Children in the Middle Ages, if they survived past early childhood, sometimes led lives full of turmoil and anguish. Most children did not have the privilege of living the lighthearted and blissful lifestyle that many children experience in current times. Because the time period was full of poor diet and sickness, the lifespan was cut short for many before they even reached adolescence. Also, many children did not experience hours of playtime because they were put to work in order to help their families.
Some historians have estimated that up to a quarter of infants born in Medieval times died before they even lived for a full year. Generally, most infant deaths occurred as a result of accidents or disease. Of course, children who came from poorer families experienced a higher rate of infant mortality because it was harder for poorer families to obtain medical help or health care. Healthy infants were usually seen as a special gift from God. Saintly and biblical names were popular for children in the Middle Ages.
Babies and Early Childhood
Babies were sometimes swaddled. Swaddling was the process of wrapping a baby in linen strips with the baby’s arms held tight to his body and his legs together. Swaddling was done in order to help a baby’s legs and arms grow straight. Swaddling also helped keep the baby out of trouble as he was unable to move. Infants were not swaddled for long periods of time, so it did not harm them.
They were let free of their swaddle restrictions often and set down to crawl. Sometimes a baby’s swaddling was taken off entirely when the baby was able to sit up freely. Of course, as with any cultural practice, swaddling was not necessarily prevalent among all Medieval cultures. For instance, it is supposed that Irish children in the Middle Ages were never swaddled.
An infant’s mother was almost always the baby’s primary caregiver. This was even more prevalent in poorer families. Sometimes she was helped by other members of the family, but almost always the mother fed her baby since she was naturally built to do so. Peasants usually could not afford a nurse, but if the baby’s mother died a nurse could usually be found to provide milk for the baby. Even in richer families, where a nurse could easily be afforded to provide milk, mothers still sometimes provided milk for their babies.
In richer families, nurses took a mother’s place in many different areas. Most notably this included giving affection to the baby who she was hired to take care of. Other activates nurses carried out when caring for babies included bathing the baby, singing the baby to sleep, consoling the baby when he fell, consoling the baby when he was sick, and sometimes nurses even chewed a baby’s meat for him.
The wealthiest of townspeople usually kept their nurses after the baby was weaned to care for the baby through his early childhood years. These parents sometimes lost touch with their children by having little to no contact with them. They often spent more time at high society events, such as banquets and court affairs, then at home with their children. This was not incredibly common, however, and most parents took a great care and interest in choosing the perfect nurse for their child.
Children in the Middle Ages were seen as useless. Childhood was not idealized as it is today. It was viewed more as a time of immaturity when a person was not able to complete any work. The uselessness of children in the Middle Ages is most apparent in the art and literature of the time, where almost no children are depicted or written about. Medieval adults most likely saw children as fragile, unstable and immature, and as beings whose only purpose in life was to survive. Children were of course valued to some extent, and while they may have been seen as useless, they were not seen as worthless.
There is some record of Medieval families taking every measure possible to recover their sick children, even though it certainly cost them a great deal. There are also records of motherly tenderness and loving towards children, which is comparable to the attitudes mothers have towards children today. It is said that mothers sang lullabies to their children, and sometimes even played games with them.
Work and Play
Even though children were not expected to work full-time, they were expected to contribute to some of the workload. Even young children were expected to work. Naturally, the poorer a family, the more essential it was for children to work in order for the family’s household to run properly. Duties children were expected to perform were usually simple. Children in the Middle Ages were usually expected to do things such as feeding livestock or farm animals, washing dishes, or caring for their younger siblings throughout the day.
Play was also important to the life of children in the Middle Ages. Children’s toys were almost always handmade by the family. These toys included dolls, tops and blocks. Children in the Middle Ages sometimes even made their own toys out of materials found around the house. Older children sometimes read stories. These stories were usually myths or stories surrounding traditional heroes. An example would be Robin Hood. Children’s play also included “make believe” or “pretend,” similar to child’s play today. For example, a girl might have dressed up a doll as a courtly lady or a boy might have made a castle out of his blocks.
Education for children in the Middle Ages was mostly done by word of mouth from parents to children. Only wealthier families had the money for any sort of formal education. Before the end of the 11th century AD, almost all formal education of young children of wealthy families was provided by clergy members. This form of schooling consisted of learning to read and write in the child’s native language and Latin.
This was because Latin was the church’s language. Later formal education centers appeared which were not church-affiliated. These schools usually educated young boys whose parents wished for them to practice a law or administrative profession. Boys who were to work in a trade apprenticed with a current trademaster in their future profession.