1 Edit: Someone is gonna get me for not specifying a culture. Is asking about “whatever you can answer” permitted? If not, then I guess Medieval Europe.
2 Edit: Just thought of something else. If infant mortality rates were so much higher, did parents not grow attached to children until a certain age?
3 Edit: My bad on 2 edit.
The first place to begin is probably a bit in the way of disclaimer. Even Medieval Europe (Which is my primary focus) is too big and too diverse of a place to speak of generally with much confidence. Cultures deal with death in many ways, and there is simply too much variance to speak without glossing over a lot.
The second disclaimer is much like the first: Grief is an intensely personal emotion. As anyone who has attended a funeral will know, different people deal with death in radically different ways, even within the same society.
With that out of the way, let’s begin with a quote from Augustine’s *Confessions.*
> My heart was utterly darkened by this sorrow and everywhere I looked I
saw death. My native place was a torture room to me and my father’s house a
strange unhappiness. And all the things I had done with him–now that he was
gone–became a frightful torment. My eyes sought him everywhere, but they did not
see him; and I hated all places because he was not in them, because they could not
say to me, “Look, he is coming,” as they did when he was alive and absent.
Augustine, here, is reflecting on the loss of a close friend, and I think the patterns of expression here are not ones to which we moderns are unfamiliar. Shared things becoming painful, a constant state of sadness, looking for the person you lost and not finding them, these are feelings that to us, seem normal. Augustine, further, sees these as part of a common pattern of human emotion. He goes on to think about why people *in general* have these feelings and act in these ways, clearly operating under the assumption that these are normal patterns of emotion.
However, for Augustine, this presents something of a difficulty, because he sees this sort of excessive grief as possibly separating people from God. Since death is part of the natural order, and indeed death is how people return to God, excessive grief, for Augustine, can be seen as a kind of rebellion against the social and religious order, and is therefore potentially dangerous. On the other hand, he himself recognizes that he is only aware of this because time has healed the wound and given him time to grow and reflect. In short, there is a tension between the natural, human reaction to grief and the potential excess of grief as life denying.
I start with Augustine, despite the fact that he is outside my period by some centuries (He is late Roman), because he stands at an important intellectual crossroads, that cause him to be a useful guide to later thought across a broad range of European and Mediterranean societies. As probably the most important Christian Theologian after Paul, Augustine’s thought would be tremendously influential in Medieval and later Christianity. However, as someone seriously informed by the classical tradition (One can hear echoes of Aristotle’s call for moderation in all things in Augustine’s concerns about excessive emotion), Augustine’s sources if not his own work would continue to be influential in the Muslim world as well. (Though I’m not sure at all how much, if at all, Augustine was read in the Islamic world through the middle ages, I would not be shocked if he was read, and other classical authors in similar veins certainly were.)
This tension, between the religious and personal implications of excessive grief, and the natural human reaction to loss are well attested in many other sources. Though I only have access to the first bit of it on Google Books, Carol Lansing’s *Passion and Order: Restraint of Grief in the Medieval Italian Communes* goes into detail on a particularly interesting case. In some Medieval Italian cities, particularly in the fourteenth century, wailing and other such displays were banned, often either without reference to gender, or specifically in references to displays from women, however, when we look at enforcement, we find more than 200 cases, almost all prosecuted against men. Mourning is particularly gendered, here, with men expected to restrain emotion because of their place in the public sphere of law, justice, and so on. There is a clear worry that this sort of extremity of emotion is a danger to the social order.
On the other hand, there *were* more than 200 recorded violations (And presumably a much larger number of unprosecuted violators) and these laws were far from universal. Indeed, there is also clearly a space for extreme grief, even among men. Lansing refers particularly to Charlemagne in the *Song of Roland,* who faints upon seeing the dead Roland, and upon waking, laments for the lost knight. Indeed, Lansing points out that this would have likely been expected, and for Charlemagne to *not* react in such a was would be seen a dishonorable, and disrespectful to the great deeds Roland had done.
This tension is recorded in Islamic sources as well. Several authors of consolation books warn that grief over loss can lead to rage and blasphemy against God, and some extreme examples of proper behavior show stoic acceptance or even happiness at the loss of a child, because those who lose a child will supposedly be rewarded by God. However, there is also clearly wide understanding that these are extremes, and many of those consolation books are attempts to channel mourning into what are seen as healthy religious patterns.
Some Italian Humanists, like Petrarch, would frame this tension as being between reason and emotion. He writes:
>Shall I indulge in tears and sighs and in place of my lost friend, shall I embrace
my sorrow incessanty? Or shall I strive to appease my mind and to escape
from the echoing threats of fortune into the stronghold of reason? The latter
appears preferable, the former more pleasing; virtue drives me to one; feeling
bends me to the other
Virtue, here, particularly because of the Classical impulses of writers like Petrarch, has a strong philosophical bent in particular. There are a lot of different traditions coming out of Greco-Roman Philosophy, but many, if not most, are somewhat hostile to emotional displays of grief. Platonist, because they believe that the soul survives, and grief is therefore irrational, Stoics, for fairly obvious reasons, Aristotelian for the aforementioned moderation based reasons. So here the tensions are placed in a more secular framework that we moderns may find more recognizable, between rational acceptance and the emotion of the moment. For Petrarch, in the end, at least in this work, emotion wins out, which I think illustrates well the limits of this kind of normative philosophy or theology. Grief and loss are no respecters of persons
So I think it’s fair to say that while behaviors toward grief, and expectations toward mourners could vary depending on the circumstances, the emotion, the intensity of pain, the personal experience of losing someone you cared about was very much the same as it is now. There is also a widespread recognition, then as now, that whatever we may normatively expect, theoretically ideal behavior, cannot be fairly expected of people who have suffered a recent loss.
I’ll leave off from the childhood debate. I have my thoughts, but it’s not my field, and it’s such a rich area of debate that I’d want to spend a fair bit more time with the sources and evidence before I rendered an opinion publicly.
* Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Albert Outler, Southern Methodist University, 1955.
* Gilʿadi, Avner. “‘The Child Was Small… Not So the Grief for Him’: Sources, Structure, and Content of Al-Sakhawi’s Consolation Treatise for Bereaved Parents.” Poetics Today, vol. 14, no. 2, 1993, pp. 367–86. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/1773124.
* Lansing, Carol. Passion and Order: Restraint of Grief in the Medieval Italian Communes. Cornell University Press, 2008.
* McClure, George W. Sorrow and Consolation in Italian Humanism. Princeton University Press, 2014. Project MUSE, https://muse.jhu.edu/book/34484.
* Murphy, Eileen M. “Children’s Burial Grounds in Ireland *Cilliní* and Parental Emotions Toward Infant Death.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, vol. 15, no. 3, Sept. 2011, p. 409. link.springer.com, doi:10.1007/s10761-011-0148-8.