The Playful Years of Childhood in the Middle Ages

Socialization, Discipline and Leaving Home

A common misconception about medieval children is that they were treated like adults and expected to behave like adults as soon as they could walk and talk. Biologically, this is a somewhat ludicrous expectation. Communication skills, motor control and physical strength all take some time to develop in a child, and it is unreasonable to assume that medieval adults were not aware of any of these limitations.

Play and Work

This does not mean that children were never expected to do any household work or help their parents in their business enterprise. But for the younger members of the family, this assistance took the form of chores and simple tasks such as carrying water, herding geese and gathering fruit. The time spent on these activities was rarely a large part of the day; for the most part, the great majority of a child's early years were spent in play.

Such play was seldom organized. Young children amused themselves with toys and simple games, playing ball or hoops, racing, chasing each other, and engaging their imaginations as children have done for millennia. Climbing trees, walls and other structures made up much of their adventures. Lacking specific playgrounds, they played wherever was convenient: by or in the fields, in the house or yard, even in the streets. If a village had a green, it was usually a very popular spot for play.

Gender roles were determined early through imitation. Boys followed their fathers around at work or in the fields and girls "helped" their mothers at home. Girls were known to play with dolls, but since rag dolls, like clothing, easily deteriorate over time, we can only guess at how popular they may have been.

As boys got a little older they would wrestle, shoot with bow and arrow, and engage in mock battles with staffs and sticks. Children of both genders imitated their elders in ceremonies such as mass and marriage and in events like royal processions.

Of course, life wasn't all fun and games. A child had to be educated and trained to function in society, which would take place as he grew old enough to learn and understand.

Training and Socialization

Parents were expected to train their offspring in manners, personal hygiene, and all the skills necessary to survive in a hostile world and get along with their neighbors at the same time. While most families undoubtedly managed this with little outside help, in the later Middle Ages there existed instruction manuals to assist in this training. These included such works as "The Young Children's Book," "How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter" and "Symon's Lesson of Wisdom for All Manner of Children." (These works and others like them can be found in Rickert, Edith, ed., Babees' Book: Medieval Manners for the Young.)

Some of these parenting manuals were particularly popular with wealthy townspeople who wanted their children to blend in polite society, and it is highly unlikely that most city-dwellers, let alone peasantry, followed such advice to the letter.

Yet the manuals do offer an idea of the kind of behavior that was expected of a well-bred individual, and they give us a clue to how some children, at least, were likely to behave at the behest of their parents.

Instructions for the morning routine included prayer, washing face and hands, combing hair, cleaning teeth and, if necessary, clipping nails. One might imagine that in wealthy or noble households a servant might clean the child's shoes, sponge and brush his clothing and make his bed, but if there was no servant to do it he was supposed to do these things himself.

The matter of children's diets was also addressed. In a society where beer and wine were commonplace, children were to be limited to two or three glasses of wine or "small beers" (lightly alcoholic beer made from a second brewing).

Food should be consumed in moderation, and children should wait to be fed. Young diners were instructed to wipe their knives on the trencher and not the tablecloth, wipe their cups with a napkin after drinking, and put meat scraps in a voider instead of back on the serving dish. Pets were not to be allowed near the table.

In public boys were to doff their caps to their elders and greet people with courtesy. When entering the house they were supposed to say "God be here" and, if a holy-water strop was nearby, they were to dip their fingers and cross themselves. The manuals had plenty of advice on what not to do, as well: no throwing sticks and stones at horses, dogs or people, no fighting, swearing, or getting clothing dirty, and no imitating adults behind their backs. The books even discussed the accidents that might befall a child at play, warning against leaning over wells or brooks and staying away from fire. 

From the emphasis placed on behavior to avoid, we can assume that there were plenty of children who indulged in such childish mischief, prompting moralists to counsel against it in their manuals.

Education was primarily a matter for the home or monastery until the later Middle Ages, when schools began to appear in more populous areas such as London. Peasants had no incentive to teach their children to read and could rarely read much themselves. However, as guilds began to require that youths be able to read and write before they were accepted as apprentices, youngsters began to attend school more frequently.

In all phases of training, discipline would come into practice when children strayed from what they were taught.


The primary guideline followed by medieval parents in training their children was the biblical admonishment: "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Scolding was considered ineffectual, and cursing a child was a terrible thing. Centuries before the field of child psychology came into being, medieval parents would have had no use for a "time out," which may have appeared more like a reward than a penalty.

Corporal punishment was undoubtedly the norm.

From the perspective of our modern society, "beating" a child will certainly appear "medieval." But corporal punishment had its practical side. Is it kinder to smack a child on the bottom when he reaches for the cooking pot, or to let him burn his fingers and spill scalding soup on himself when he pulls on it to look inside? The medieval world was a dangerous place, and it could take harsh measures to prepare a child to live in it.

As children grew older, they could expect corporal punishment not only from parents but from teachers and neighbors should they be caught making mischief. This fact of life could be a deterrent to more circumspect youngsters and a rude awakening to those who thought themselves invulnerable. Pain was the medieval way of illustrating that actions had consequences.

As with all other aspects of family life, how parents handled discipline surely varied from family to family. There is no reason to believe that, by definition, the father who dispensed corporal punishment to his child could not love that child, as well. At the same time, there were parents who abused their children, just as there are today.

In general, the use of corporal punishment was as a disciplinary action taken to shape behavior, not a pervasive dispensing of beatings for no reason, but discipline could get out of hand. When it did, it usually came to the attention of the community. While legal action was rarely taken, in tightly-knit societies like the medieval village, the mere awareness that the neighbors knew your business had influence. Furthermore, the very fact that extreme discipline incited comment makes it clear that unwarranted beatings were not commonplace.

In fact, even in busy, crowded communities such as London, folks kept a watchful eye on the children among them, and some were known to fight for a child's welfare—literally. In one incident in early 14th-century London, neighbors intervened when a cook and clerk were beating a boy carrying water. A scuffle ensued and the child's tormentors were subdued. The neighbors didn't even know the boy, but they firmly stood up for him even when they were physically attacked, and they stood by their actions when the cook and clerk later sued for damages. 

To what end were children so assiduously trained and disciplined? Ultimately, it was to prepare them for leaving home.

Leaving Home

Although the majority of children in the Middle Ages spent their childhood almost exclusively in their parents' household, there were those who left home to live with relatives, future relatives, employers, masters in trade or even virtual strangers.

It was uncommon for children to leave home before about the age of ten or twelve. Some children who did so were noble offspring of either gender who were sent to live with the family into which they would one day marry—or even had officially already married. In such cases, the move was less a departure from home than a transference to a new home and family.

The sons of knights occasionally lived in the castle of their father's liege-lord where they trained to be knights themselves. Traditionally, this move was made at the age of seven, but there was no hard and fast rule, and the origins of the concept have been obscured and romanticized in later literature to the point of folklore. Boys were just as likely to make the move at age ten or twelve or even in their early teens.

The children of poor families sometimes entered service to bring income into the household and reduce the number of mouths to feed at home. Service seldom began before age twelve, and more frequently started well into the teens. Servants lived with fairly prosperous families and were fed and often clothed by their employers. Any pains of separation experienced by the parents were somewhat assuaged by the knowledge that their offspring were cared for, frequently in far better a manner than they could offer themselves.

Apprenticeship also began in the teens, and as the centuries passed the age of acceptance grew older, due to the insistence on the part of the guilds that potential apprentices be able to read and write. In London in the early fourteenth century, thirteen was specified as the minimum age of apprenticeship by city ordinance; and by the late Middle Ages, apprenticeship could begin as late as age eighteen.

But in most homes, children stayed home, where they continued their lessons, played, helped their families, and experienced the joys and pains of growing up.


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

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