I’ve written about how women fared in medieval times, but only in passing about children. So what was it like to be a medieval child? And would you still be alive now? The answer to that last question is probably no. Only one child in three survived to the age of one and only one in ten to the age of ten.
Birth was the first hurdle to get over. There were no anaesthetics for the mother and if there were any problems at all, both the baby and mother usually died. The only medical presence would be a midwife who would be accompanied by the mother’s female friends and relations. No men were allowed except, very rarely, a doctor.
Rich babies would be wrapped very tightly in cloths, their legs bound together and their arms pinioned to their sides. Supposedly this would help their legs grow straight, but in fact it delayed their being able to walk considerably as their muscles didn’t get a chance to develop. The cloths were changed regularly and could be taken off altogether once they could sit up or crawl. The cradle would be put in a dark corner to protects their eyes from light. A nurse would be employed to look after the baby full-time.
Peasant babies often had no clothes and were tied into their cradles covered by a blanket, or kept warm by being laid in front of the fire. You can imagine the perils that this subjected the child to – embers falling out of the fire; water pots boiling over; going in the wrong direction when crawling. If there was no-one to look after them at home, they would be taken into the fields and often tied to a tree.
Baptism was very important as it was supposed to wash away all original sin and evil from the child. There was always a great fear that a child might die unbaptised and so midwives were allowed to baptise a baby if there was no-one else and it was about to die. Baptism usually took place on the day of birth. If the baby was well enough to take to church, the father, godparents, midwife, friends and relatives would all make a procession to the church. The mother was not allowed to attend. After the baptism, a feast would take place.
If you survived infancy, a time when even a cold could kill you, things didn’t always get better. Children were expected to do chores for part of the day, particularly in poor families. Boys would follow their fathers around at their work, girls their mothers in the home. They were trained in manners and the skills they would need as adults. They did have toys however. There were see-saws and swings, balls, skipping ropes and hoops. They would also climb trees and play chasing games. They would eat the same as adults, but were only allowed two or three glasses of wine or beer.
If you were poor or a girl you very rarely went to school. Girls occasionally were sent to convents to receive a basic education. They would learn to read and write, learn their prayers and be taught domestic accomplishments such as needlework and spinning.
If you were a rich boy you went to a monastery or school between the ages of 7 and 14. There was corporal punishment for nearly every misdemeanour from making a mistake in your work to being late. Latin was usually the spoken language and you would get one beat of the rod for each word of English you were heard speaking.
Some noble children would leave home very young to live with the family into which they would marry and boys of around seven often moved to another castle as a page to be trained as a knight. Poor children could leave home at about the age of twelve to be trained as servants in castles or big houses. Apprenticeships began in the teens when a boy would be sent to learn a trade. However, most children stayed at home, particularly the poor, and worked with their parents.
Childhood was hard in medieval times but a good grounding for the harshness of adult life.
Written and researched by GillB*
The second and third pictures courtesy of Castles of the World