I have a good friend who designs sets for the local playhouse. I’m her go-to guide to all things medieval. She called this afternoon looking for some pictures for costume ideas for an upcoming production of “The Princess and the Pea”. She has to make costumes for children and adults.We started talking about medieval children; what they wore and how they lived. As we sat chatting in my kitchen, it occurred to me that there are a lot of misconceptions about medieval childhood. We tend to see them as hard working miniature adults, never able to laugh and play. Popular myth tells us for them, childhood ended at the age of 6.
This was a subject I found frustrating when I first started studying the medieval period. Oh I found many books on medieval life, but often these books excluded any mention of children ,as if they were mere shadows of adults, hiding from sight until they became old enough to marry. Did we know anything at all about medieval children?
A few years back another friend sent me Nicholas Orme’s Medieval Children for Christmas. It has been a favorite ever since. I pulled this out along with Marjorie Rowling’s Life in Medieval Times so I can give you:
Things you may not know about medieval Children
The Nuclear Family
We often think of medieval peasants as having many children due to lack of birth control and wanting many hands to help in the fields. This is not the case. Medieval families had the same amount of children we see today. The average family had three living children. The number of “stillbirths” would have been around 6.
Medieval families consisted of parents and their offspring. We think of medieval families of consisting of grandparents, parents and children, but again, they lived as we do, with grandparents close by if they were lucky enough to live to see grandchildren.
Much of what we know of medieval understanding of pregnancy comes from the Franciscan friar Bartholomew the Englishman. What he knew came from Aristotle.
Medieval medicine said a child is formed from the father’s seed and some “matter” from the mother. An embryo growing on the right side of the womb would become a boy, on the left a girl. Medieval philosophy said the dominating characteristics of the parents determined the future child’s character. If a male child was nothing like his father, paternity was questioned. No wonder King Henry IV was so devastated by Prince Hal’s wanton ways and wondered if he and Henry Percy were switched at birth.
Medieval medicine said gestation time varied from 8 to 10 months. Girls took longer to form, as the elements that formed boys were hotter. Boys apparently “cooked” at higher temperatures and in less time.
Giving birth was seen as a life-threatening ordeal. So much so, that women were encouraged to give confession just as labor set in. Women, seeking divine assurance that all would be well, would have Church relics tied to their skirts or laid out on the bed. For those who could not afford them or were not near a Church had parchments of Biblical sayings tied to their skirts. Sometimes mineral stones would do the trick. Midwives assisted with labor, as it was unseemly work for a man to assist with childbirth. A Midwife were supposed to register with the local Church so as not to be seen as a witch.
I will spare you all the gory details of what could go wrong (and often did) due to misconceptions and lack of medical training. What is interesting to note, is that if a women died while in childbirth the Church ruled that a caesarian operation could be performed to save the child. Because girls married at a young age and gave birth in their early teens, they were the ones who often died.
Dangers and Death
Just because a child was successfully delivered does not mean it would live to adulthood. Orme reminds us of the many perils medieval children faced. The list is long and not very kind. I give you the three most common.
Infanticide and or abuse may occur when a parent is cold, shamed, indifferent or suffer from mental illness. If a child is deemed to be deformed, either mentally or physically, it may be killed or abandoned at the local Church.
Childhood diseases were the number 1 killers of children followed by accidents. Remember this was a time when a simple cut could lead to gangrene or other types of life ending infections.
Medieval children who escaped death had their playtime. In fact play was seen as the dividing line between child and adulthood. Youth was seen as wild, fearless and inconsistent. This was a time when young people could act in reckless abandon and innocently enjoy life. The games they played were varied but as with all things in medieval life, had laws and rules issued by the ruling authorities. Some games you would find medieval children playing would be familiar to us.
Closh (a kind of Croquet)
Camping (a type of football or hocky)
Quck (like checkers)
Children were encouraged to play during festivals and market days. You may be surprised to learn that during religious holidays, market days and fairs, children in large groups could be found playing any number of games. Socialization was important to medieval culture. The children were not just playing; they were learning to act as a group. In this way they were learning social skills and cultural norms. Boys especially were encouraged to play rough games as this they were seen as the first step towards combat skills. Schoolmasters and Church leaders observed boys at play and assessed which would be most suited to the religious life and who would be valued as soldiers.
There is no better argument for a medieval childhood than a list of toys. Toys are the symbol of the celebration of childhood. Even when we cannot afford them we would rather go hungry than deny a child a toy. It a parents “sacrificial” gesture, made solely to please a child. Medieval children were given handmade toys, yet they are not much different than what modern parents buy today.
Child’s Bell (a noise maker)
Windmills (we call them spinners)
As you can see all of this shows us there was much to medieval childhood and I haven’t hit on the stories, songs and lullabies medieval children would have heard. For more I suggest picking up Medieval Children by Nicholas Orme.