Role and Importance of Children in the Middle Ages

Figure of woman at window, detail from Ascent to Calvary, 14th century fresco from Master Trecentesco of Sacro Speco School, Upper Church of Sacro Speco Monastery, Subiaco, Italy, 14th century
DEA / G. NIMATALLAH / Getty Images

Of all the misconceptions about the Middle Ages, some of the most difficult to overcome involve life for medieval children and their place in society. It is a popular notion that there was no recognition of childhood in medieval society and children were treated like miniature adults as soon as they could walk and talk.

However, scholarship on the topic by medievalists provides a different account of children in the Middle Ages. Of course, it is not correct to assume that medieval attitudes were identical or even similar to modern ones. But, it can be argued that childhood was recognized as a phase of life, and one that had value, at that time.

Concept of Childhood

One of the most frequently mentioned arguments for the non-existence of childhood in the Middle Ages is that representative of children in medieval artwork depicts them in adult clothing. If they wore grown-up clothes, the theory goes, they must have been expected to behave like grown-ups.

However, while 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. Additionally, medieval laws existed to protect the rights of orphans. For example, in medieval London, laws were careful to place an orphaned child with someone who could not benefit from his or her death. Also, medieval medicine approached the treatment of children separately from adults. In general, children were recognized as vulnerable, and in need of special protection.

Concept of Adolescence 

The idea that adolescence was not recognized as a category of development separate from both childhood and adulthood is a more subtle distinction. 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 as medieval people did not use the terms "feudalism" or "courtly love" though those practices definitely existed at the time. Inheritance laws set the age of majority at 21, expecting a certain level of maturity before entrusting a young individual with financial responsibility. 

Importance of Children

There is a general 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, and 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.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that medieval society was primarily an agrarian one. And the family unit made the agrarian economy work. From an economic standpoint, nothing was more valuable to a peasant family than sons to help with the plowing and daughters to help with the household. To have children were, essentially, one of the primary reason to marry. 

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 to argue that people of the Middle Ages were any less aware that children were their future then people are aware today that children are the future of the modern world. 

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 or her.

And yet, it has been theorized that affection was largely lacking in the medieval household. Some of the reasons that have been put forward to support this notion include rampant infanticide, high infant mortality, the use of child labor and extreme discipline. 

Further Reading

If you are interested in the topic of childhood in medieval times, Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History by Barbara A. Hanawalt, Medieval Children by Nicholas Orme, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies and The Ties that Bound by Barbara Hanawalt may be good reads for you.

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Snell, Melissa. "Role and Importance of Children in the Middle Ages." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Snell, Melissa. (2023, April 5). Role and Importance of Children in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Role and Importance of Children in the Middle Ages." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).