by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the October 1982, A.S. XVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
In one sense, childhood during the Middle Ages is a non-topic, as there was no concept of childhood during this period. The modern concept of children first appeared in the last half of the 16th century and did not gain prominence until a century later. And so, like so many things medieval, the subject is hidden by obscurity; for not only did few write about it, there was little to write about. I shall endeavor to write about it anyway.
The first event in anyone’s life is birth, and during the Middle Ages this was a perilous time for both mother and child. Doctors were excluded from the delivery of the baby and midwives were used. Non-routine deliveries were disastrous, leaving many scarred babies. And if a Cesarean section was needed, it usually killed the mother. Poor diet, venereal disease and teenage pregnancies also took their toll on babies.
After birth, the midwife would wash the baby and rub it down with salt. Subsequent baths would be followed with rose oil instead of salt. She then wrapped the baby tightly with swaddling bands, not unlike those on Egyptian mummies. the infant would be totally swaddled from one to four months, after which arms would be freed, and the legs and body would be swaddled for another six to nine months.
Various reasons have been given for swaddling, such as preventing the infant from being terrified of its own limbs or reducing the baby’s demand for the mother’s attention. An interesting note on the last point is that a 1964 study showed that swaddled babies sleep more, cry less, and generally are calmer than non-swaddled babies. Bartholomew, an English encyclopedist, set down in 1230 the most popular reason given for swaddling:
“And for tenderness the limbs of the child may easily and soon bow and bend and take diverse shapes. And therefore children’s members and limbs are bound with bystes (bandages) and other convenable bonds, that they be not crooked nor evil shapen ...”1
At the beginning of the period, baptism occurred only at Easter and Christmas. But it wasn’t long before the Church began calling for immediate baptism after birth. By the end of the period, it had become such an elaborate rite that regulations had to be established to restrict its opulence and size. Baptism was by total immersion, followed by anointment of the forehead with holy oil. A christening cap was places on the baby’s head to protect the oil.
It was common custom to give gifts to an infant after the baptismal ceremony. These ranged from symbolic sums of money, salt, bread, and cheese, to teething rings of coral, to a set of 12 “apostle spoons.” These spoons, made of silver gilt, each representing a different apostle, are the origin of the phrase “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
The child would be breast fed until it was three years old. While most lower-class women fed their own children, many upper-class women used wet nurses. The circumstances surrounding the use of a wet nurse depended on the time and place and varied from having the set nurse live in the home to having the baby sent to the “country.” The use of cow’s milk was not unknown, but was considered inferior. In view of the sanitary conditions, it was a view quite well justified.
The age of infancy technically lasted until the age of seven. This did not mean that children were excluded from adult company until then. On the contrary, once out of their swaddling bands and into what was essentially scaled-down adult clothes, children were included in virtually every adult pastime, many of which survive today as children’s games. Included were various parlour games, chess, and games of chance. Toys included such things as hobbyhorses, windmills, tops, marbles, and dolls used by both sexes.
Training for life’s work traditionally began at seven, although for the poor it usually started much earlier. The usual form of this training was apprenticeship, with the child being sent away to live with someone and learn a trade. Among nobles, this meant that the boys would become pages and the girls bower maidens. A disparaging description of this practice was given by an Italian visitor to England in the 15th century:
“The want of affection in the English is strongly manifested towards their children, for having kept them at home till they arrive at the age of seven or nine years at the utmost, they put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another seven or nine years. And these are called apprentices, and during that time they perform all the most menial offices; and few are born who they exempted from this fate, for everyone, however rich he may be, sends away his children into the house of others, whilst he, in return, receives those of strangers into his own.. And on inquiring their reason for this severity, they answered that they did it in order that their children might learn better manners. But I, for my part, believe that they do it because they like to enjoy all their comforts themselves, and that they are better served by strangers than they would be by their own children.”2
Formal learning, as practiced today, was limited for the most part to clerics. Among the upper classes, children may have learned some Latin and a few psalms, but little else. This was particularly true for the boys, as they went on to learn the arts of war and hunting. But as the girls were given secondary treatment, they had the time to learn how to read and write and formed the literary society of their time. So when the troubadours began to appear, it was to a female audience that they directed their prose and poetry, thus changing the course of culture and history.
The age of legal maturity was 16 and marriage took place at about the same time. Thus, another family would be formed, and a new generation would begin the struggle for survival.
The medieval family was unlike a modern family. It was not centered around the children, but around what one might call dynastic concerns. The glue which held a family together was not sentimentality, but economics. This did not always work and resulted in the internecine fighting that was quite prevalent in the first half of the period. The typical attitude is best exemplified by a remark by John, marshal of England, at the time of King Stephen. He had refused to surrender a castle to the king and his enemies threatened to kill his son, whom he had just shortly before handed over as a hostage. His reply was “What recks it me of the child; have I not still the anvils and the hammers wherewith to forge finer ones?”3
Thus was the life of a child during the Middle Ages. The threats to his life were great. Disease, poor diet and neglect took their toll. Of all the children born, less than half survived to maturity. Yet many thrived, for until the time of the Black Death, Europe’s population boomed. Childhood was perilous, rough, and often hard, and filled with all the usual childhood adventures.
Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.
Bloch, Marc. Feudal Society, Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Durant, Will and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, A History of Medieval Civilization. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.
Gies, Frances and Joseph Geis. Life in a Medieval City. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1969.
Greenleaf, Barbara Kaye. Children Through the Ages: A History of Childhood. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1978.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.