Mates, Mischief and Make-Believe at Manchester Metropolitan University

The Social Sciences and Ancient Children

For the world of classical Antiquity, where demographics dictated that young people were everywhere, children and adolescents are remarkably silent in our source material. We know comparatively little about their positions in society, let alone their experience, their concerns and what they found comforting, frightening, entertaining or even what they aspired to. So how can we even begin to understand youth cultures in the ancient past?

In the course of our respective research on ancient children, we’ve considered theoretical approaches from the Social Sciences to help us to understand the lives, concerns and outlooks of our ancient children and adolescents. In particular what sociologists and historians mean by ‘agency’ in the context of childhood, is one question where our historical sources can enlighten contemporary understanding of youth (previous posts on these pages have shown where we’ve aimed to do this).

Hide and Seek!

These approaches drawn from modern childhood and youth studies, and our historical analysis, together allow us to seek out hidden aspects of ancient children’s engagement with the world around them. But there are many players in this game of hide and seek. The aim of my new research network, Hide and Seek. Past and Present Perspectives on Children’s Agency is to bring together scholars and practitioners of youth and childhood studies, to collaborate on new insights into aspects of youth cultures, both historically and with contemporary young people. Research questions include: how do young people respond to expectations of them in certain contexts? How do they shape their experience of their environment? Are their ‘cultures’ distinct from those oMates,-Mischief-and-Make-Believef adults, or do ‘adult’ and ‘child’ cultures respond to one another in more complex ways? The network plans to host a number of events over the coming years, asking such questions in relation to children and young people in the past and in the present.

Here at Manchester Metropolitan University, numerous Faculty members in Humanities, Languages, and Social Science are working on children and youth from an array of different disciplines and perspectives. Our first international network meeting, Mates, Mischief and Make-Believe. Children’s Peer Cultures, Past and Present , was generously supported by Manchester Metropolitan University and two of its research centres: the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies and the Manchester Centre for Regional History. The day focused on one aspect of children and young people’s cultures: young people’s agency within peer groups. The outcome of this one-day meeting was fruitful in many respects; discussion extended across temporal borders, with researchers on historical youth not only benefiting from the approaches of social scientists, but also contributing to wider research questions by adding cultural depth with historical case studies.

The first session raised important questions about culturally determined and agency-led identity and performance; a socio-linguistic analysis of conversations with young people on the fringes of Manchester’s education system, opened a discussion of language and behaviour as performative, which was key to understanding youth peer cultures in ancient Greek military contexts, boys’ clubs of inter-war Britain and contemporary studies of well-being among young people across Greater Manchester. Behaviour deemed as ‘transgressive’ by some, was the theme emerging from three papers dealing with young people in Late Antiquity, Byzantium and the contemporary classroom; we revisited how we define ‘transgressive’ in different cultural and educational contexts in contemporary and historical youth. The more playful aspects of children’s lives were the focus of two papers on  responses to 18th century children’s literature, and children’s production of playthings from ancient Egypt, by comparison with recent anthropological studies of children and their dolls in Africa. For the full programme, and participants’ profiles, see below.

The broad and cross-cultural questions we asked about aspects of youth, both in the past and the present, lay at the heart of working with children and adolescents for all of the assembled historians, socio-lingusists,  criminologists, sociologists and classroom practitioners. How do children and adolescents ‘perform’ in specific physical and social environments? How does their behaviour  upturn the notion of a passive ‘socialization’ into adult society?

Our project on Oxyrhynchos’ youth picks up on some of these themes, and our associated publications (in press and forthcoming) continue to make use of the sociological scholarship to do this.



Colloquium Participants and Programme, April 2016


April Pudsey (MMU, History) Mates, Mischief and Make-Believe. Approaching the Study of Children and Young People’s Cultures


Rob Drummond (MMU, Languages, Linguistics and TESOL) Urban Youth Language and Identity

Owen Rees (MMU, History) Peers and Adolescence in Ancient Greek Military Contexts

Melanie Tebbutt (MMU, History) ‘The Age of Feeling’: Adolescence and Emotion in the Boys’ Clubs of Inter-War Britain

Haridhan Goswami (MMU, Sociology) Social Relationships and Children’s Well-Being: Role of Peer Groups



 Rachel Holmes and Maggie MacLure (MMU, Education and Social Research) Transgressive Behaviours: On Becoming a Problem in School

Ville Vuolanto (Oslo, Philosophy, Classics, History of Ideas)     Elite Children of Late Antiquity – The Problem of Peer Cultures

Oana Cojocarou (Oslo, Philosophy, Classics, History of Ideas) Child Bullying in the Middle Byzantine Period



Feike Dietz (Uttrecht, Languages, Literature and Communication) The Fiction of Peer Learning in Eighteenth Century Youth Literature

Ada Nifosi (Canterbury, Kent, Archaeology) Dolls, Play and Ritual in Ancient Egypt



Future Network Events

A second colloquium is planned for October 2016, kindly supported by the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies, and will zoom in on one other aspect of youth: dealing with trauma and/or conflict. A programme will be available soon, but please email if you would like to be involved.

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