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Providers and Educators: The Theory and Practice of Fatherhood in Late Medieval Basel, 1475-1529

Providers and Educators: The Theory and Practice of Fatherhood in Late Medieval Basel, 1475-1529


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Providers and Educators: The Theory and Practice of Fatherhood in Late Medieval Basel, 1475-1529

By Philip David Grace

PhD Dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2010

Abstract: The dissertation uses sources from fifteenth-century Basel, including municipal court records, personal letters, and pedagogical treatises, to examine the ways that humanists and other late medieval people thought about and practiced fatherhood. Using Basel as a case-study reveals important connections between the various roles that fathers played. Two roles stand out: father as provider and father as educator.

Provision of food and clothing in the present was the foundational experience of fatherhood; surrogate caregivers connected their care of children in the present with providing for their future through inheritance. Furthermore, fathers used provision as an incentive to encourage morality and obedience in their children, and the food and clothing that fathers provided were focused sites for instruction in and demonstration of one’s social virtues. Providing for the future was influenced by the sex of the child; inheritance and marriage arrangements could apply to both sons and daughters, entry into a cloister was primarily for daughters, and vocational training and formal education were almost entirely for sons. Even provision for the future was rooted in practical considerations.

Fathers had a primary responsibility to see to the moral and academic education of their children. Formal education was closely associated with moral education, as bad behavior could damage one’s material fortunes as well as one’s reputation. Fathers were thought to combine the authority necessary to enforce discipline in their children with the affection necessary to discipline them for their benefit. Moreover, fathers were thought to provide an example which their children would imitate, whether for good or for ill. The importance of fathers as a symbol of instruction and advice caused other educators to borrow fatherly status for themselves, making the alliance between fathers and teachers fraught with tension. The unique significance of fathers to medieval people derived from their location at the intersection of education and provision. There were many affectionate comrades and many forms of authority in medieval society, but only fathers were both.

Introduction: In the decades around 1500, royal, municipal, religious, and guild authorities across Europe attempted to exert greater control over their subjects. When they did so, they chose fatherhood as a metaphor and mechanism for enhancing that power. During the sixteenth century, city councils across German-speaking regions passed laws that attempted to bring all residents under the control of individual male householders. For example, according to a 1580 decree in Munich, servants were forbidden to leave the house without their employers’ permission, or to take food out of the house. The decree also forbade citizens to rent rooms or store possessions for single men or women who did not have a position as a servant or employee. An Augsburg law ordered all single spinners to live in the household of a male weaver, rather than on their own. These examples are taken from the sixteenth century, but the trend toward regulation of servants within a household began in the fifteenth century. The legislating authorities saw the social role of fatherhood and the micro-institution of the household as the solution to a perceived need for more stability and organization in their society.


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