The Medieval Child, Part 1: Introduction

Childbirth, Childhood and Adolescence in the Middle Ages

Of all the misconceptions about the Middle Ages, some of the most difficult to overcome involve life for children and their place in society. Our distorted view is understandable: evidence is scant, and little work has been done on the topic by medievalists until recently.

In addition, as is often the case with medieval studies, assumptions have been made by those who sought to hold up the modern age as "enlightened" in comparison to the "dark ages" that had gone before.

It is these generally unfounded concepts that seem to take the strongest hold on the popular imagination.

In this series of articles I hope to offer an introduction to what recent scholarship has uncovered about the status of children in the Middle Ages. We'll also look at what details are known about the various phases of life for the younger members of society. In the process, perhaps we can puncture some of the most prevalent misconceptions and begin to see a more lucid picture of the medieval child.

The Concept of Childhood

If you have heard that there was no recognition of childhood as a distinct category of development in medieval society, you are not alone. The idea that children were treated like miniature adults as soon as they could walk and talk is a common one. It is also nearly impossible to support with fact.

One of the most frequently-mentioned forms of "evidence" I have encountered for this concept is the representation in some medieval artwork of children dressed in adult clothing.

If they wore grown-up clothes, the theory goes, they must have been expected to behave like grown-ups.

This argument takes a fairly strenuous leap to its conclusion on the flimsiest of springboards. Although there certainly isn't a great deal of medieval artwork that depicted children other than the Christ Child, the examples that survive do not universally display them in adult garb.

More importantly, there is ample evidence that society as a whole recognized childhood as a separate stage of life. Medieval laws existed to protect the rights of orphans. Medieval medicine approached the treatment of children separately from adults. In general, children were recognized as vulnerable, and in need of special protection.1

The idea that adolescence was not recognized as a category of development separate from both childhood and adulthood is a more subtle distinction, but only just. The primary evidence concerning this outlook is the lack of any term for the modern-day word "adolescence." If they didn't have a word for it, they didn't comprehend it as a stage in life.

This argument also leaves something to be desired, especially when we remember that medieval people did not use the terms "feudalism" or "courtly love." And again, there is some evidence to refute the assumption. Inheritance laws set the age of majority at 21, expecting a certain level of maturity before entrusting a young individual with financial responsibility. And there was concern expressed for the "wild youth" of teenage apprentices and students; the mischief that youth can cause was frequently seen as a stage that people pass through on the way to becoming "sad and wise." 

Of course, we cannot automatically assume that medieval attitudes were identical or even similar to modern ones. But we can see fairly clearly that childhood was recognized as a phase of life, and one that had value, at that.

   Continued on Page Two: The Importance of Children.

Note

1. Gies, Frances, and Gies, Joseph, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (Harper & Row, 1987), p. 197.  


Guide's Note: This article was originally posted in October of 2000 and was updated in May of 2009.

The Importance of Children

There has been a general, vague perception that, in the Middle Ages, children were not valued by their families or by society as a whole. Perhaps no time in history has sentimentalized infants, toddlers and waifs as has modern culture, but it doesn't necessarily follow that children were undervalued in earlier times.

In part, a lack of representation in medieval popular culture is responsible for this perception.

Contemporary chronicles and biographies that include childhood details are few and far between; literature of the times rarely touched on the hero's tender years; medieval artwork offering visual clues about children other than the Christ Child is almost nonexistent. This lack of representation in and of itself has led some observers to conclude that children were of limited interest, and therefore of limited importance, to medieval society at large.

Leaving aside the wisdom--or lack thereof--in drawing conclusions solely from popular culture, it is important to remember that medieval society was primarily an agrarian one, and it was the family unit that made the agrarian economy work. From a purely economic standpoint, nothing was more valuable to a peasant family than sons to help with the plowing and daughters to help with the household. Children were, essentially, the primary reason to marry.

It has even been suggested that cases of premarital pregnancy among women who married their children's fathers might be due to the necessity of ensuring fertility before going ahead with a wedding.1

In towns and cities, children would grow to become the laborers and apprentices that made a craft business grow.

And here, too, there are signs that society as a whole understood the value of children. For example, in medieval London, laws regarding the rights of orphans were careful to place a child with someone who could not benefit from his death.

Among the nobility, children would perpetuate the family name and increase the family's holdings through advancement in service to their liege lords and through advantageous marriages. Some of these unions were planned while the bride- and groom-to-be were still in the cradle.

In the face of these facts it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that people of the Middle Ages were any less aware that children were their future then we are aware today that children are the future of the modern world. And if it is reasonable to accept that medieval society valued children, how strong an argument can really be made that medieval individuals lacked affection for their offspring?

A Question of Affection

Few aspects of life in the Middle Ages can be more difficult to determine than the nature and depth of the emotional attachments made among family members. It is perhaps natural for us to assume that in a society that placed a high value on its younger members, most parents loved their children.

Biology alone would suggest a bond between a child and the mother who nursed him.

And yet, it has been theorized that affection was largely lacking in the medieval household. Below are some of the assumptions, generalizations, and unfounded theories that have been put forward to support this notion.

  • Infanticide was rampant. Anyone capable of extinguishing the life of a helpless newborn was incapable of feeling or expressing love for an infant.

  • Infant mortality was sky-high. Mothers could not afford to make an emotional investment in a child when there was a good chance it would die before its first birthday.

  • Child labor was common. Children began an apprenticeship, entered service, or worked behind the plow before they reached 10 years of age.

  • Discipline was extreme. The average medieval father would sooner cuff his son than embrace him.

  • Popular culture virtually ignored children. There were no tender odes to darling tots, no portraits of big-eyed waifs, no songs of blissful childhood. There were also no parenting manuals to tell eager young parents the correct way of raising a child.

In forthcoming articles, we'll take a closer look at these points and the evidence that refutes them. Please join me next time for The Medieval Child, Part 2: Entry into the Medieval World.

The Medieval Child Table of Contents

Note

1. Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 196.



Sources and Suggested Reading

The links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants.

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


by Barbara A. Hanawalt

Medieval Children
by Nicholas Orme


by Frances and Joseph Gies


by Louis Haas