A Medieval Childhood

Cradle

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.

Sources:

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

A Social History of England – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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43 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Family, Medieval Life

43 responses to “A Medieval Childhood

  1. Have you come across anything about girls from noble families also being sent away to other households? It’s interesting that the boys went to the household of a maternal uncle. I remember once reading that sisters’ sons could expect special protection from uncles, but can’t remember where. It may come back to me.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Interesting post. I’m trying frantically to remember the name of a book of medieval childhood, or at least its author, and coming up with nothing. Never mind. You probably know it anyway.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marraige in England made quite an impression on me when I read it decades ago. I seem to remember that he mentions swaddled children being hung up on the equivalent of coatpegs. He also suggested that the high mortality rate meant parents did not become attached to their children – I’m glad you see you don’t subscribe to that idea.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I suppose that if you’re going to swaddle a baby you could hang it up somewhere to keep it out of the way, but it sounds like a dreadful thing to do. My two main sources were very careful to say that parents loved their children and I don’t know why anyone would think that a high mortality rate would mean that they didn’t.

      Liked by 2 people

        • I’ve got the Stone and Aries books somewhere in one of my book boxes (books to keep, as opposed to books to be disposed of), so I can’t check what I’m about to say, but I think both writers held the view that parents were less inclined to love their children because their survival chances were so slim. Both books were ground-breakers in their day, but the view of children not being loved (and therefore less mourned when they died) has been regularly challenged ever since.

          I remember discussing this with a friend back in the 1970s, and he said the two positions weren’t necessarily incompatible. His point being: Parents may well have made a lesser emotional investment in their children than is customary today, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t grieve when they died.

          Liked by 3 people

          • I’m not a parent, but I can’t see how you could not be invested in them emotionally, yet still grieve. I would have thought the one follows the other.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I’m not a parent either, and neither was my friend! I think the point he was making was about the degree of emotional investment, rather than lack of same. Aries did quote some oddly matter-of-fact comments about the deaths of children, but to me they implied acceptance and resignation of/to the almost inevitable, rather than lack of feeling.

              After my last comment I googled Aries to check the accuracy of my hazy recollection, and saw that he’s been taken to task quite recently by Nicholas Orme in a book called Medieval Children (2001). The study of social history has grown enormously since the 1960s.

              Liked by 3 people

          • That sounds perfectly plausible.

            Liked by 3 people

      • As far as I know, all First American nations practiced some form of swaddling. The well-known cradleboard preferred by many plains nations was made to be strapped to a mother’s back, hung on a peg, or propped against something to keep baby upright. They stuffed the “potty area” with anything fluffy; milkweed, cattail, cottonwood, corn silk, etc.

        As soon as possible, children were toilet trained. No one, even the children, enjoyed anything about the cleaning processes. Most communities simply let toddlers run about naked or with the crotch area exposed.

        Since it seems medieval women used diaper clouts, and the most common cloths were wool and linen, the clouts had to be of one or both of those materials. Grease, of some kind, might have been used against rash. Is there any evidence of other absorbent materials being used in medieval swaddling?

        I wonder if women really got out of the house much with diapered infants?
        Church was mandatory, and pre-reformation church services were probably less time consuming, but the babies must have been miserable, smelly and LOUD! Child care had to have tethered women close to home.

        No wonder maidservants were common even for simple goodwives. Extra help seemed critical! How awful it must have been for the poorest mothers with few resources. Cloth of any kind was very dear, and cleaning materials few besides iffy water & rocks.

        Ohboyohboyohboy! More stuff to look up!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ll see what I can find out when I start finding out what the books have to say about pregnancy and childbirth.

          The English climate isn’t and wasn’t conducive to going around naked for most of the year, but that isn’t to say that it didn’t happen during the summer.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Quite interesting, the reality of this century, its a wonderful how they made it through childhood.. Im looking forward to reading more about this.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Interesting stuff April, though the cockfighting is a bit gruesome, I suppose medieval times were not for the faint hearted​!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, I wasn’t too thrilled about the cock-fighting, but I can see that it might be considered suitable, since the children could handle the birds themselves and there was less danger to them than in other activities of a similar nature.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Somewhere I read that foreigners often noted that English parents were cruel. The writer tended to think that the fathers wanted the children hardened to life and were fearful that mothers would coddle their own. Thus they sent children into other households. Women weren’t expected to be maternal toward other’s children, and would do a better job raising them than raising their own. Also, the writer noted that parents weren’t tempted to spend as much on other children, so their coffers grew by being parsimonious to non-kin.

    Will try to find the source of this observation.

    Frankly, I think parents were anxious to see that their children got the best training for trades and household management. Perhaps the consensus was that children simply made better futures for themselves by making connections. They had to make it on the merits of their obedience and industry, not from doting parents.

    What I haven’t been able to discern is if passing a business to an eldest son was as important in Medieval times as in later centuries. Were eldest sons trained by others to come back & take over when dad died?

    Did elder sons stay in their father’s households, or return upon making journeymen status, to make a smooth transition in ownership?
    It seems to me that medieval guilds didn’t really encourage sons staying home to train. I think it was all about the critical webs of connections, maintaining standards, pricing, and mutual safety.

    Perhaps boys who stood to inherit were sent into a household with a similar trade in hopes of an advantageous marriage with a daughter — thus increasing the total family wealth and connections. In times of iffy law enforcement, guilds and the networking they practiced, were the surest means of ensuring safe manufacturing and commerce.

    Younger sons were often sent to learn entirely different trades, presumably, to stop any sibling rivalry from crippling the family trade. The younger ones probably needed to work harder to prove themselves in order to earn a chance to set up in business. By law, his employer was to help supply certain items of the trade, appropriate clothes, & such, to help the newly qualified guild member start his own business. There are many accounts in the law rolls about suits against former employers for not “finding” or providing appropriately. Lucky was the young man whose employer had an eligible daughter to cement bonds through marriage!

    Girls needed to learn household management — just as arduous as any apprenticeship. Plus, there were apprenticeships available to them. Probably some employers were also tasked to find suitable husbands. The distaff side of medieval life still needs exploration. I would be grateful to anyone who could point me toward references on the subject!

    WOW! As always, April’s fascinating research stirs a whirlwind of questions. Thank you! A very enjoyable way to keep the gray cells sparking!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I haven’t really looked into apprenticeships and trades much. It’s not that relevant when I write novels about the sons and daughters of nobles. I’ve added it to my list of future subjects for a blog post, though.

      There are a few books specifically about women in the Middle Ages. I have two. Medieval Woman: Village Life in the Middle Ages is a fictional account of the life of a woman living on a medieval manor. Women in Medieval English Society ed. P.J.P. Goldberg is a collection of academic papers about women in England.

      Liked by 2 people

    • The foreigner’s comments on the odd habits of English parents sound familiar to me – I think they may have been made by a German visitor to Elizabethan England, who was struck by the high percentage of children from homes at almost level of society (aristocracy downwards) who were sent off for some form of service in other households.

      With regards to apprenticeships, I’m pretty sure that the guilds forbade anyone being apprenticed to his own father. That makes sense in terms of maintaining standards.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I’ve heard horror stories of what happens when when parents leave their babies alone today—diaper explosions and beyond—so I can’t even begin to imagine life with the medieval swaddle!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. lydiaschoch

    I’m tickled pink that you wrote a blog post about our conversation, April. Thank you for that.

    Wow, life was rough for children in the fourteenth century. I knew the mortality rates for babies and children were high, but I hadn’t realized that only half of them lived to see their twentieth birthday or that the average life expectancy was only 48.

    I’m really looking forward to your post(s) on pregnancy and birth next year.

    Out of curiosity, how far in advance do you plan out posts?

    Liked by 3 people

    • It was a good question and the answer was interesting, so thank you for asking it.

      Life was hard then. I always say that I’d like to visit the fourteenth century for a day or so, but I wouldn’t like to live there.

      To be honest, I don’t know what I’ll be writing about next week, but I’ve got a growing list of things I need to research for my current novel, one of which is pregnancy and childbirth. I know I won’t be writing about those topics until next year, because I’ve got to do the December pottage post and I’m leaning towards some posts about Advent and the twelve days of Christmas before then. It was much easier when I was doing a series.

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Amy

    I think that if we were faced with doing what the children did back then we’d get a big shock on how their lifestyles were compared to ours.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Very interesting post. I was helping out at the bowling alley my father managed by the time I was 7 – but never hit with a stick.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on lorettalivingstone and commented:
    Want to know more about medieval times? Follow April Munday for more posts like these,

    Liked by 1 person

  12. April, once again you’ve hit upon an intensely fascinating subject! It’s all well and good to fantasize about heady medieval romance, quite another to try to IMAGINE and EMPHASIZE with the medieval psyche and how it handled the cards life dealt. No wonder Fortuna was often depicted spinning her wheel of life!

    Medieval life was so different. So very, very hard! Even the wealthiest could find little to protect them from nature. I’m glad time travel isn’t available. I’d never make it a day — even visiting. Speaks volumes about how spoiled and cossetted I really am. There’s a great deal more to be thankful for than I ever realized!

    I love how responders ask questions and all share avenues to explore for answers. Truly a remarkable author with a remarkable following! So glad I’m able to join in.

    What a wonderful site and exceptional people! Bless you all!

    Below are a few resources which may offer something to the research:

    “Growing Up In Medieval London”, by Barbara A. Hanawalt (c) 1993, Oxford University Press

    “England In The Age Of Caxton”, by Geoffrey Hindley (c) 1979, St. Martin’s Press

    “Mistress of the Monarchy” (and all books written by Alison Weir), (c) 2007, Johnathan Cape (Random House Group Ltd.)

    “A History Of London”, by Robert Gray, (c) 1978, Hutchinson & Co. Ltd
    3 Fitzroy Square, London WIP 6JD

    Liked by 1 person

  13. It certainly was a fight for survival. No wonder that those people who could had so many children.

    Liked by 2 people

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