A couple of weeks ago we had a bit of a discussion in the comments about medieval children and their sleeping and playing arrangements. As a result, I’ve been reading about children this week.
One of the things that I already knew is that childhood was precarious. In the fourteenth century, you were just as likely to die before your twentieth birthday as you were to reach it. If you did reach it, you would probably live another twenty-eight years. It wasn’t unknown for people to live into their 80s, but 50 was a good age, regardless of which part of society you belonged to.
If you survived being born, you were already doing well. A pregnancy often ended with the death of mother and/or child. I’ll be looking at pregnancy and birth next year.
The world was a dangerous place for medieval babies. They often shared their parents’ bed and many were suffocated as a result. There are examples of sermons telling parents to put their children into cradles so that they would be safe. Then, as now, mothers sang lullabies to their babies. In well-off households older children slept in truckle beds: beds that were stored under their parent’s bed and were pulled out at night.
Medieval babies were swaddled, that is bound in cloths so they couldn’t move. One of my sources said that babies might be left alone all day while the parents went out to work. I suppose they thought there was no chance of them coming to any harm if they couldn’t move.
The high mortality rate and the swaddling and the leaving them alone all day might lead you to think that parents didn’t love their children, but they did. There are heart-breaking accounts of parents searching for lost children, of a father who drowned trying to save a child who had fallen into the river, and of grief at a child’s death. Even the king wasn’t immune. When Edward III’s second daughter, Joan, died during the Black Death at the age of 14, he wrote movingly of her loss.
Another expression of their love was strong discipline. The fourteenth century was a cruel time and children were beaten with sticks, by both parents, to enforce discipline. It was seen as a way of teaching them not to break the law. This was important in an age when a child as young as 7 could be hanged.
Life for most children changed when they reached 7. At that age they were expected to work, although they only payment they earned was their food and a roof over their heads. Boys who were going into a trade would begin their apprenticeship. The sons of noble families went to the household of a maternal uncle to learn how to be knights and the sons of people who lived on the land went into the fields with their fathers.
This is not to say that they hadn’t been working before this. It was the task of young children to keep the birds away from freshly-sown seed and to forage for firewood, nuts, berries and shellfish. Girls were already learning how to spin and boys were learning how to shoot with a bow and arrow.
There was a very basic education for everyone. The parish priest would have a weekly class to teach the children about the seven deadly sins. For most this was the only education they received. The boys from wealthy families could go to one of the many schools attached to cathedrals, Benedictine monasteries, friaries or convents, for which their parents had to pay. The main object of the schools was to teach them Latin. Those going to university went at 14.
Boys came of age at 14 and girls at 12. This was the age at which they could be married, although most girls weren’t expected to consummate their marriage until they were 14.
When the question about medieval children was raised, it was more about how they played and what kind of toys they had. I was surprised to discover that there were toys that could be bought in the fourteenth century. These were mainly spinning-tops and lead knights. Children of the poor played outside in the street, much as I and the other children in my road did in the 60s, when it was still more or less safe to do so. You didn’t really need toys if you had a bit of imagination.
One last point about the cruelty of the age: cock-fighting was regarded as a children’s game.
The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer
A Social History of England – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod