear awareness of a difference in position within the family. Fathers demanded deference; children expected advancement of their position (for instance through marriage or career opportunities). A father was a head of a household as well as a family, and he had ultimate authority. But the idea that this would preclude affectionate relationships is to fundamentally misunderstand the operation of medieval families.

The Holy Family at Work. From the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves.

The Holy Family at Work. From the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves.

Unfortunately, my book does not really deal with childhood; the offspring I talk about are mostly adolescents and young adults. Largely this is because it’s pretty difficult to find good sources about children in general (although if I were starting my research now, rather than several years ago, it would be easier, as the field of medieval childhood has really expanded!). Were fathers primary caregivers in the middle ages? I doubt it. The socio-economic functions of different household members were developed to both fulfil the needs of the household and to uphold social norms. It was seen as natural for mothers to take care of infants, and the role men played in the lives of their young children is mostly absent from the historical record. But texts like Emare hint at a world where fathers might not be “bringing up baby” but were certainly still involved in their young children’s lives. The King of Galys has never even met his son, and yet this was a desired child whose absence greatly pains him. This isn’t just an abstract pain of the loss of the next link in his patrilineal chain; he is profoundly and palpably moved by seeing children playing, which reminds him of the experiences he has now lost. I have also inserted here one of my favourite family images, from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves. In this image, the Virgin and St Joseph are both at work while the baby Jesus toddles in a charming wooden walker. Mary and Joseph are both doing work along gendered lines -weaving and carpentry – but they are also sharing the same domestic space. Those historians who are preoccupied with labelling domestic and public spaces as “female” or “male” seem to forget that the domestic space was, in the middle ages, always a workspace, and the boundaries of that workspace were undoubtedly flexible, based on the family’s needs. Baby Jesus may be talking to his mother, as the speech bubble seems to indicate, but he’s in Joseph’s sightline. Many medieval fathers, I am sure, would have worked with babies and toddlers underfoot, and would have roped children into work, too, long before they were old enough to become official apprentices. Just in very practical terms, the idea of the distant father, in a society where much of the economy was based around the household, simply cannot hold up to scrutiny. Perhaps the medieval father was the primary breadwinner – but in many medieval households, his wife had a vital economic role, too, and increasingly our studies of medieval urban life in particular suggest that a neat division of space and responsibilities into female/domestic and male/public is doing an injustice to the medieval family, patriarchal though it was.

One of the conclusions I came to in my book is that patriarchy is based around the role of the father – but also that fatherhood as a concept is carefully constructed to support patriarchy. Our idea of what it means to be a father is shaped by centuries (or millennia!) of indoctrination about the role of men and women in society. Modern science keeps showing what many feminists have long argued – that gendered difference is socially constructed. What’s interesting about these latest research findings is that it suggests that our social indoctrination is so deep that it actually affects the wiring of our brains. Gendered parental roles, then, are biological – but only in the sense that we teach our bodies, as well as our minds, to accept socially-constructed roles for parenthood. We assume that we think about parenthood in a very different way to our medieval forebears, but the way we blithely accept concepts such as ‘maternal instinct’ and ‘mother knows best’ when it comes to the raising of infants and young children, or the way many fathers are still described as babysitting when they are looking after their own children, suggests we may still be responding to deeply embedded cultural constructs that still resonate in our collective imagining of the family.

About menysnoweballes

Feminist medievalist, teacher of history, consumer of pop culture. Lecturer at the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. Blogging in a personal capacity.
This entry was posted in Book, Family History, Gender History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Babysitters and Breadwinners: Constructing the Social Role of Fatherhood

  1. Jeanne de Montbaston says:

    I love this. Another father who’s deeply emotionally connected to his child is the father in ‘The King of Tars’ – I think it’s Jane Gilbert who points out that both he and the child’s mother are utterly convinced that their apparently lifeless newborn is alive and can be saved, which is interesting.

    Btw, I’m sure you know the passage, but there’s a bit in the Paston letters where one grandfather writes to the other about ‘your grand-daughter and mine’ being able to read aged three, which suggests pretty close knowledge (as well as maybe the role of grandfather as a means of reinforcing those horizontal homosocial bonds?).

    • Oh indeed, thanks for reminding me of both examples! Proud grandfathers are pretty adorable. And The King of Tars and the blob-baby… I will have to revisit that – unsurprisingly when I think about it I tend to get caught up in the RACISM, but there is much more there to explore!

  2. Pingback: Carnivalesque 103 | Wynken de Worde

  3. Simon Doubleday says:

    Fascinating. I’m just starting work on similar issues in medieval Spain (Alfonso X), and am about to order a copy of your book!

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