Work and Adolescence in the Middle Ages

Introduction to the Life of a Medieval Teenager

Portrait of history students in period dress with longbows and crossbow outside Bolton Castle, a 14th century Grade 1 listed building, Scheduled Ancient Monument
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Few medieval teenagers enjoyed a formal education as it was rare in the Middle Ages. As a result, not all adolescents went to school, and even those who did were not wholly consumed by learning. Many teens worked, and just about all of them played

Working at Home

Teens in peasant families were most likely to work instead of attending school. Offspring could be an integral part of a peasant family's income as productive workers contributing to the farming operation.

As a paid servant in another household, frequently in another town, an adolescent could either contribute to the total income or simply cease using the family resources, thereby increasing the overall economic standing of those he left behind.

In the peasant household, children provided valuable assistance to the family as early as age five or six. This assistance took the form of simple chores and did not take up a great deal of the child's time. Such chores included fetching water, herding geese, sheep or goats, gathering fruit, nuts, or firewood, walking and watering horses, and fishing. Older children were often enlisted to care for or at least watch over their younger siblings.

At the house, girls would help their mothers with tending a vegetable or herb garden, making or mending clothes, churning butter, brewing beer and performing simple tasks to help with the cooking. In the fields, a boy no younger than 9-years-old and usually 12 years or older, might assist his father by goading the ox while his father handled the plow.

As children reached their teens, they might continue to perform these chores unless younger siblings were there to do them, and they would most definitely increase their workloads with more demanding tasks. Yet the most difficult of tasks were reserved for those with the most experience; handling a scythe, for example, was something that took great skill and care, and it was unlikely for an adolescent to be given the responsibility of using it during the most pressing times of harvest.

Work for teenagers was not limited to within the family; rather, it was fairly common for a teen to find work as a servant in another household.

Service Work

In all but the poorest medieval households, it would not be surprising to find a servant of one variety or another. Service could mean part-time work, day labor, or working and living under the roof of an employer. The type of work that occupied a servant's time was no less variable: there were shop servants, craft assistants, laborers in agriculture and manufacturing, and, of course, household servants of every stripe.

Although some individuals took on the role of servant for life, service was frequently a temporary stage in the life of an adolescent. These years of labor—often spent in another family's home—gave teenagers the chance to save up some money, acquire skills, make social and business connections, and absorb a general understanding of the way society conducted itself, all in preparation for entry into that society as an adult.

A child might possibly enter service as young as age seven, but most employers sought older children to hire for their advanced skills and responsibility. It was far more common for children to take up positions as servants at age ten or twelve.

The amount of work carried out by younger servants was necessarily limited; pre-adolescents are rarely if ever suited to heavy lifting or to tasks that require fine manual dexterity. An employer who took on a seven-year-old servant would expect the child to take some time learning his tasks, and he would probably start with very simple chores.

Employed in a household, boys might become grooms, valets, or porters, girls could be housemaids, nurses, or scullery maids, and children of either gender could work in the kitchens. With a little training young men and women might assist at skilled trades, including silk making, weaving, metalworking, brewing, or winemaking. In villages, they could acquire skills involving clothmaking, milling, baking and blacksmithing as well as help in the fields or household.

By far, the majority of servants in town and countryside came from poorer families. The same network of friends, family and business associates that provided apprentices also yielded workers. And, much like apprentices, servants sometimes had to post bonds so that prospective employers might take them on, assuring their new bosses they would not leave before the agreed-upon term of service was up.

There were also servants of nobler origins, particularly those who served as valets, ladies' maids, and other confidential assistants in illustrious households. Such individuals might be temporary adolescent employees from the same class as their employers or long-term servants from the gentry or urban middle class. They might even have been educated at a University before taking up their posts. By the 15th century, several advice manuals for such esteemed servants were in circulation in London and other large towns, and not only noblemen but high city officials and wealthy merchants would seek to hire individuals who could perform delicate duties with tact and finesse.

It was not unusual for a servant's brothers and sisters to find work in the same household. When an older sibling moved on from service, his younger sibling might take his place, or perhaps they'd be employed simultaneously at different jobs. It was also not uncommon for servants to work for family members: for example, a childless man of prosperity in a town or city might employ his country-dwelling brother's or cousin's children. This might seem exploitative or high-handed, but it was also a way for a man to give his relatives economic assistance and a good start in life while still allowing them to keep their dignity and pride in accomplishment.

It was common procedure to draw up a service contract that would outline the terms of service, including payment, length of service, and living arrangements. Some servants saw little legal recourse if they encountered difficulty with their masters, and it was more common for them to suffer their lot or run away rather than turn to the courts for redress.

Yet court records show this was not always the case: masters and servants both brought their conflicts to legal authorities for resolution on a regular basis.

Household servants almost always lived with their employers, and to deny housing after having promised it was considered a disgrace.3 Living together in such close quarters could result in terrible abuse or close bonds of loyalty. In fact, masters and servants of close rank and age were known to form lifelong bonds of friendship during the term of service. On the other hand, it was not unknown for masters to take advantage of their servants, particularly teenage girls in their employ.

The relationship of most teenage servants to their masters fell somewhere in between fear and adulation. They did the work that was asked of them, were fed, clothed, sheltered and paid, and during their free time sought out ways to relax and have fun.

Recreation

A common misconception about the Middle Ages is that life was dreary and dull, and none but the nobility ever enjoyed any leisure or recreational activities. And, of course, life was indeed hard compared to our comfortable modern existence. But all was not darkness and drudgery. From peasants to townsfolk to gentry, people of the Middle Ages knew how to have fun, and teens were certainly no exception.

A teenager might spend a large part of each day working or studying but, in most cases, he would still have a little time for recreation in the evenings. He'd have still more free time on holidays such as Saints' Days, which were fairly frequent. Such liberty might be spent alone, but it was more likely to be an opportunity for him to socialize with coworkers, fellow students, fellow apprentices, family or friends.

For some teenagers, childhood games that occupied the younger years such as marbles and shuttlecocks evolved into more sophisticated or strenuous pastimes like bowls and tennis. Adolescents engaged in more dangerous wrestling matches than the playful contests they'd attempted as children, and they played some very rough sports like football—variations that were precursors to today's rugby and soccer. Horseracing was fairly popular on the outskirts of London, and younger teens and pre-teens were frequently jockeys due to their lighter weight.

Mock battles among the lower classes were frowned upon by authorities, for fighting rightfully belonged to the nobility, and violence and misconduct could ensue if youths learned how to use swords. However, archery was encouraged in England due to its significant role in what has come to be called the Hundred Years' War. Recreation such as falconry and hunting were usually limited to the upper classes, primarily due to the cost of such pastimes. Furthermore, forests, where sporting game might be found, were almost exclusively the province of the nobility, and peasants found hunting there—which they usually did for food rather than sport—would be fined.

Archaeologists have discovered among castle remains intricately carved sets of chess and tables (a precursor to backgammon), hinting at some popularity of board games among the noble classes. There is no doubt that peasants would be unlikely at best to acquire such costly trifles. While it is possible that less expensive or home-made versions could have been enjoyed by the middle and lower classes, none have yet been found to support such a theory; and the leisure time required to master such skills would have been prohibited by the lifestyles of all but the wealthiest folk. However, other games such as merrills, which required only three pieces per player and a rough three-by-three board, could easily have been enjoyed by anyone willing to spend a few moments collecting stones and roughing out a crude gaming area.

One pastime that was definitely enjoyed by city teens was dicing. Long before the Middle Ages, carved cube dice had evolved to replace the original game of rolling bones, but bones were occasionally still used. Rules varied from era to era, region to region and even from game to game, but as a game of pure chance (when honestly played), dicing was a popular basis for gambling. This prompted some cities and towns to pass legislation against the activity.

Teens who engaged in gambling were likely to indulge in other unsavory activities that could result in violence, and riots were far from unknown. In hopes of heading off such incidents, city fathers, recognizing the need of adolescents to find release for their youthful exuberance, declared certain saints' days occasions for great festivals. The celebrations that ensued were opportunities for people of all ages to enjoy public spectacles ranging from morality plays to bear-baiting as well as contests of skill, feasting, and processions.

Sources:

Hanawalt, Barbara, Growing Up in Medieval London (Oxford University Press, 1993).

Reeves, Compton, Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1995).