The Holy Family, attributed to Ambrogio Lorenzetti of Siena (c. 1345)
The Holy Family, attributed to Ambrogio Lorenzetti of Siena (c. 1345)
Me and my father; photo by Claire Morris Photography
Me and my father; photo by Claire Morris Photography

It is Father’s Day here in the UK and in several other countries. Like many of you, I’m sure, I called my dad this morning, and as seems to be the trend these days I changed my Facebook profile picture to a sweet photo of me and my father. It’s a photo I particularly love because it captures a very special moment for me – a dance my dad and I had at my wedding last year. It wasn’t an official Father-Daughter dance – that’s an American tradition which hasn’t quite taken off in the UK – but was instead just spontaneous dance that hardly anyone saw, as the dance floor was quite empty. Our photographer happened to capture it, and now when I see it I remember that quiet moment of emotional intimacy as we danced to slow jazz.

Of course in the middle ages such moments are not captured as they happen. But finding any form of visual representation of fatherhood is difficult. It took me a very long time to find an image for the cover of my book, because secular representations of fatherhood are so rare. Even religious imagery of fathers and their children is not as common as one might assume. Here I have inserted a lovely image of the Holy Family – the Virgin is knitting, which is charming, and the whole scene has a pleasant domesticity to it – but such scenes are hugely outnumbered by images of the Virgin and Child. Although the cult of St Joseph grew in significance in the later middle ages, he has always been a bit player in the religious drama of Christ’s childhood. The fathers and sons of the Old Testament get a decent representation, though Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, for instance, gives a different sort of representation of parenthood than the Child sat placidly on the Virgin’s lap!

Philippe Ariès’ Centuries of Childhood was for a long time a text that profoundly shaped scholars’ interpretation of medieval childhood and family life. Given that Ariès mostly used visual sources to come to his conclusions about medieval childhood and parenting, it’s not surprising that fathers barely make an impression on his text. Historians such as Nicholas Orme have roundly refuted Ariès’s conclusions about medieval children, and the history of childhood is now a dynamic area of study for medievalists. And yet fatherhood has remained a strange critical vacuum. The father assumed to be central to the medieval household as authority figures, and yet his role and relations with the members of that household have been barely interrogated. With my book I aimed to address that problem somewhat, and of course if you’re interested I invite you to check it out! This isn’t the place to outline the whole thesis of my book, though. Instead I want to share just a small anecdote of fifteenth-century medieval life, where we can very clearly see the affective ties between father and son. This may serve as a kind of snapshot, like my wedding photo, of a moment in time. Recorded briefly in letters, like my photograph it does not provide a complete picture of the relationship between a father and his child, but at the same time a whole story of familial feeling is captured in it.

In the winter of 1479 George Cely, a young wool merchant was struck down by a serious illness, and Richard Cely senior’s concern for his son is evident (George’s brother is Richard junior). Richard senior seems to have been the kind of man who fretted, and the mercantile trade had inherent risks for his sons. For instance, he wrote to Richard junior anxiously telling him not to cross the Channel if the weather was bad, and relayed the same information to George a week later. But his love and concern for George were never more palpable than in letters both from himself and by other family members in November and December 1479.

Late 1479 was a plague year in London. An epidemic was afoot, which naturally enough spread from England to the mercantile colonies of Calais, Bruges and Antwerp. Richard senior’s location in London must have meant he was well aware of the spread of the disease, and so when news of George’s illness first reached the family it is understandable that he was deeply concerned:

“I understand by [from] John Rose that you were sore sick at Bruges, wherefore your mother and both brothers and Will Maryon and I were sore and heavy for you.”

Less than a week later, Richard senior wrote an anxious second letter:

“Be as merry as you can, and spare for no cost of such things as may be good for you in meat and drink; and your physicians, do their counsel and please them at my cost… I would not that you labour at the mart: keep yourself well in any wise. I would rather my money were not received until another time than that you labour yourself and not be whole.”

Richard senior, often fussy and interfering (though perhaps with good cause) in matters of business, here sets them aside without a qualm to insist that his son prioritise his health. George wrote a reply to his father, but unfortunately his messenger took sick – probably with the same disease – and died en route. His letter was very delayed. We know this because Richard senior wrote a further anxious letter, “marvelling” that they had not heard from George yet, and not until 11 December could Richard senior write to George saying he had just received a letter dated the 21 November which had given their family “much comfort”.

A handful of years later, Richard Cely senior died. George Cely’s close friend John Dalton wrote to comfort him, imploring that George “take it patiently and hurt not yourself.” These are not by-rote words of condolence; they speak of anguish. George and Richard senior had, I am certain, a very deep love for one another. The Cely correspondence also suggests their relationship was occasionally fraught; but what young man, popular with the ladies and fond of dancing as George was, isn’t occasionally a source of worry to his father? And what twenty-something boy, forging a place for himself in his father’s business, isn’t occasionally impatiently resistant to his father’s no-doubt-excellent advice, as George was now and then to Richard’s? Such matters, however, were as easily put aside as profit margins when it came to each other’s health and well-being. Family relationships may not have been the same in the middle ages as they were today: but, I argue, their emotional content was every bit as rich and complex. Happy Father’s Day.