Medieval childhood: a historical A-Z
What games did children play during the Middle Ages? What bedtime stories did they listen to? And what happened when they got into trouble? Speaking on the HistoryExtra Podcast, Emily Joan Ward uncovers the medieval childhood experience, offering an A to Z of growing up in the Middle Ages…
A… is for Apprenticeships
In the later Middle Ages, when a child reached around 12-14, they could be taken on as an apprentice. For a boy, apprenticeships would typically last for around seven years until they reached their early 20s, with girls typically being kept on until marriage.
As an apprentice, a child became a part of their master’s household. They would have eaten together, socialised with the other children in the household and were provided with bed, board and clothing. In return, the apprentice promised faithful service as well as good behaviour – vowing to forgo gambling, frequenting inns and sexual relationships with anyone in the household.
B… is for Bedtime Stories?
While there is little evidence of medieval children being read bedtime stories, they seem to have been a key part of storytelling culture in the Middle Ages. Some parents even wrote stories and letters for their children to read, such as the Book of the Knight of the Tower, which was written by a man in the 14th century for his daughters.
Full of heroic and dramatic narratives, performances of chanson de gestes (epic poems) and romance stories at feasts and in grand halls proved especially exciting for young children. One 13th-century author of conduct literature, Thomasin von Zirclaria, even suggested that these adventure stories could broaden the minds of children.
C… is for Clothing
Infants were typically swaddled in long strips of cloth to protect them. After infancy, it’s unclear what younger children wore, as there is a lack of evidence for toilet training. It’s likely that they may have been naked or at least partially clothed until they could control their own bowel movements.
- Read more | Tales of the toilet: a historical A–Z
From then on, they would generally wear smaller versions of the clothes worn by adults. This would have typically involved breeches or stockings, leather shoes and a long, loose outer garment, such as a woollen or linen gown. Usually children were bareheaded but, once married, girls would have worn headdresses too.
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D… is for Discipline
Corporal punishment and physical chastisement were common throughout the Middle Ages, both for children and adults.
Beating and harsh words were accepted ways to teach children, but there were also debates about how severe punishments should be. When legal cases came to court, the debate was less about whether force was appropriate, instead focussing on whether or not it was excessive.
If deemed so, the adults responsible for doling out overly harsh discipline were often punished. It was also suggested that poor teaching was a reason why a parent or teacher may have resorted to physical punishment. Guibert of Nogent (c1055–1124) describes how his teacher was unable to explain himself very well, so he took it out on his pupil, while Anselm of Canterbury (1033/4–1109) suggested that kindness was more effective in educating children.
E… is for Education
The majority of children received an education within their parental home, learning social responsibility as well as moral and religious lessons. There were some opportunities for formal schooling, though these weren’t accessible to most. Aged seven, or sometimes even younger, boys could have been sent off to schooling environments, such as cathedral or grammar schools, and could go on to university around the age of 14 to 16. Girls, on the other hand, were more likely to have a tutor appointed to teach them, or be taught within nunneries.
F… is for Fostering
Fostering was quite common in medieval Europe, especially amongst elites, and in places such as Ireland and Wales. Young people would be sent by their family to be raised and educated in another person’s household.
G… is for Gender
Childhood play was less gendered than we might assume, especially in the early years, when boys and girls played outside together in mixed groups. Social status more often dictated the childhood experience than gender, at least at this young age.
As children grew older and reached puberty, gender began to have a bigger impact on how they were treated. While young men would have been less concerned about chastity, young girls tended to be closely watched and allowed less freedom. In advice and conduct literature, the overall concern was that young women would remain chaste and guard themselves against the temptations of the world, particularly against young men who might lead them astray.
However, medieval ideas about gender roles were not fixed. Young girls were encouraged to take on apprenticeships as well as boys, with more flexible contracts that started earlier in life. There was an understanding that girls’ development started earlier, which was reflected in the cultural and socials roles they took on.
H… is for Household Chores
Household economy was especially important in the Middle Ages, so many children would have performed chores to support their families. This often included childcare, with older children looking after younger siblings from an early age.
Other popular chores involved rural and agricultural tasks associated with the yearly calendar, as well as animal husbandry, with young boys looking after horses, cows, pigs and geese. At harvest time, young children may have helped with fruit picking while older children would have helped with the ploughing and mowing. Chores were appropriate to children’s ages – there was no expectation for a child to plough a field at the age of six.
I… is for Innocence
There were two conflicting ideas surrounding childhood innocence in the Middle Ages, which both drew on different biblical passages and were interpreted in different ways. Some theologians and writers saw childhood as a time of purity. Therefore, sin became associated with the onset of puberty and adolescence, when lust and passion could lead a child to lose their innocence.
But others thought that children were inherently sinful from the moment of the conception, an argument that was strongly promoted by theologian Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430). This idea of inherited sin stemmed all the way back to the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, and was believed to have then be conveyed from father to son. But even those people who argued this viewpoint most aggressively still acknowledged that children lacked the ability to express their sin in the same way as adults.
- Read more | Who wrote the Bible, and when?
J… is for Jobs
As well as helping around the home, children were expected to get involved in the family trade. For example, fingerprints found on medieval pots suggest that young children used their small and nimble hands to perfom fine, detailed work, such as moulding handles. Not only would this have brought in extra income for the household, but also prepared children for work in the future.
K… is for Knowledge of Action
During the Middle Ages, the age of criminal responsibility ranged from 10 to 15 years old, but another important factor when considering a punishment for a child was ‘knowledge of action’. For example, in 1299, a 10-year-old boy in England was given a death sentence for the murder of a young girl, as he had shown an awareness that was he had done was morally wrong by hiding her body.
L… is for Literacy
It’s not possible to estimate the proportion of literate people in medieval society, but it is likely that by 1300, far more people had access to some form of basic literacy than we might assume today. Learning to read and write Latin would have been common among the elite, but learning the vernacular was accessible to all and most children would have had some knowledge of the alphabet.
However, other skills were often prioritised. Memory seems to have been seen as a far more important skill for children – young boys learning books of poems by heart appears to have been much more common than learning to write their names.
M… is for Mortality
While figures for infant mortality are difficult to calculate, it is estimated that 30–50 per cent of children would have died young. In one study of the English royal family, less than half of the 96 children born between the 12th and 16th centuries survived through to their twenties, and more than one-third died in their first year.
In the first year of life, children faced plenty of risks, from disease and fire to cradle death. Animals knocked over cradles, and sometimes even devoured infants. Toddlers could drown or be knocked down by horses. However, accidental death seemed to drop off by the age of four, as this would have been when children received the greatest supervision as they were taught tasks around the home.
N… is for Nuptials
From the mid-12th century, children between 12 and 14 were able to consent to marriage. This did not mean that everyone married this young, however. Most people married later than this or, in some cases, not at all. But young adolescents had the legal and canonical power to choose.
- Read more | Love and marriage in medieval England
O… is for Onfim
In the 1950s, excavations just outside of the city of Novgorod (in modern Russia) uncovered a collection of more than 900 birchbark texts, dating from the 11th to the 15th centuries. In this collection were classroom jottings, including alphabets as well as syllabic and phonetic exercises, and around 17 doodles from a child called Onfim, who lived in the 13th century.
Onfim drew stick figures of warriors on horseback and wild beasts. He also wrote little notes for friends and classmates, such as "greetings from Onfim to Danilo”. Not much is known about Onfim, but his drawings provide an interesting insight how children learned the alphabet and behaved in the medieval classroom.
P… is for Play
Medieval children were expected to help around the home, but they weren’t occupied from morning to dusk, leaving opportunities to play with friends, family and animals. One 12th–century cleric, Gerald of Wales (c1146–1223), describes playing on the sand outside his father's castle with his brother.
Many games were intended to provide children with a knightly education or train them for other aspects of adult life. From imitating recent historical battles to learning board games, it was hoped this would teach them the skills needed to participate in society when they were older.
Q… is for Quaffing
Medieval sources offer up plenty of examples of children being greedy and eating far too quickly. Conduct literature of the era talks about the ways in which children should behave at the table, from not sucking up soup loudly to not drinking too much wine.
- Read more | What time of the day did medieval people eat?
R… is for Rural vs Urban Experience
One factor that would have significantly altered a child’s experience was whether they grew up in a rural or urban environment. This affected the type of diseases a child could catch, the work environments they trained in, how they played, and even the possible causes of accidental death.
The growth of towns and cities over time saw an increased institutionalisation in opportunities for young people, including the formation of universities. With the expansion in working environments, apprenticeships became increasingly formalised with contracts and indenture records.
S… is for Sugar and Sweeteners
Children of this era also seem to have loved sweet things, though not in the guises we might be familiar with today. Many children seem to have loved fruit – some sources describe parents using apples to appease their children, or even children stealing apples from orchards!
Up until the 13th century, sugar wasn’t readily available and even then, it would have been confined to the elite. This meant that the main sweetener of the Middle Ages was honey. Soaking bread in honeyed milk to make ‘pap’ was a common recommendation of 13th-century physicians for weaning children onto solid food. When children could then chew, they might move onto tarts made of bread and sugar as a sweet treat. Illness was also treated with sugar, especially for noble or royal children – twisted sticks of natural sugar were believed to cure sickness.
T… is for Toys
It is likely that children played with natural items such as shells, pebbles and feathers. One hagiographical text, describes Waldef/Waltheof (c1095–1159), the later abbot of Melrose, as a child gathering twigs and branches with his brother to play with. While Waldef’s brother is said to have made toy castles and played soldiers like other boys Waldef apparently made churches out of stones and pretended to be a priest.
Manufactured toys, such as dolls, spinning tops or lead knights and horses, appeared much later in the Middle Ages. However, there are earlier examples made out of wood and bone in the shapes of small boats, weapons, or animals.
- Read more | Toys and games that killed in Tudor England
U… is for Unruliness
Children in the past also got in trouble for raucous behaviour – and sometimes they got away with it! In one story from the 12th-century Ramsay Abbey Chronicle, four boys being educated at the abbey were playing outside the cloister and pulling the bell ropes for fun, when they cracked a bell. The monks of the abbey were livid with their behaviour. But the abbot rationalised this behaviour explaining that if they were punished too harshly they might take their revenge upon the abbey in later life, instead of bestowing generous gifts as it was hoped they would do once they grew up.
V… is for Voices
Before the 14th and 15th century, it’s difficult to directly access the voices of children. Although there are plenty of documentary sources describing children’s lives, including legal records, saints’ lives and parental advice literature, we are left with a silence surrounding many childhood feelings and experiences. Some of the most vivid evidence on medieval childhood comes from material culture, from small fingerprints left on wax seals to graffiti scrawled by the young.
- On the podcast | Emily Joan Ward answers listener questions and top internet search queries surrounding medieval childhood, from play time unruliness and mischievous doodles, to sugary treats and horrible household chores
W… is for Welfare
There was a clear social, cultural and legal understanding that children needed to be protected. Blame for children's actions was often attributed to their parents or caregivers (especially mothers) rather than the children themselves. It was also suggested that young people should be protected with education and schooling. Writing about the education of elite boys, Giles of Rome (1243–1316) suggested that they shouldn't be allowed to see the paintings or carvings of naked women until they were much older, fearing it might influence their development.
X… is for eXtraterrestrials?
William of Newburgh (1136–1198) tells a story of a young girl and a boy who emerged from several ancient ditches outside the Suffolk town of Woolpit. Their skin was green, they spoke an unrecognisable language and their clothing was strange. The local villagers brought them back to their village and after time the children gradually accepted normal food and lost their green colouring. When they finally learned how to speak English, they claimed that they were from an underground country called St Martin’s land, where the sun didn’t rise or set.
Whether these children were from another country, suffered a dietary deficiency that changed the colour of their skin or were really from another planet has been a widely debated topic over the years – the answer remains a mystery.
Y… is for Years
Childhood was divided up into stages in the medieval mindset. Between the ages of zero and seven was ‘infantia’ which meant ‘incapable of speech’ in Latin – when children were not only unable to articulate fully but understand things conceptually. From seven until 12 (for girls) and 14 (for boys) was the main stage of childhood, called pueritia in Latin. These stages influenced what children could do at certain stages in life and how they were represented in legal texts. It was recognised that a child didn't suddenly become an adult overnight. Adolescence sometimes extended into a person’s twenties and even thirties.
Z… is for Zzz
Since communal sleeping arrangements were the norm, it was very rare for children to have their own bedroom. Babies would have slept in cradles, but older children would have shared a room or bed with other members of their family and household.
Sleep could sometimes lead children into trouble. One 12th-century miracle collection from Scotland tells how a six-year-old boy fell asleep while looking after his father’s lambs. Four women appeared in his dreams and gave him something to drink. When he woke, his throat was swollen and he remained unable to speak for 16 years until he was cured at a saint’s shrine.
Dr Emily Joan Ward is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Edinburgh. She was talking to Dr David Musgrove, HistoryExtra content director. Words by Emily Briffett, HistoryExtra podcast editorial assistant