Friday 13 November 2020

Raising the Late Medieval Child



Gwen Hamilton







Studying the lives of people of a different age or culture is made more difficult by the fact that we see their actions through the window of our own experience and beliefs. This can be particularly difficult dealing with the lives of children because of the emotional baggage we bring from our own childhoods and our experiences as parents.  However, I believe that parents in any age or culture are likely to share some common goals.  Among these goals are keeping their child safe, passing on to their child their own system of values, and preparing the child to be successful in the setting in which they live.  The means of reaching these goals may look very different.  Modern parents walking their child to school, teaching tolerance for ethnic differences, and helping with homework may seem very far afield from the medieval parents who swaddled their infant, enforced religious practices, and beat their child for poor manners, but the actions are/were a response to perceived needs. 


Much of what we read about medieval childrearing methods seems harsh and misguided to us.  A number of historians – perhaps most famously Philippe Ariès in Centuries of Childhood – have written extensively suggesting the family in the middle ages was very different to our own, particularly regarding the emotional attachment between parent and child and society’s view of childhood.  Refuting these theories has provided more modern medievalists such as Barbara Hanawalt and Nicholas Orme with a springboard for their own research and theories.  Although I agree there is little truth in the theories of uncaring parents and children treated as defective adults, the dangers to the health and safety of medieval children were indeed real, and the medieval beliefs behind the diet provided for the young and the type of discipline  they received are not ones we find acceptable. 


However, this is simply to say we are all affected in our choices by our culture and prevailing belief system, whether it is the Church Fathers and Galen or Dr. Spock and Dr. Oz.  The modern mother trying to balance the needs of her career with the needs of her family has some things in common with the harried medieval peasant mother who needed to fetch water and do other chores despite the danger to her children of the fire on the hearth, although obviously the threat to the well-being of the medieval children is much more immediate and extreme.  Indeed, the medieval situation is inevitably more extreme in most aspects.  Medieval parents faced many more threats to the physical safety of their children from both accident and disease. They not only wanted their children to grow to be good adults, but felt concern for the very salvation of their children’s souls from the moment of birth.  In an intensely hierarchical society, showing appropriate respect for one’s betters and gaining the good opinion of others was important to one’s chances of earning a sufficient livelihood in an age when lack of success might mean starvation, or at the least, a significant lowering of status. 


I would like in the following pages to look at the lives of medieval children and their parents, but to try to do so with some empathy and sympathy for the circumstances of their lives and perceived knowledge.  I chose to deal with the effects of medieval diet, famines, plague, and high child mortality separately to the flow of growing up that parents hoped to see.  These issues are important, but much of the information involved is based on our present knowledge, not the knowledge of late medieval parents.   


In a novel called Return to Laughter, written by anthropologist Laura Bohannan and based on her field work in Africa, the fictional anthropologist is repelled by what seems to be superstition, callousness, and even cruelty in the people she is studying, until surviving a life-threatening emergency among them helps her to better understand the actions and responses mandated by their lives and situation.



The Great Differences


"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."  L.P. Hartley


In the main part of this paper, I will try to describe the sort of upbringing late medieval parents would have hoped for and have expected to happen if all went well, and we can relate to much of that experience.  However, realistically, there was also much in their experience that is very foreign to us in our lives in a developed country of the 21st century, although some of the differences would not seem so foreign to someone living in a third world country today. Outside of exceptional circumstances, we take having basic food and shelter for granted, we expect our children to live to adulthood in our care, and we expect to be able to protect our children to some extent from information we deem inappropriate for them to know, particularly in the areas of violence and sexuality.  I would like to deal with the differences as background, as what medieval parents would take for granted in their world. 


Basic Necessities

In The Third Horseman, a study of the devastating famines caused by climate change in the early 14th century, Rosen discusses the basic diet for the average Englishman of the period.  He describes the farming methods of the period, which produced much lower yields for grain and milk, smaller, leaner animals, and greater difficulty in preserving food.  He quotes Jan Peter Pals, an archaeobotanist at the University of Amsterdam, in estimating the typical model for available food for a peasant of the period.  He estimates daily provisions for an adult of 13 ounces of bread, a quart of beer, an ounce and a half of cheese, a quarter pound of peas or other legumes, and a little less than 4 ounces of mixed meat and fat.  This adds up to between 2,000 and 2,100 calories a day for an adult who would be doing heavy physical labour.    Approximately 1,500 calories is needed for minimum physical functioning.  Rosen’s conclusion is that even in times of relative plenty, the majority of the population was frequently hungry.  He also concludes that the particular diet is deficient in lipids, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and D, and that for women of childbearing years there would likely be chronic deficiencies of B12, C, and folic acid.  (Rosen, 2014, 153-158)  The Church’s prohibition on eating meat several times a week and during Lent and Advent would have had further impact on this diet, although Lent did come during the part of the year when food supplies were lowest. Other classes probably did better as some other sources suggest servants of noble households and soldiers would receive about two pounds of bread and a gallon of beer daily.  Deficiencies in the diets of childbearing women of course impacted on their fertility, on their ability to nurse and, on the health of the children they bore. 


Mortality rate

Half the bodies in the cemetery in the medieval village of Wharram Percy were under 17 years of age when they died, some with indicators of anaemia and/or rickets.  The mortality rate for children below the age of seven is commonly estimated at 30%.  (Gilchrist 2012, 46)  Nutrition and disease were major factors, but also death by misadventure was not uncommon.  The coroner’s reports tell many tales of accidental death, by drowning and by fire-related incidents in particular, and also by attacks from domestic animals such as pigs. 


The wealthier pre-adult members of society had the benefits of better and more ample food and warmth and greater supervision, but nonetheless the level of infant death was staggering.  Between 1330 and 1479, the ducal families in England – essentially the wealthiest and most powerful in the kingdom – lost a third of their children before the age of five.   Seven of Edward I’s 16 children died before reaching the age of seven.  (Youngs, 2006, 22-25)


Malnutrition affects resistance to infection as well as directly damaging the body.  Some illnesses with devastating effects in a malnourished population are measles, tuberculosis, dysentery, intestinal parasites, and cholera.  However, many other diseases such as smallpox, malaria, typhoid, and bubonic plague are not directly affected by nutrition.  (Rosen, 2014, 159-160)


Philippe Ariès, among some 20th century writers, has suggested that high infant and child mortality may have inclined parents to be unwilling to form a close bond with the infant, although there is certainly considerable contemporary evidence of deep parental grief at the death of a child, poignantly expressed in the poem Pearl.  Many late medieval family portraits and sculptures showed not only the living children of the family, but those who had died, who, although gone, certainly seem not to have been forgotten.  Family archives sometimes record the major passages and traumas of the family’s children. (Ozment, 2001, 60)


Although the mortality rate of children affected family life, so did the death of parents.  If one survived to adulthood, one actually had a reasonable chance of living a fairly long life, but violence, death in childbirth, and disease did mean that many children grew up in the care of step-parents or guardians rather than both birth parents.  The guardians of wealthy or noble children were often more centred on benefitting from the inheritance than caring for the child.  Wardships and marriages of wards were sometimes sold or given as favours, although laws regulating this gradually developed, some in fact being included in the Magna Carta. 


Exposure to Sex, Brutality, and Death

Judging from Latin exercises set for school including coarse insults and references to prostitutes and from concern expressed by clerics over parents setting an example of ungodly language and behaviour, children were not typically protected from exposure to strong language, references to sexual behaviour, or references to violence and death. (Orme 2001, 158-159)


In fact, in a culture with little privacy it is hard to imagine how they could be.  A walk through a town, perhaps to do the marketing, would certainly pass by animals being slaughtered, pathetic beggars, possibly whippings or executions, and almost certainly heads or other body parts displayed on the town gate as an example of what happens to thieves or traitors.  Children would know of many people who had died, not just the elderly, but siblings and friends.  They would certainly see adult violence, even if they were fortunate enough to live somewhere untouched by war.  All men save clerics were armed and violence flared quickly when there was disagreement.  For all too many children living near the Scottish-English border or in disputed parts of France, fear of violent attack must have been common. 


Leisure activities included hunting, cock-fighting, and bear-baiting.  Even sports such as football involved far more violence and risk than their modern versions.



Both parents and children suffered instability through fluctuations in the availability of food, through disease and the death of family members, and through the possibility or reality of violence.  The 14th century was particularly unstable in all of those ways.  That said, some aspects of life were stable.  One’s role in society was generally fixed by class and gender from birth.  There was some social mobility for those who could obtain an education, either through the church, or as lawyers or merchants; however, for most, one knew one’s position in life and the expectations and obligations that went with it.  If one was a villein, one was tied to the land and grew up in a village with a pretty static population.  If one was fortunate, one had a good lord and that lord was able to leave his land to adult heirs who were also good lords.  Children were trained at all levels for specific roles in life and knew what was expected.  One belonged – to family, to a village, to land, to a guild, to a parish church. 


Religion was a major source of stability.  For the majority, their faith was woven through their lives in ways we can barely imagine now.  The calendar ran around not just the seasons but religious holidays.  Even secular events and business letters referred to dates by saints’ days and other religious holidays.  Gaining heaven and avoiding hell, or lessening one’s time in purgatory, were very real goals, not a vague abstaction.  Clerical life was sometimes used to provide for well-born children not needed as heirs or for marriage contracts, but did provide a life designed to lead to salvation and which assured livelihood and status.  Monastic orders provided charity, hospitality, and help where none would otherwise have existed.  Religion provided hope and solace in a difficult world.   The Church controlled laws about marriage and family, provided rites of passage, provided or supervised much of the available education, and also provided colour and entertainment through the beauty of the liturgy, music, and art in the church, and through religious plays. 





In the middle ages, a married couple who had formed a household would very much want children.  They wanted the family lineage to continue and heirs to inherit land or the rights to use land.  If a peasant family, they would welcome additional hands to do work, albeit in the future.  They were assured by the Church that children were the purpose of marriage and sexual relations.  For women, the successful bearing and rearing of children added to their status, while there was a social stigma attached to barrenness.  Biblical accounts of Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth, who had been accounted barren, then conceived, were popular.  Pilgrimages to shrines reputed to help in the matter of conception were common, and thanksgiving gifts such as 97 nightgowns from previously infertile women to the shrine of St. Thomas Cantelupe are documented.  Some pilgrimages were even to shrines in foreign cities, such as Aachen and Chartres, which had portions of the Sancta Roba believed to have been worn by the Virgin at the conception and birth of Christ. Badges from Aachen and Chartres with images of the sacred tunic have been found in a number of places in England. (Gilchrist 2012, 134)   

Shrine at Aachen


Pilgrim badge showing the Sacra Roba









In other places, rituals with a definite touch of pagan history continued to take place, albeit with a Christian gilding.  In Suffolk, a white bull, festooned with floral garlands, would be led in procession by the monks of Bury St. Edmond’s.  Women who wished to conceive would join the procession, stroking the bull’s sides, until they reached the gates of the abbey, where they would enter to pray.  (Leyser 1995, 122)


Advice existed as well on furthering fertility by such actions as eating the sexual organs of a hare or drinking thistle juice.  The missionary position in intercourse was recommended for successful conception and following Galen’s advice, they believed that it was necessary for both partners to experience an orgasm.  (Heywood 2001, 45)


Childbirth could be dangerous for both mother and child.  The church recommended that women nearing birth should make their confession to the priest and take communion.  (Communion was not commonly taken more than once a year.)  Leechbook III recommends:  “a pregnant woman is to be earnestly warned that she should eat nothing salty or sweet, or drink beer, or eat swine’s flesh or anything fat, or drink to intoxication, or travel by road, or ride too much on horseback, lest the child be born before the proper time”.  (Leyser, 1995, 125)  One assumes this advice was for the well-to-do.  Presumably the poor ate what was available and did whatever was necessary to run their households. 


They were aware of the dangers of malpresentation and midwives were instructed to oil their hands and attempt to turn the child.  They were unaware of the causes of infections which killed some women with puerperal fever after the birth of the child, but certainly knew that such deaths occurred.  Hanawalt cites maternal deaths in 15th century Florence as 14.4 deaths for every 1,000 births, but the large number of widows in the records would suggest a great many women survived multiple births and went on to outlive their husbands.  (Hanawalt 1993, 43)  


 We have pictures from the period showing the use of birthing chairs and an English medical treatise depicting a woman in labour pulling on a cord fixed to a beam above the bed. (Hanawalt 1993, 42)    Many pictures of a birth scene show a busy gathering of women, fussing over both mother and baby.    The midwife would be there and possibly assistants she was training.  The Church was concerned with the training of midwives because of the importance of baptising the infant immediately and with the proper words if it seemed unlikely to survive to be christened in church.  A prayer for women with child used in York in the late middle ages asked “...that God comfort them and deliver them with joy, and send their children Christendom and the mothers purifying of Holy Church and release of pain in their travailing.”  In other words, God is asked to preserve the child to receive baptism and the mother to live to be “churched” 40 days later.  The Church was anxious to save the soul of the child from eternity in Limbo and priests were to instruct midwives in the correct formula.  The church worried, however, that midwives might use unauthorized means, even witchcraft, to facilitate the birth. (Orme 2001, 17)  


Women were well aware of the dangers of childbirth, as they were of the many other dangers in their lives, but they were still eager to have children and welcomed the conception of them.  In a letter probably from December 1441, Margaret Paston writes coyly and humorously to her husband about her first pregnancy, asking for fabric to make a new gown as nothing fits her and reminding him of a new girdle he had promised her: “for I am wax so fetis that I may not be girt in no bar of no girdle I have but of one.”  She mentions that the midwife has sciatia, but swears she will “come hither when God sent time” if she had to be carried in a wheelbarrow.  She then talks about the reaction of a friend when learning of her pregnancy and about the fact that her condition is now becoming obvious.  “John of Damme was here and my mother discovered me to him; and he said by his troth that he was not gladder of nothing that he heard this twelvemonth than he was thereof.  I may no lenger live by my craft, I am discovered of all men that see me...I pray you that ye will wear the ring with the image of St. Margaret that I sent you for a remembrance till ye come home.  Ye have left me such a remembrance that maketh me to think upon you both day and night when I would sleep.”  (Davis 1963, 4-5)  St. Margaret was of course Margaret’s name saint, but also a patron saint of childbirth due to her adventures escaping from the belly of a dragon.  Margaret Paston’s tone seems to be one of satisfaction and accomplishment and perhaps a hint of feeling that her wishes should be fulfilled more readily because of her condition. 


Many of the customs surrounding childbirth have a celebratory air.  Wealthy women withdrew to a specially prepared room four weeks or more before the birth was expected.  The room was often extravagantly furnished with cushions, bedding, and draperies, which Gilchrist suggests reveals the value placed by the aristocratic men on perpetuating their lineage, by sparing no expense in providing an environment suited to safe delivery.  The room would be darkened and warm, often with special clothing for the mother and nursery equipment ready for the expected infant.  Christine de Pizan describes the birth chamber of a Parisian merchant’s wife:  “ was hung all round with tapestries marked with her coat-of-arms richly worked in fine gold thread; the bed and the rug surrounding the bed were likewise embroidered with gold.  The sheets beneath the coverlet...were valued at 300 francs...In that room was a great sideboard displaying a panoply of gilded vessels.  Sitting up in bed was the woman herself, dressed in crimson silk, propped up against large pillows covered in the same silk and decorated with pearl buttons...she immoderately surpassed the ritual baths and refreshments customary in Paris for gatherings of women friends and relatives celebrating the birth of a child.”  De Pizan is critical of the woman for aping the expensive habits of women of superior rank, but we still are given the impression that if one had the means, this was a time for display, for support from other women, and for celebration.  (Pizan 1989, 194-195)


Men of the household did not enter the chamber, bringing the food and other necessities to the door and giving them to the women, who would serve the lady, rather than the usual male servants.  The women would pass on information about the onset of labour and the eventual birth. 


Peasant women did not have special rooms to retire to nor were they likely to be able to shut themselves away for weeks.  However, they would certainly be tended and supported by female relatives and neighbours and likely also a midwife.  Again, men were excluded from births.


Various religious relics, often girdles or belts, were loaned by churches to ease childbirth.  Parchment amulets with prayers and charms on them could also be put across the abdomen.  These were approved by the church until the reformation.  We have numbers of extant amulets of this type. 



 Late 15th century hanging cradle, originally painted and gilded.  Museum of London




When the child was born, the navel-string was tied four inches long.  The blood was gently washed away and the baby anointed with salt and honey or salt and roses pounded together.  The popular Cherry Tree carol depicts the Christ child as so poor he was washed in water, rather  than wine or milk.  The child was then wrapped in clean swaddling clothes and his mouth and gums rubbed with a finger dipped in honey to stimulate sucking.  He was placed in a cradle, which might be decorated with carvings and paint.  In poor households, a basket might suffice.  (Gilchrist 2012, 141-142)



  ‘This night there shall be born

               our heavenly king.

               ‘He neither shall be born

               in house nor in hall,

               Nor in the place of Paradise,

               but in an ox-stall.

               ‘He shall not be clothed

               in purple nor pall,

               But all in fair linen,

               as wear babies all.

               ‘He shall not be rocked

               in silver nor gold,

               But in a wooden cradle,

               that rocks on the mould.

               ‘He neither shall be christened

               in milk nor in wine,

               But in pure spring-well water,

               fresh sprung from Bethine.’

From The Cherry Tree Carol





Baptism was done as quickly as possible, to safeguard the infant’s soul and to make it part of the Christian community.  The father, the godparents (usually two of the same gender as the child and one of the opposite gender), and the midwife would solemnly present the child at the church door.  The mother did not take part in this ceremony, but remained at home for four to six weeks until “churched”.  The priest would ask the sex of the baby, placing a boy to his right and a girl to his left.  The priest would make the sign of the cross with his thumb on the baby’s head, put a bit of salt into the baby’s mouth, and say some prayers.  Then he used saliva to anoint the baby’s ears and nostrils, afterwards making the sign of the cross in the child’s right hand.  The child now having been exorcised, the priest would invite him by name into the temple of God.


All the party now proceeded to the font, which would be close to the entrance door and the baby undressed.  The water was hallowed and chrism (oil and balm) added to it.  The priest would again ask for the child’s name, and laying his right hand on the child, would inquire in Latin if he renounced Satan and all his works and pomp.  The godparents answered for the child that he renounced them.  Quid petis?  What do you seek?  Baptismum.  Baptism.  Vis bapitzari? Do you wish to be baptised?  Volo.   I do.


The child was baptised in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and immersed completely into the water at each name.  In very late period, pouring water over the child’s head became more common.  The senior godparent took the child from the priest’s hands and raised it from the font.  The priest dipped his thumb in chrism and made the sign of the cross on the infant’s head.  The baby was now wrapped in the chrisom, a piece of cloth or hooded robe which covered the head and body and kept the chrism in place.  The chrisom might be a simple one borrowed from the church or a wealthy family might bring their own, possibly embroidered and decorated with pearls.  A lighted candle was put in the child’s hand.  


The priest then warned the godparents and father of the dangers the baby would face and their duty to keep it from all perils until it was seven.  The godparents were commanded to teach the child the Paternoster, the Ave Maria, and the Apostles’ Creed.  The chrisom was to be kept on the baby’s head for a time to protect the chrism there.  The mother usually returned this, if borrowed, to the church at the time of her purification.  (Orme 2001, 27-30; Heywood 2001, 52-53)


The child was often given the name of the senior godparent, although there is some disagreement among historians about the frequency of this.  One study, by Philip Niles, in his study of 302 medieval heirs, found that 261 of them had received a godparent’s name.  Certainly this would make more understandable the number of repeated names within families, such as the two eldest sons of John and Margaret Paston both being named John.  Both boys survived to adulthood, so there was no question of one being named for a deceased sibling.  Orme refers to a memorial brass of the Carew family whose seven sons were named Guy, John, John, John, John, William, and William.  Among the girls in the family were two named Agnes.  (Orme 2001, 37-38)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           


 Godparents gave gifts, often of money.  Of course, the greater the rank involved, the greater the gifts.  Prince Arthur, for instance, received a gold cup and cover, a pair of gilt basins, a gold salt cellar, and a coffer of gold.  Sir Henry Willoughby in the 1520’s gave 10 shillings to godchildren who were gentlemen’s children and lesser sums to godchildren of lower rank.  (Orme 2001, 31)  Silver spoons are documented as baptismal gifts from godparents, sometimes decorated with religious motifs.  (Gilchrist 2012, 144)  In many cases, the senior godparent was of superior rank to the parents, presumably in the hope he would be helpful to the child or his parents.


Amulets were used to protect the baby from potential harm by the evil eye or being abducted by fairies.  Amber was frequently used for this, as either single beads or strings of beads.  Coral was considered the most efficacious in this respect where the family had the means to purchase it.  Coral pendants are recorded as birth gifts from the 14th century and are often pictured in Italian paintings of the Christ Child and other infants.  Waste material from working coral was found in Winchester, confirming some coral was imported and worked in England.  Some fossils were also used in this way.  Such pendants also became teething aids. (Gilchrist 2012, 143)    Food was sometimes placed near the head of the sleeping child to distract evil spirits.   (Orme, 2001, 64-65)              





The baby would have been welcomed to a household which typically consisted of a married couple, their children, and possibly apprentices and servants.  Households with multiple generations in them occurred, but were not frequent.  We have figures from the west Midlands for size of families.  Between 1270 and 1349, the mean number of children for wealthy families was 5.1, for families of middling wealth 2.9, and for poorer families 1.8.  After the disaster of the Black Death in 1348-49, the figures shrank to 3, 2, and 1.4 respectively.  The climate change and famines at the beginning of the 14th century no doubt had their effect as well, both in mortality and in the lowering of fertility due to poor nutrition.  Pastoral manuals of the 14th century also expressed concern that some were controlling the size of their family through coitus interruptus and other means. (Gilchrist 2012, 39)                                                                                                                                                          


A characteristic house plan had evolved by the mid-13th century: a central hall flanked by upper and lower ends.  The hall was a communal space with an open hearth, used for preparing and consuming food, domestic work such as weaving and childcare, leisure activities, and entertaining visitors.  This was the centre of life in the home.  A chamber or camera at the upper end provided space for the family to sleep and to store valued items.  Other members of the household such as servants and apprentices bedded down in the hall.  The lower end of the hall was used for storage of food and tableware in the pantry and beverages in the buttery.  The peasant long house with the byre for the animals at the end of it was rare by the mid-14th century.  Town houses were more likely to have upper stories and some houses had detached kitchens.  (Gilchrist 2012, 115)   Houses of artisans would usually have the workshop as part of the building, opening onto the street.


In an urban situation, privies might be shared.  There is documentation for disputes about upkeep of privies, since improperly tended ones could be a serious problem for neighbours.  In a rural setting, privies were obviously less of an issue.  Some kitchens had cisterns for rainwater collected from the eaves.  Other than this, water needed to be carried from a well or a nearby body of water, or, in an urban setting, from a neighbourhood pump or purchased from a water carrier.   (Schofield 1995, 117-118)                                                                                                                                                  


Floors might be of beaten earth or chalk, or in London, clay.  Tiled floors were in use from about the mid 13th century where means existed, often glazed with colourful patterns.  (Schofield 1995, 112).  Rushes, sometimes with sweet smelling herbs added, were strewn across the floor and regularly swept out and replaced. 


The hearth provided warmth and light.  Chimney hoods existed, but walled fireplaces may not have been frequent outside of London until the 15th or 16th century.  A “curfew” (couvre-feu), a ceramic lid, was often used to confine the embers of the fire overnight.  Windows were covered by wooden shutters, horn, or oiled parchment.  Glazed windows were uncommon for most of the period and were expensive.  Lighting would be provided by oil lamps or tallow candles.  Beeswax candles were most often only used in church.  Walls were usually white-washed to reflect light and, where resources permitted, decorated with wall paintings or painted cloth, or for the very wealthy, tapestries. 


Furniture was generally still sparse.  There would be a table, possibly on trestles, benches, stools, chests for storage and for seating, possibly a settle, possibly a chair or two.  The chair would express rank within the household; in many cases only the head of the household would have a chair.  Comfort and colour were added by cushions and tablecloths. There would be a bed for the married couple and truckle beds or pallets for children and servants.  The baby would be in a cradle. 


According to Gilchrist, the 13th century marked an increased consumption of household goods.  Imported pottery was accessible even to peasant families and wealthy families had glass vessels.  Rural households were more likely to spend their money on ‘outside’ goods and cooking utensils, while urban homes more often bought comfortable bed furnishings and cushions.  (Gilchrist 2012, 115-122)  


Infants and Toddlers


Bartholomeus Anglicus, in De Rerum Proprietatibus, outlines appropriate care for babies.  He says that a baby should be washed when it dirties itself, have frequent baths, and be anointed with oil of myrtle or oil of roses.  When it cries, it should be offered the breast or moved around, to the shoulders, hands, or lap.  The caregiver should talk, whistle, or sing to it.  It should be wrapped in cloths, with the limbs properly stretched, and bound in cradle-bounds to make the limbs grow straight.  It should be put to sleep in the dark, to avoid injuring its eyes and causing a squint.  (Orme 2001, 63)   


This advice was of course intended for a wealthy household where there was a constant attendant for the child.  We know from various records, particularly in Hanawalt’s research, that peasant mothers at times needed to leave the child, sometimes on its own, sometimes with an older child watching it, or in the care of a neighbour.  On occasion the swaddled child might be taken to the fields and put at the end of furrow while its parents worked.  The records also indicate that there was a community expectation that the mother would care for it appropriately, whatever the necessities of her work.



The baby would have been swaddled in linen bands for much of its early life.  Its predominant humours were believed to be warm and moist, dominated by blood, therefore plastic and mouldable.  Swaddling was intended to straighten and strengthen its limbs and was also felt to prevent it from crying.  Later a vest may have been worn with only the legs swaddled.  Medical texts recommended that the bands be removed frequently and the child washed.  (Gilchrist 2012, 35, 49)      


Swaddling the infant also would have helped keep it warm, made it easy to carry, helped protect it from animals, and kept it from getting out of its cradle and into danger.    When the child was no longer swaddled, it was sometimes tied in its cradle in an attempt to keep it from harm.  Heywood comments that while cleaning and rewrapping the baby several times a day could be onerous, it could also be a satisfying, bonding time.  He quotes a 17th century midwife saying that one should handle the child “very tenderly and wash the body with warm wine, then when it is dry roll it up with soft cloths and lay it into the cradle.” (Heywood 2001, 71)



All but a small minority of babies were breastfed.  Peasant women would feed their child themselves unless this was impossible.  It was felt that colostrum was bad for babies and for the first few days they might be fed by another woman or fed small amounts of sugared wine.  If the mother died or was ill, it might be necessary to arrange to have another woman feed the child.  Animal milk or pap (bread or flour mixed with water) was sometimes used – probably in desperation – but were not very satisfactory.  Babies were fed on demand where possible.


Families who could afford it sometimes sent their babies to wet nurses until the children were weaned, usually between 18 months and two years.  If they were quite wealthy the wet nurse sometimes became part of their household, keeping the baby at home.  There were plenty of contemporary advocates, particularly religious ones, for nursing one’s own children, but wet nursing remained common among the well to do.  Maternal death, lack of milk in the mother, the wish for another pregnancy, and time-consuming responsibilities are all possible reasons for this.  Among the nobility and even the wealthier commoners, custom and fashion probably was a factor.   Contemporary critics of wet nursing alleged it was done because of the mother’s desire to remain beautiful and to sleep through the night.  (Orme 2001, 58)


When the baby was old enough to be weaned, the mother or nurse might paint her breasts with wormwood or other unpleasant substances.  By eighteen months or two or three years, the child would already have been eating some other foods.  “Pap”, a type of porridge, was a typical first food, made of hulled grain, flour, or breadcrumbs, cooked in water or milk until the mixture thickened.  An “ages of man” scene from 15th century France shows a baby cradled in its mother’s arms while its father carefully spoon feeds it.  Once teeth were present for chewing, they were encouraged to gnaw on crusts.  Walter de Bibbesworth also recommended carefully peeled and cored apples or a soft-boiled egg.  (Henisch 2013, 37-38)





Once toddlers, they were now on the move, playing with pots in imitation of the mother, following the father while he worked, tagging along with other children, picking wild flowers, trying to retrieve a pretty feather from the brook. However, they still remained in or close to the home and spent the majority of their time with their mother. (Hanawalt 1993, 63-64)  Baby frames were often used for safety and to facilitate walking.


 Christine de Pizan writes, of a fairly substantial household: “She will supervise the raising of her children and make sure they are neither coddled nor allowed to be too boisterous while they are young.  The children must be kept clean and mannerly.  Nor should their belongings nor the nurses’ belongings be strewn about the house.” (Pizan 1989, 187)

In place of swaddling clothes, children of both sexes now wore a loose gown, short enough to avoid tripping.  They probably wore a cap and shoes.  Young children are frequently shown in pictures barefoot and bare-headed, but there are numerous references to caps and many archeological findings of small shoes, often with drawstring closures to make dressing the child easier.  (Gilchrist 2012, 79-80)  In 1453, Margaret Paston wrote her husband: “As for the caps you sent me for the children, they are too little for them.  I pray you buy them finer caps and larger than those were.”  It is possible, but not provable, that pictures such as one showing a young boy urinating at the doorway suggest young children many not have worn drawers, perhaps in order to facilitate toilet training.  (Orme 2001, 2, picture from Grimaldi Breviary) 


Leyser refers to depictions of mothers playing hide-and-seek with their children in The Ancrene Riwle of the 13th century and quotes an example of conventional maternal concern shown in a play, when Sarah wants to keep Isaac indoors to keep him out of the wind.  From a medieval lament of Mary mourning the loss of her son comes this picture of a mother with her children:


            Your children you dance upon your knee

            With laughing, kissing and merry cheer.

            O woman, woman well is with thee

            The child’s cap thou puttest on,

            Thou combest his hair, his colour see... (Hanawalt 1986, 179)  


Bartholomeus refers approvingly to adults using baby talk, as helping the child to learn to speak, although Sir Thomas Elyot in his book on education, The Governor, heartily disapproves of it.  Bartholomeus also refers with approval to children being lulled to sleep with “lulling and cradle songs”.  No lullabies survive from this period, although some verses about the Virgin Mary as mother may give us an idea of what they might have been like:


            Lullay, lullow, lully, lullay,

            Dewy, bewy, lully, lully,

Bewy, lully, lullow, lully,

Lullay, baw, baw, my bairn,

Sleep softly now.


Or -      Lullay, mine liking, my dear son, mine sweeting,

            Lullay, my dear heart, mine own dear darling.

 (Orme 2001, 130-132, quoting from Greene, Early English Carols)



Family Routine


Despite the increased use of clocks and bells to tell time by the 15th century, the day’s routine was still oriented to daylight.  There was also increased use of oil lamps and tallow candles, but these were an expense readily lessened by making the best use of the daytime.


Rural families’ routine would also have differed with the season.  In the growing season, every hour was precious and they worked as long as daylight lasted.  The family’s food supply depended upon producing the crop and this required backbreaking labour, particularly at harvest.  Women helped in the fields at harvest and at other times as needed. The children in the family who were beyond the toddler stage, perhaps aged four to eight, now spent more time outside the home, often following the parents as they worked. They were still mainly playing – although they would do some simple chores such as minding the latest baby or fetching wood – but they were now old enough to safely play near their parents as they laboured.  (Hanawalt 1986, 158-160)  In the winter, there was less to do and the family would no doubt spend more time in the house, close to the fire.


In an urban setting, they would still rise soon after dawn.  Courtesy literature of the period aimed at the sons of gentry and well-to-do townspeople, gives advice on what they should do upon waking.  They are advised to make the sign of the cross and say their Pater Noster and other prayers.  They should wash their faces and hands, making sure their eyes and noses are clean.  They should comb their hair and dress neatly. 


They would have worn underwear of linen – shirt and drawers for boys, chemise for girls – hose for the legs, and a top garment, probably belted in the middle.  The girls’ outer garments would have been longer than the boys’.  Hoods and hats were worn and gloves against the cold.  Most garments would have been made of wool.  The quality and colour of the garments would depend on the wealth and rank of the family.  (Orme 2001, 73)  It is thought that most garments for children were made in the home from purchased fabric.  The Stonor papers include some interesting invoices for fabric and shoemaking, much of it for young people in the Stonor household.


From a mercer’s letter of October 1, 1479 to Dame Elizabeth Stonor:

“...according to your letter I send you: that is...

            Itm. 6 elles holland at 2 s. an ell...

            Itm. 7 elles holland at 16 d. an ell...

            Itm. 38 yards green sarcenet at 5 s. the yard...

Madam, the sarcenet is very fine.  I think most profitable and most worshipful for you, and shall last your life and your child’s after you, whereas [cheaper] would not endure two seasons...” (Carpenter 1996, 346)


Wealthy children might have servants to expedite the process of getting up and dressed and were criticized by some writers for being spoiled and allowed to sleep in to full daylight.  (Orme 2001, 69-70)  We cannot know, but where there were few or no servants, I can well imagine harried mothers or older sisters scolding dawdling schoolboys into hurrying or helping them find mislaid clothing or sending them back to wash their faces. 


Children would have shown respect to their parents by bowing and curtseying, and in the case of the boys, doffing their caps.  Probably this would have been part of greeting them in the morning.  They would also kneel at times for their parents’ blessing.  


Mothers would traditionally teach them their first prayers.   The boys might attend school; the girls, if taught to read, would more likely be taught at home.  In the towns, literacy increased in importance.  Merchants – and often merchant’s wives – needed to read and more and more of the gentry became literate.  In a household large enough for a chaplain, he might teach the girls and younger boys to say their prayers and read.  Leyser argues that the increase in the 14th century of devotional pictures of St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read may indicate a rise in domestic literacy, particularly given the ruling during the suppression of Lollardy in the 15th century which stated that women were only to teach other women and children.  The boys would be taught Latin at school.  The girls would not learn Latin, but would need to be taught skills such as spinning, needlework, and household management.  (Leyser 1995, 138-139)


“And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel, and shining morning face, creeping like snail, unwillingly to school.”  Shakespeare


 School lessons started at six or seven in the morning.  Breakfast was simply a drink or small snack, eaten independently, sometimes taken to school and eaten there. 


If in a local school, they would usually be allowed to go home for dinner, which would be at eleven or twelve.  Dinner and supper were family meals.  In a poorer home, with one table, the family may all have sat together.  We do not know what the arrangements were in a larger, wealthier household, where seating tended to be by rank.  The boys as they became older may well have acted as pages and served their parents in order to learn the manners necessary for serving at a formal dinner. (Orme 2001, 71)   Books such as John Russell’s Boke of Nurture have extremely detailed instructions on the fine art of serving and also on table manners.


The meal would have begun with grace.  What was eaten would have varied with income, day of the week, and season of the year.  Obviously, certain foods would only be available at certain times of the year, but as well the Church’s calendar of feast and fast needed to be observed.  Children were not expected to keep fasts in the same way that adults were.  Winchester College in 1400 allowed students under fifteen years of age to have breakfast as well as dinner and supper.  Similar concessions to the young are shown in the food provided for the Percy family’s children and the boys of the family chapel in 1513.  The earl’s children were permitted butter and eggs during Lent, which were forbidden to adults.  The two oldest boys’ breakfast consisted of a half loaf of “household bread”, a manchet (a small loaf of very fine bread), two quarts of beer, and either a chicken or three boiled mutton bones.  The chapel boys ate household bread, beer, and boiled beef, with salt fish on Fridays.  Supper was similar.  The Percy boys would have fresh fish during Lent, the chapel boys salt fish.  Dishes from boarding school menus include rough bread with butter for breakfast, with vegetable stew, salt fish, bowls of bread and buttermilk, salad, and stewed mutton at other meals. A number of writers speak of bread and butter as a food particularly suited for children and that children loved fruit – sometimes stealing apples from trees. (Orme 2001, 70-73)   


The study of child skeletons found at Wharram Percy seems to indicate children ate a diet more dominated by plant foods than the diet of adults.  This appears to have led to somewhat slower physical maturation than children in our time and culture.  (Gilchrist 2012, 33, 41-42)


After dinner, the schoolboys would return to their lessons, perhaps enjoying seeing what was happening in the town as they went to and from school, then coming home again for supper at five or six.  “Symon’s Lesson of Wisdom for All Manner of Children” warned boys in the street not only to greet people courteously, but not to fight, swear, get their clothing dirty, or lose their books, caps, and gloves, which would suggest possible distractions en route.  (Hanawalt 1993, 74)


Probably the family was in bed soon after dark, by 9:00 at least, in order to get enough sleep to begin another early day.  The children probably shared their beds with one or more siblings.  Even the very wealthy frequently had servants sleeping on pallets in their bedrooms.  It was not an age that valued privacy.  They likely recited a prayer, perhaps an early version of “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Bless the bed that I lie on...” which is known to be quite old.  (Orme 2012, 30)  With the curfew over the remaining embers of the fire, the warmth of sharing a bed may have been very welcome.  In the dark, perhaps the company was welcome as well.


Couvre-feu provenant de l'Hôtel de Hollande (seconde moitié du XIVe siècle)




All children were supposed to receive a basic religious education.  Their godparents promised this at the time of their baptism and it was considered important that they be able to say at least the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and Credo.  Parents, godparents, and priest might all be involved in this process.  Mothers traditionally would teach them their very first prayers.  Below is a 14th century translation in William Maskell of the Pater Noster and the Ave, presumably with the hope of the children understanding as well as saying the prayers:  (Forgeng 2009, 45)


Pater Noster                                                              Lord’s Prayer 

Pater noster qui es in coelis                                       Fader oure that art in heven

Sanctificdguf nomen tuum                                         halwed be thi name

Adveniat regnum tuum                                               come thi kingdom

Fiat voluntas tua                                                         fulfild by thi wil

Et in terra sicut in coelo                                             in heven as in erthe

Panem nostrum quotidianum                                     oure ech-day bred

Da nobis hodie                                                                        yef us to day

Et dimitte nobis debita nostra                                                and foryeve us oure dettes

Sicut et dimittemus debitoribus nostris                      as we foryeveth to oure detoures

Et ne nos inducas in tentationem                               and ne led us nought in temptacion

Sed libera nos a malo.  Amen.                                                Bote delivere us of evel.  So be it.


Ave Maria                                                                   Hail Mary

Ave Maria, gratia plena                                             Heil, Mary, ful of grace

Dominus tecum                                                           God is with the

Benedicta tu in mulieribus                                         of alle wymmen thou art most blessed

Et benedictus fructus ventris tui                                             and blessed be the fruyt of thi wombe, Ihesus



The majority of peasant children would have learned their life skills from their families, watching them, being instructed by them, and later working with them.  Wealthier, freeborn, peasants might choose to have some of their children more formally educated, to prepare them to become clergy, to have them gain a skill in order to act as an effective reeve, or to prepare them for apprenticeship.  The children of villeins needed the permission of the lord of the manor to attend school.  Some lords, particularly abbeys, gave this permission fairly readily and for a low fee; other lords could charge much more. 


However, farming the land was a skill in itself and one which changed over the centuries and had to be taught.  Boys might start by goading the ox, helping to weed and hoe, graduating to plowing, casting seed, and reaping.  Helping to care for animals and learning to do so properly is something else they would need to learn and learn well, given the value of the animals. England’s prosperity was built on wool and the care of sheep was important.  As well, various figures in the village such as carpenter, miller, or blacksmith would also need to train appropriate successors, possibly but not necessarily from their own families.  


 The women’s tasks, such as baking, brewing, dairy work, and spinning were also important and necessary skills which needed to be learned.  Indeed, brewing was a traditional way for women to earn money and would be highly respected.  Hanawalt quotes some of the many female tasks:  “I must learn to spin, to reke, to card, to brew, bake, make mault, reap...weed in the garden (this would be the house garden rather than the fields), milk, serve hogs...sweep filthy houses...turn the spit, scour pots, wash dishes, fetch wood, scald milk pans, wash the churn...set everything in good order.” (Hanawalt 1986, 158)


Some traditions, such as “a-ganging” show the community’s consciousness that the children of the village needed to learn such things as boundaries, particularly crucial where the information might not be written down.  “An English tradition known as ‘gang-days’ took an entire village’s children out a-ganging:  they would be dunked in boundary streams, and bumped against boundary trees and outcroppings, so as to define the borders of the village.”  (Rosen, 2014, 149)



There seem to be various guesses about the literacy rate in the late middle ages.  It is difficult to pin down specific numbers, partially because of many variables.  There is an assumption (a legal assumption, actually) that all clergy were literate, but we also read of complaints that many rural clergy had difficulty reading.  The literacy rate for women was, we assume, much lower than that for men, but it seems that the women of the upwardly mobile Paston family could read, although probably not write.  The Ménagier de Paris assumed his young wife could read, but was unsure whether she could write.  Merchants, lawyers, and major artisans needed to read, write, and do accounts and many guilds in the late middle ages insisted on apprentices being able to read and write.  The guilds making this a rule shows both that they saw literacy as necessary and that some of the applicants were not literate.  We can only guess at the actual numbers of people who were able to read and write, but this was an important skill and understood to be so.  We have extant letters from families like the Pastons and the Stonors which deal with both business and personal matters in great detail, and we have many, many documents of laws, sales, land deals, apprenticeship agreements, and guild rules.   In the 14th century peasant uprising, the rebels were very concerned to find and destroy various legal documents

The new availability late in this period of paper and of printed books made both reading and writing accessible to more people.  Wax tablets were often used for practice and for quick notes that didn’t need to be permanently kept. 


There were certainly more levels of literacy at that time than there are now:  the highly educated would be able to read and write and understand Latin and English and possibly French, some might be able to read - or sing - the Latin correctly without understanding its meaning, others might be able to read and write only in the vernacular, and others to read in their own language but be unable to write other than to sign their name.  The wide use of broadsheets pasted to walls and printed ballades suggests that the level of vernacular literacy was such that if you were unable yourself to read, you would probably have been able to find someone who could read it to you. 


Of course, rank and income made a difference to the availability of formal education.  Aristocrats often had tutors in their homes to teach their children, especially since the upper classes frequently arranged for their children to learn manners and make valuable contacts by sending them to another home after they had reached an age of seven or more, usually that of someone of superior rank to their parents.  This could result in a household with a relatively large number of children to be taught.  Those with the financial resources sometimes sent their children to monasteries or convents to be educated.  There were grammar schools in major towns and cities, as well as boarding school, but most schools charged fees.  Parents who could read themselves may often have taught their children at least the basics at home.


Whether taught at home or at school, the starting place for learning to read was the alphabet.  It was however not quite the alphabet as we know it now.  The 22 letters of the Latin alphabet worked for Latin, but required added letters for some sounds in English, such as thorn for “th”, which was added, become similar to “y”, and eventually disappeared.  By the late 14th century, the “abece” would have looked something like this:


+A.a.b.c.d.e.f.g.h.i.k.l.m.n.o.p.q.r  .s.t.uv.x.y.z.&.  .vest.Amen


The child would likely have had it on a piece of paper or parchment fastened onto a wooden tablet for durability.  Later tablets sometimes had the writing covered with horn and they eventually became known as horn books.  The alphabet may have been expressed aloud as :  (crossing himself) “Christ’s cross be my speed, in all virtue to proceed, A a b c d e f g h i k l m n o p q r s and t, double-u, v x with y. Ezod, ‘and’ per se, ‘con’ per se, tittle tittle ‘est’ amen.  When you have done, begin again, begin again.”    Orme takes this from a 1597 musical setting by Thomas Morley, which seems to use a deliberately familiar text.  “J” had not yet arrived in the alphabet except as an alternative for “i”, the alternative writings for “r” and “s” may not have been expressed aloud, the abbreviation for “and”, the abbreviation for the Latin “con”, and an abbreviation of the Latin “est”, often with the word “est”, followed. “Per se” means “by itself” and “tittle” refers to the little dots standing for “est”.  Ending with Amen, the alphabet became a form of prayer.  On the tablets it was usually followed by the Pater Noster.  (Orme 2001, 246-254)   Having the Pater Noster follow the letters makes sense, as the children would know the prayer and be able to relate the letters to the sounds in the words, especially as the sound values in Latin are very consistent.  Reading would normally have been aloud – still the simplest way to make sense of the words while reading something unfamiliar, particularly if reading middle English with its varying spelling.



Boys of widely differing social ranks attended school, although most noble children would have been taught by tutors in noble households.  However, sons of the gentry, merchants, well-to-do townsmen, and yeomen were all well represented.  The sons of villeins (serfs) needed the permission of their lords to attend school.  There are records of such requests being made and approved upon payment of a fee.  The statutes from Eton show that there at least, nobility sat at a high table, the majority of the other students at a lower one.  Extremely poor boys who were earning their tuition with service would have served the tables and eaten later.  (Orme 2006, 131-132)


Most schoolboys probably attended school near to their homes, because while tuition was not steep (about 4d. a term in 1277), boarding costs could be high; for instance, in the same year, boarding costs at Merton were 8d. a week.  Other expenses included appropriate clothing, generally a long gown, belted at the waist.  Also needed were supplies such as books, writing tablets of polished or waxed wood, slates, pens, paper, inkhorn, and a penner, a little sheath to carry pens.  Penner and inkhorn were often carried on the belt.  Some schools asked for contributions of straw for strewing the floor, candles, and firewood.  (Orme 2006, 134)  A c.1380 inventory from the Stonor letters of a schoolboy’s belongings which had been left at Ewelme school included coverlets, blankets, sheets, a bolster, shirts, several gowns, an ivory comb, and kerchiefs.  (Carpenter 1996, 450)


A few endowed schools were made for the purpose, but more often parts of existing buildings were used, sometimes part of churches.  It seems that a typical classroom would be a rectangular room with the schoolmaster’s chair at the far end and a seat for the usher (assistant teacher) near the door, where he could monitor comings and goings.  Benches, called forms, were usually against the walls and the books would be held in the students’ laps.  When called to the master to be tested or “apposed”, the boys went to stand before his chair.  (Orme 2006, 144)


Pictures of schools showed both master and usher armed with rods to beat lazy or disobedient students.  This type of discipline was taken for granted.  Agnes Paston, writing about her son Clement in 1458, had this to say:  “And if he hath not do well, nor will not amend, pray him (the master) that he will truly belash him till he will amend; and so did the last master and the best that ever he had, at Cambridge.”  This does seem to have become a nuisance at certain times and places as the Bishop of Norwich forbade the use of churches in King’s Lynn for schools since the cries of beaten pupils distracted worshipers.  (Orme 2006, 136)


What we might call elementary schools taught reading and sometimes writing in the vernacular and singing, which was important in the churches.  Because important documents and letters were often written in French, the French language was taught, as were “casting accounts”.  Writing and accountancy were important skills for future businessmen, stewards, or clerks.


Although learning was mostly by rote, some educators made an effort to encourage learning by making the material appealing to children.  The many books on behaviour were generally in rhyme and some Latin exercises included insults such as “A turd in your teeth!” and subjects that would be interesting and familiar to the students.   The children of wealthy families would no doubt have been fascinated by the beautiful and colourful psalters and books of hours used by their elders and have been motivated to try to read them. 


Training for Combat

Medieval society was a military society.  The Statute of Westminster in 1285 required every male over the age of 15 to possess weapons appropriate to his rank – and implied was the ability to use them.  Peasants had clubs, daggers, bows and arrows.  Many of the laws against various recreational sports were designed simply to force the men and boys to practice archery, and by 1512 laws were enacted that boys between seven and 17 must be provided with a bow and two arrows and taught to shoot.  Royal and noble children were of course provided with miniature weapons,  such as the sword owned by Henry V when he was nine, and bows and crossbows were also provided for privileged children, who would be taught to use them hunting.  Even quite young peasant children practiced with bow and arrow, as shown by a coroner’s report of a young child being accidently shot by a ten year old.  Boys also invented their own war games, some violent enough to cause serious injuries and adult intervention (Orme 2001, 182)


Noble children were frequently raised in huge households, often a household other than that of their parents, where they would be taught some academic skills, manners, and military skills, traditionally moving from page to squire to knight.  Unless the boy was being prepared for the church, the role of warrior was a given and even some priests fought.  Hunting, often starting at ages as early as six or seven, definitely by 14, was considered training for combat, building skill on horseback and with weapons, as well as physical hardiness and becoming accustomed to the sight of blood.  (Orme 2001, 182)



Entry into trades was controlled by the Guilds – indeed everything to do with the trades was controlled by the Guilds, the numbers who could enter, and the prices and quality of goods among other things.  The typical age for entering into apprenticeship was 14, although there are examples of younger or older individuals doing so.  Generally those who became apprentices had some family status or money.  Guilds eventually insisted upon literacy in their apprentices and there was generally a fee involved, sometimes quite a large one.  Apprenticeships were legal arrangements and documented, so we are familiar with the expectations on both sides.  The length of time – usually seven years or more – and the obligations on both sides were spelled out.  The master would commit to providing appropriate food, clothing, and housing and to teaching the apprentice his trade.  Sometimes additional terms were added, such as access to learning to read and write or to not being obliged to perform chores inappropriate to the apprentice’s rank.  The apprentice committed to obedience to his master, proper behaviour such as avoiding drunkenness and fornication, and usually to remaining unmarried during his apprenticeship.  The apprentice lived in his master’s household and under his master’s authority.  Eventually, the apprentice became a Journeyman and hoped to finally become a master with apprentices of his own.  Typically apprentices were males learning from male tradesmen or artisans.  Occasionally, girls were apprenticed to women in such fields as the silk trade and daughters and wives were permitted to help with some other trades.  (Orme 2001, 312-313)  There are documents extant about apprentices complaining about their food or treatment.  Sometimes these were written by the apprentice’s parents; however, parents who had parted with sizable sums to set the boy up in a respectable trade were not necessarily sympathetic if they believed their son to be lazy or unreasonable. 


The Pleasures of Life


Doing things just for enjoyment is part of being human and medieval families would certainly have done so.  Some activities would be specifically childish, but there were also many pleasant times that would have been shared as a family.  Medieval society enjoyed music, both the music of the church and popular music such as carols, which originally were songs to be danced to, usually in a circle. 


Particularly in the Christmas season, mummers and others would come to the door to entertain and be given food or drink.  The Christmas season lasted 12 days, with special foods, special music, and some things like the first Christmas mass, held in candlelight in the dark of night, when they would rarely be out, must have impressed the children immensely, providing a sense of mystery and awe.  At certain times, the lords of the manor would provide feasts for their peasants, which however briefly, would have left the peasants with full stomachs for a change and given them an opportunity to celebrate as a community.  In wealthy homes, minstrels and jugglers added to the merriment.  In some places, youth-centred activities such as “hunting the wren” took place, with the boys trying to capture a wren, which they would then parade through the village, asking for food, drink, or money.  In religious schools, Twelfth Night brought the brief reign of the Boy Bishop and authority turned on its head. 


Gift giving days for children whose parents had the means to be generous were St. Martin’s on November 11, St. Nicholas’ on December 6, New Year’s, and Epiphany on January 6, when possible gifts were sweets, new clothes, silver spoons, and coins.  Shrovetide sometimes saw children begging treats from house to house and schoolboys permitted to bring their cocks to school for cockfighting. (Ozment, 2001, 72)



Medieval children enjoying the sport of cock fighting. From the Romance of Alexander,

MS. Bodl. 264, pt. I .folio 050r







Some religious holidays provided particular entertainment such as religious plays, in which we know boys played the parts of women and children.  (Orme 2001, 191-195).  As well as the cycles of mystery and miracle plays, there apparently were plays about such subjects as Robin Hood.  For urban children and their families there would sometimes have been the fascination of watching processions, religious ones and secular ones such as the mayor or even royalty processing or formally entering the city.  We have information about street performances and presentations in these processions which must have been impressive to watch, with elaborate costumes and music.  We know that the guilds and noble or royal households paid for “mummings” and “disguisings” written by John Lydgate and probably others, although we do not know whether any of the apprentices or other youth would have been able to see them.  Puppet shows existed, possibly at markets or fairs.


Roman du bon roi Alexandre illuminated manuscript at the Bodleian Library, Oxford












May Day brought processions, dancing, and antics, with stories about Robin Hood entwined with much of the celebration.  The young would start the day by fetching branches of May (Hawthorn branches) to decorate the doors of their homes.  It was traditionally a day when apprentices might well get out of hand. 


Riddles, some of them bawdy, were popular.  Adult men played football and other games, no doubt watched by their admiring children, and it is documented that older youth played football outside London, watched by men who rode their horses there to watch – and possibly reminisce about their own youth. 


Some urban guilds and some village churches provided religious youth groups called “guilds” or “fraternities” for adolescent males and maidens separately.  They would care for particular shrines or do activities to raise money for the church, while providing an opportunity for harmless (and supervised) socializing.  (Youngs 2006, 116-117)


Games and toys

A contemporary poem by Jean Froissart lists 51 children’s games, including using materials such as mud, wood, and cloth to construct toy boats, mills, ovens, weapons, and hobbyhorses.  The toys most frequently depicted in pictures are spinning tops, hobbyhorses, and balls.  Items believed to be “buzz-bones” (bones with a cut hole to be threaded and whirred) have been excavated.  There is written documentation for dolls, but none have survived, so presumably they were created from perishable materials.  Some small metal or wax figures are known, but may have been votive offerings rather than toys.  Miniatures made of pewter or lead/tin alloy have survived, including small knights and equestrian figures and little jugs and tablewear.  (Gilchrist 2012, 149-151)  Rait in Ratis Raving, 15th century, refers to “making a comely lady from a clout”, which would certainly suggest what we call a rag doll. (Orme 2012, 18)


Children’s possessions and activities are documented back to antiquity: “rattles, clay and paper dolls, wheeled horses and wagons, sleds, balls, stilts, even miniature gardening tools.  Surviving illustrations depict boys and girls playing marbles, shooting dice, jumping rope, flying kites, dragging tame birds and reluctant beetles about on strings, spinning tops, rolling hoops, puffing into blowguns, and riding stick horses while pinwheels spin in their free hand.  Between the 12th and 14th centuries, noble and patrician boys staged tournaments with puppet knights and horsemen….Favourite games were ball, ring-around-the-roses, hide-and-go-seek, forfeits, chase, blind cow, thieves and sheriffs, musical chairs, and freeze…In winter, snowballs, snowmen, sleds, and ice skating filled the short days.”  (Ozment, 2001, 71)


We have some traces of children playing dice, tables (backgammon), chess, and Nine Men Morris.  Adults gambled when playing these and that may also have been true of adolescents. There were sports: bowls, football (sometimes called “camping”), closh (possibly similar to croquet), wrestling, and running.  There are records of boys bird-nesting, cock-fighting (particularly at Shrove-tide), and throwing sticks at the head of a live cock buried to the neck in the ground.  They played games with cherry-pits, probably in ways rather similar to marbles, and used nuts and other things as counters.  There was fishing and, in some times and places, swimming (naked and only for boys).  (Orme 2001, 176-180)


Blind Man’s Bluff was played and a game called Stools that we are not sure of the rules to. We know a bit more about another game, How Many Miles to Beverleyham, as it was mentioned in a sermon and some later references provided details.    It may have been chanted as follows:


            “How many miles to Beverleyham?”

                        “Eight, eight, and other eight.”

            “May I come there by daylight?”

                        “Yes, by God, if your horse be light!”


The original questioner runs from his base to another and back.  If he is not caught, he taunts, “Ha, ha, petty pace, yet I am where I was.”  (Orme 2001, 141; Orme 2012, 27)


Pieter Bruegel’s 1559 painting, “Children’s Games”, shows more than 200 incredibly solemn children playing various games and with dolls, hoops, tops, pin-wheels, and other toys, as well as putting items not actually toys to use in play as children have always done and still do.  (See this opposite page 29.)


Stories and Rhymes

About what our culture calls “children’s literature”, we are guessing.  As with lullabies, this is not a topic that was much documented by contemporaries and we do not know if they had a sense that some stories and verses belonged to children and others to adults.  It is difficult to know if the few remnants of rhymes that have survived from the middle ages were used to amuse children as our nursery rhymes are.  Nicholas Orme in Fleas, Flies, and Friars:  Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages discusses a number of verses that whether actually written to delight children would certainly be appropriate for doing so.  One example that certainly sounds as though meant for the young is the following:


            I have twelve oxen, and                                              (Blumen der Tugend)    15th century

            They be fair and brown,                                 And they go a-grazing                                     Down by the town,

                        With hey, with ho, with hoy!

            Sawest thou not mine oxen,

            Thou pretty little boy?


            I have twelve oxen, and

            They be fair and white,

            And they go grazing

Down by the dyke,

With hey, with ho, with hoy!

            Sawest thou not mine oxen,                                 

            Thou pretty little boy? 


This continues with black oxen by the lake and red oxen by the mead.  One could imagine it being used with finger play or other activities between child and mother or nurse.  Orme also cites charming nonsense rhymes about anthropomorphic animals garbed as knights or “fastening shoon”. 


There are extant stories about the imagined childhood of Jesus and about child saints, such as William of Norwich and Little Hugh of Lincoln, which would have made the story of their faith seem closer to children listening to them.  Robin Hood stories were well known and popular.  We know that stories of King Arthur were popular with adults at this period and were often read aloud, which might have opened them up to a more youthful audience.  Orme quotes a wonderful story – The Friar and the Boy – printed by Wynkyn de Worde that once again we cannot be sure was intended for a young audience, but which has all the markings of a story designed to be loved by children:  a young hero who triumphs over unkind adults, magic, and a mean stepmother forced by magic to make rude noises that embarrass her.




“With that she let go a blast,

That they in the hall were aghast;

It rang all over the place.

All they laughed and had good game;

The wife waxed red for shame;

She wished she were somewhere else.”

 (Orme 2012, 72)


The children would also have listened to adults telling stories of local history and stories from their own childhood, which would have given a sense of their community’s past and their family’s role in it.  Perhaps the much later legends that became attached to Sir Richard Whittington, mercer and four times mayor of London started that way – although sadly the cat is fictitious.


When Did Childhood End?


This is a question with a lot of different answers, depending on class, gender, and circumstance.  For most purposes the church saw adulthood arriving between the ages of 12 and 17.  Typically participation in confession and the Eucharist began about puberty, although a 12th century church council said youth under the age of 14 should not be forced to take oaths.  However, twelve year old non-aristocratic males took oaths to keep the peace and joined the “tithing” and “hundred” (organizations of local government sharing responsibility for peace keeping), but for most legal offenses youth under the age of 12 were the responsibility of their fathers, who would be expected to answer for their behaviour and pay for damages, as well as deal out punishment themselves.  Once teenagers were working and earning money, they became responsible for their own behaviour.  For very serious crimes, such as homicide, a small number of children did face the full penalty of the law, but these were relatively rare and always a matter of concern to the people involved.  (Orme 2001, 321)



Marriage and the setting up of a household was a major sign of achieved adulthood.  Marriage was valid only with the consent of the parties when the female was 12 or more and the male 14 or more.  Betrothals and marriages between much younger children did indeed take place among the high born and wealthy, for purposes of the parents and guardians, sometimes

political or financial, sometimes simply through anxiety to ensure the safe future of their child, rather than risk the child’s marriage being sold to strangers.  However, those marriages could be repudiated when the children reached the age of consent and sometimes were.     


Margaret Beaufort did exactly that, repudiating the marriage she had contracted with John de la Pole when very young and marrying Edmund Tudor when she was approximately twelve.  Supposedly she made the choice herself, but presumably would have had adults advising her;  the story was told that she prayed to St. Nicholas, who appeared to her in a dream and advised her to take Edmund.  However, these unions of infants were concerns of royalty and the upper classes.  Laws were gradually passed granting more protection to minors being married, particularly when the marriage was arranged by a guardian rather than a parent.  (Orme 2001, 334-337) 


More typical of the wealthy, but not noble class, Katherine Riche, the step-daughter of Thomas Stonor, was betrothed at the age of 13 and receiving letters from her much older husband-to-be, Thomas Betson, but the letters are playful, suited to her age, and make it plain that she was not regarded as quite old enough yet to be a wife.  She was finally married at the age of 15 and apparently very happily.  (Power 1963, 102-105).   The wife of Le Ménagier de Paris also was married at 15, with an affectionate husband expecting her to behave in an appropriately youthful manner.


However, the majority of the population did not marry until their late teens or early 20’s.  Apprentices were not free to marry until the apprenticeship was completed, usually in their 20’s.  Peasants married when they had enough money for their own home, again usually in their 20’s.  Peasant girls would sometimes go into service to gain experience and save some money while waiting for marriage. (Orme 2001, 334-337) 


Members of the socially mobile Paston family certainly looked for financial and social advantage in their marital plans.  Margaret Mauteby, an heiress, was probably in her mid-teens when she married John Paston and  seems to have had some choice in the matter.  The marriage was a successful one.  Her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Paston, suffered physical abuse from her mother for flatly refusing one suitor, but still wanted an advantageous match, several times asking for her brother’s help in finding a suitable husband.  She finally married when she was almost 30.  Margaret’s elder daughter, Margery Paston, made a runaway match with the family steward at 19 and stuck to it against strong family opposition.  Her older brother, John III, managed to achieve a marriage that was both suitable and a love match with Margery Brews, although not without considerable negotiating about the dowry. (Orme 2001, 334-337)  (Davis 1963)


Similarly, binding vows to a religious life and celibacy as a subdeacon had a mandated age of 17, and one had to be 24 to be ordained as a priest.  (Orme 2001, 216)



Inheritance involved still a different set of ages.  The standard age for inheritance was 21, although women could inherit at 16 if married to someone over the age of 21.  A peasant would be permitted to farm his father’s land when he was sufficiently physically able to do so, probably around 15, although possibly supervised by his mother.  A burgess’ son could take over his father’s business when he could show himself to have the skills to do so. Some wills stipulate the use of money for an apprenticeship or for education, or specify obedience to the surviving parent, the mother, as a condition for inheritance.  (Orme 2001, 326-327)


Guardians for minor heirs frequently undertook the task in order to make a profit.  The city of London had strict rules for the guardianship of orphans of citizens, an orphan being a minor child where the parent who was a citizen had died.  One of the considerations in appointing a guardian was that it should not be someone who would profit from the early death of the orphan, so that if the inheritance came from the father’s family, someone from the maternal side (most frequently the mother) would be appointed, but if the inheritance came from the mother’s family one of the paternal relatives was named.  (Hanawalt 1993, 95)


Obviously there were considerations other than just providing for the child’s upkeep and safety.  When John Paston I died, his oldest son was old enough to inherit his property, but he also inherited the responsibility for the well-being of two widows (his mother and grandmother, both of whom had dower rights in much of the family’s property), and his younger siblings to see educated and appropriately married, as well as the care of several estates, some of which had been involved in lengthy and difficult litigation.  Where there were responsibilities it was obviously important that the heir be old enough and competent enough to deal with them. 


Success or Failure?


Public opinion held the parents responsible for how their child turned out.  Orme quotes a story of the period in which a condemned man, encountering his mother on his way to the scaffold, bitterly berates her for not having corrected him sufficiently in his childhood, leading him to a life of crime and an early death. 


Bartholomeus sums up a medieval view of the roles of successful parents:


“The mother loves her child tenderly, and hugs and kisses him and feeds him and nurtures him attentively.”  “A man loves his child, and feeds and nurtures him...and teaches him in his youth with speech and with words, and chastises him with beating, and sets him to learning under ward and keeping of wardens and tutors.  And the father shows him no glad cheer lest he become proud.  And to his children clothing and food as their age requires, and acquires land and heritage for his children constantly and makes it greater and greater, and improves his acquisition, and leaves it to his heirs.” (Forgeng 2009, 48-49)


An earlier medieval view comes from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Fortunes of Man and is even more evocative of parents tending their child and hoping the results are successful:


“It very often happens through God’s powers that man and woman bring forth a child by birth into the world and clothe him in colours and curb him and teach him until the time comes and it happens with the passing of years that the young and lively limbs and members are mature.  Thus his father and mother lead him along and guide his footsteps and provide for him and clothe him – but only God knows what the years will bring him as he grows up.”  (Leyser 1995, 64)










 Carpenter, Christine (editor), Kingsford’s Stonor Letters and Papers 1290-1483

1996, Cambridge University Press


Davis, Norman (editor, introduction) The Paston Letters, A Selection in Modern Spelling,

1963, Oxford University Press


Forgeng, Jeffery & Will McLean, Daily Life in Chaucer’s England

            2009, The Greenwood Press


Furnivall, F.J., Early English Meals and Manners: With Some Forewords on Education in Early England,

            Originally published 1897 

Russell’s Boke of Nurture; The Babees Book; Fyrst Boke of Curtasye; Stans Puer ad Mensam; other period books on food and manners  


Gilchrist, Roberta, Medieval Life: Archeology and the Life Course

            2012, The Boydell Press


Hanawalt, Barbara A., Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History

            1993, Oxford University Press       


Hanawalt, Barbara A., The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England

            1986, Oxford University Press     


Henisch, Bridget Ann, The Medieval Cook

2013, The Boydell Press


Heywood, Colin, A History of Childhood

2001, Polity Press


Leyser, Henrietta, Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England, 450-1500,

            1995, Weidenfeld & Nicolson; ebook, Phoenix 2013    


Orme, Nicholas, Fleas, Flies, and Friars:  Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages

            2012, Cornell University Press 


Orme, Nicholas, Medieval Children

            2001, Yale University Press


Orme, Nicholas, Medieval Schools:  Roman Britain to Renaissance England

            2006, Yale University Press


Ozment, Steven, Ancestors:  The Loving Family in Old Europe

            2001, Harvard University Press


Pizan, Christine de, A Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honor:  The Treasury of the City of Ladies,  translated by C. Willard, edited by M. Cosman

1989,  Persea Books, Inc.


Power, Eileen (translator, introduction, notes) The Goodman of Paris (Le Ménagier de Paris),

1992, The Folio Society


Power, Eileen, Medieval People

1963 London: Methuen, 2000, Dover Publications, Inc.


Ricket, Edith & L.J. Naylor (translators), The Babee’s Book

            2000, In parentheses Publications, Middle English Series, Cambridge, Ontario


Rosen, William, The Third Horseman:  Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century,

            2014, Viking Penguin    


Schofield, John, Medieval London Houses

            1995, Yale University Press


Sponsler, Claire, The Queen’s Dumbshows:  John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theatre,

            2014, University of Pennsylvania Press


Youngs, Deborah, The Life Cycle in Western Europe, c.1300-c.1500,

            2006, Manchester University Press



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