14th Century Childhood
Childhood in the 14th century was determined by two factors: social and biological. According to the common law of the time childhood would range from one’s birth until he or she had reached the age of twelve. At that time a child was considered to be capable and competent to understand their actions, rendering them responsible for them as well. There are many misconceptions of childhood at this time and here we will discuss some of them, and the lives of children at this time.
If you’ve heard that there was no recognition of childhood as a category of development in the medieval society, you are not alone. The idea that children were treated like mini adults as soon as they would walk or talk is one of the common misconceptions. It’s also nearly impossible to support this statement. One most frequently-mentioned forms of “evidence” that has been encountered for this is the representation in some medieval artwork of children who would be dressed in adult clothing. If a child wore adult clothes, as the theory goes, they must have been expected to have behaved like an adult. This argument takes a pretty big leap to its conclusion on the flimsiest of springboards. Although there is not a great deal of medieval artwork that depicted children other than the Christ Child, examples that do survive don’t universally display them in adult clothing. Even more importantly, there is a good bit of evidence that society as a whole had recognized childhood as a separate stage of life.
There were laws that did exist that had protected the rights of orphans as well, and medicine of the time also approached the treatment of children separate from that of adults. In general, children were recognized as vulnerable and in need of special protection. 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 statement is the lack of any term for the modern-day word of “adolescence”. If there was no word for it at the time then they wouldn’t have comprehended it as a stage in life. This argument also leaves something to be desired, especially when we remember that the people in the middle ages didn’t use the term “feudalism” or “courtly love” either. Again, there’s some evidence to refute this assumption.
Other laws of inheritance had set the age of majority as twenty-one, even though, according to canon law, girls were allowed to marry at the age of twelve and boys at the age of fourteen. Those who set the age of majority at twenty-one expected that a certain level of maturity would have been reached before they had entrusted a young individual with financial responsibility. There was also a concern that was expressed for the “wild youth” of teenage apprentices and students, and the mischief that being a youth could cause was frequently seen as a stage that people had to pass through on the way to becoming “sad and wise” adults.
A generally vague perception of the Middle Ages is that children weren’t valued by their families or by the society of which they lived as well. Though there is probably no other time in history that has sentimentalized infants, toddlers and waifs as has modern culture, it doesn’t necessarily follow that children were undervalued in the earlier times. In some part, the lack or representation in medieval popular culture is responsible for this perception. Contemporary chroniclers and biographies that do include childhood details are few and far between. Literature of the times had rarely touched on any hero’s tender years. Medieval artwork offers visual clues about children other than the Christ Child is also almost nonexistent. This lack of representation in and of itself has led some to believe that children were of small interest, and therefore of small importance as well to those of the times.
From a purely economic standpoint, nothing was more valuable to the peasant family than the sons of the family who could help with plowing and the daughters who helped in the household. The production of children were, essentially, the primary purpose for getting married. It’s also been suggested that there were cases of premarital pregnancy among women who would marry their child’s father possibly due to the necessity of ensuring fertility before going ahead with the wedding.
In towns and cities, the children would grow up to become laborers and apprentices that would make crafting businesses grow. It was here also that there are signs that society, overall, understand the value of children. An example of this is in medieval London, where laws regarding the rights of orphans were careful to place a child with someone who could not benefit from the death of the child. Among the nobility, children would perpetuate family name and increase the family’s holdings through the advancement in service to their liege lords and through advantageous marriages. Some marital unions were planned while the bride and groom to be were still in the cradle. In face of these facts, it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that people at the time were any less aware that children were the future, than what we are aware today.
A few aspects of life in the 14th century can be more difficult to determine than nature and depth of emotional attachments made among family members. It’s perhaps natural for us to think that in a society that had placed high value on its younger members. Most parents did love their children, by biology alone, it suggests that a bond between a child and their mother who nursed them did exist. Yet, it has been theorized that this affection was largely lacking in the household of the time. There are some assumptions, generalizations and unfounded theories that have been put forward to support this notion.
Infanticide was rampant at this time, anyone who was capable of destroying the life of a helpless newborn was incapable of feeling or expressing love for an infant. The mortality rate for an infant at this time was unfortunately sky high. A mother could not afford to make an emotional investment in a child when there was a good chance that it would pass away before it reached its first birthday.
Child labor was also common during the 14th century. They would start apprenticeship, entered service, or worked behind a plow before they even reached the age of ten. Discipline was also extreme. The average father would sooner cuff his own son than embrace him. Popular culture had virtually ignored children. There were no tender odes made towards toddlers either, no songs of a blissful childhood. There were also no parenting manuals to tell younger parents a correct way of raising a child. There had been, as there still are, cases of child abuse and neglect in western society. To take individual incidents as indicative of an entire culture would be an irresponsible approach to history. Children were warmly and happily welcomed into the medieval world. They were also the foremost reason for marriage at any level of medieval society, the birth of a baby was usually a cause of joy, but still there was an element of anxiety, just as there is today, but for different reasons. People were afraid of giving birth because of the risk that childbirth produced to both mother and child.
Childbirth mortality rates were probably not as high as what folklore would have us believe, but there was still the possibility of complications. Some of these were birth defects, breech births, death of the mother, death of the child, or death of both. Even under some circumstance there was no effective anesthetic to eradicate the pain. The lying-in room was almost exclusively for women. A male physician would only be called in when surgery was necessary. Under ordinary circumstances the mother, be she a peasant, town-dweller, or noblewoman, would be attended by a midwife. The midwife would usually have more than a decade of experience and she’d be accompanied by assistants whom were in training under her. Female relatives and friends of the mother would usually be present in the room as well. They would offer support and good will, as they still do today, while the father was left outside with little more to do but pray for the safe delivery of both his wife and child. The presence of so many people in the room could raise the temperature of it, which was already being made warmer by the presence of a fire. The fire though was necessary to have as it would be used to heat water for bathing both the mother and the child. In homes of the nobility, gentry and wealthy, birthing rooms would usually be freshly-swept and provided with clean rushes. The best coverlets were placed on the bed and the place was turned out for display. Sources do indicate that some mothers may have given birth in a sitting or squatting position, rather than laying down. A midwife may rub the mother’s belly with ointment also, so as to ease the pain and hasten the process. The birth of a child was usually expected within twenty contractions. If it had taken longer, everyone in the household may try to help it along by opening cupboards and drawers, unlocking chests, untying knots, or even shooting an arrow into the air. All of these were symbolic of opening the womb.
If all had gone well, the midwife would tie off and cut the umbilical cord and then help the baby take its first breath. She would clear the baby’s mouth and throat of any mucus, then bathe the child with warm water. In more affluent homes, this would be done with milk or wine, and she also may use salt, olive oil, or rose petals as well. The 12th century female physician, Trotula of Salerno had recommended the washing of the baby’s tongue with hot water to assure that the child would speak properly. It was also not uncommon to rub honey on the palate to give the baby an appetite. An infant would then be swaddled snugly in some linen strips so that the baby’s limbs may grow straight and strong. They then laid the baby in a cradle that was located in a dark corner, where its eyes would be protected from any bright light.
In some cultures, such as England in the 14th century, as stated previously, babies were often swaddled. This was theoretically to help a baby’s arms and legs grow straight. Swaddling would involve wrapping the infant in linen strips with the legs together and the arms close to the body. This would immobilize the baby and make it much easier to keep out of trouble. They would be swaddled continuously. The linens were changed regularly and released from this bond in order to crawl around. The swaddling may come off altogether when a child was old enough to sit up on their own. This was not necessarily the norm in all medieval cultures though. Gerald of Wales, remarked that Irish children were never swaddled and they still seem to have grown strong and handsome. When a child was home, whether swaddled or not an infant probably spent most of their time in their cradle. A busy peasant mother may have even tied their unswaddled baby into their cradle, allowing them to move within it but keeping them from crawling out into trouble. Mothers often carried their baby about in their arms on errands outside the home. The infant could have even been found near their parents as they worked in the fields at the busiest harvest times, on the ground or secured in a tree. Babies that were not swaddled were often simply naked, or wrapped in blankets to protect them from the cold. They may have even been clad in simple gowns. There’s little evidence for any other clothing, and since the baby would quickly outgrow anything that was sewn, especially for it, a variety of baby clothing wasn’t an economic feasibility in poorer times.
An infant’s mother was usually their primary caregiver, particularly in the poorer households. Other family members may have assisted, but the mother usually would feed the child since she was the only one physically equipped for it. Peasants often didn’t have the luxury of hiring a full-time nurse, although if the mother had passed away or was too ill to nurse the baby herself, a wet nurse could often be found. Even in homes that could afford to hire a wet nurse, it wasn’t unknown for mothers to nurse their children themselves, which was a practice that was encouraged by the Church. Medieval parents at some times would find alternatives to breast feeding their babies, but there is no evidence that this was a common occurrence. Alternate methods to breastfeeding were soaking bread in milk for a child to ingest, soaking a rag in milk for the child to suckle, or pouring milk into the mouth form a horn. All of these were more difficult for a mother than simply putting the child to her breast, and it would appears that, in less affluent homes, if the mother could nurse her child she did. Among the nobility and wealthier folks, wet nurses were quite common and frequently stayed on once an infant was weaned to care for him through their early childhood years. This action presents a picture of medieval “yuppie syndrome”. Parents would lose touch with their offspring in favor of banquets, tourneys and court intrigue, and someone else would end up raising their child. This might have been the case in some families, but parents could and did take an active interest in the welfare and daily activities of their children. They would also be well involved in choosing a nurse to care for their child as well. They would treat the nurse well for the ultimate benefit of the child.
Whether a child had received its food and care from its own mother or a nurse, it is difficult to make the case for a lack of tenderness between the two. Today mothers report that nursing their child is a highly satisfying emotional experience, so it seems unreasonable to assume that only modern mothers would feel a biological bond that in more likelihood it has occurred for thousands of years. It was observed that a nurse took place of the mother in many respects, and this included providing affection to the baby in her charge. Bartholomaeus Anglicus described the activities that nurses would have commonly performed. These were: consoling a child when they fell or were sick, bathing and anointing them, singing to them at bedtime, even chewing meat for them. Evidently there is no reason to assume that the average child at the time had suffered from lack of affection, eve if there was reason to believe his fragile life would not last a year.
As I mentioned before, child death rates were high, though not as high as what folklore leads us to believe, during this time. Death would come in many ways for the smallest members of this society. With the invention of the microscope centuries in the future, there was no understanding of germs as a cause of disease. There were also no antibiotics or vaccines to treat sicknesses either. Diseases that a shot or a tablet can kill off today, had claimed so many young lives back in the 14th century. If for whatever reason a baby couldn’t be nursed, the infant’s chances of contracting an illness had increased. This was due to unsanitary methods that were devised for getting food into them. Children would succumb to many other dangers as well though. In cultures that had practiced swaddling or tying them into a cradle would keep them out of trouble, but babies were known to have died in fires when they were so confined. Parents were also warned not to sleep with their infants for fear of overlaying and something them. Once a child did have mobility, the dangers from accidents had increased. Adventurous toddlers would fall down wells and into ponds and streams, they would tumble down steps or into fires, and even crawled out into the street where they could be crushed by passing carts. Unexpected accidents could befall even the most carefully-watched toddler if a mother or nurse was distracted for only a few minutes. It was impossible at the time to baby-proof the medieval household, even today accidents still happen. Peasant mothers who had their hands full with daily chores were at times unable to keep a constant watch on their offspring. It was not unknown for a parent to leave their infant or their toddlers unattended. Some court records illustrate that this was not very common though and was met with disapproval in the community even back then. Negligence was not a crime that parents were charged with when they had lost their baby. Faced with the lack of accurate statistics, any figure that represents mortality rates can only be estimates. It is true though that some medieval villages who have surviving court records, provide data concerning the number of children who died from accidents or under some suspicious circumstance in a given amount of time. However, since birth records were private, the number of children who had survived is unavailable. Without a total, an accurate percentage can’t really be determined. The highest estimate for death rate that has been encountered is 50%, though 30% is a more common figure. These include the high amount of infants who had died within days after being born from little-understood and wholly unpreventable illnesses that modern science has thankfully overcome.
It has also been proposed that within a society with such a high mortality rate, parents had made no emotional investment in their children. Devastated mothers would seek counsel from priests, who would encourage them to have courage and faith. One mother has been said to have gone absolutely insane when her child had died. It is obvious through this that affection and attachment had been present, at least among some members of this society. There is also an assumption that the high death rates at this time for infants was due to infanticide, which is another misconception that should be addressed and one that I mentioned briefly earlier.
The notion that infanticide was “rampant” during this time, has been used to bolster the equally erroneous concept that families had no affection for their child. A dark and dreadful picture has been painted of thousands of unwanted babies suffering from horrible fates at the hands of remorseless and cold hearted parents. There is absolutely no evidence to support this carnage. Infanticide did in fact exist and it does still take place today. Attitudes towards this practice are really questioned as is the frequency that it had occurred. To understand this during the 14th century, it is important to examine its history within European society.
In the Roman Empire, as well as among some Barbarian tribes, infanticide was an accepted practice. A newborn would be placed before its father, if he picked up the child it would be considered a member of the family and its life would begin. If the family was on the edge of starvation, if a child was deformed, or if a father had any other reason to not accept the child, the infant would be abandoned to die of exposure. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this is that life for a child would begin once it had been accepted. If the child was not accepted, it would essentially be treated as though it had had never been born.
In non-Judaeo-Christian societies, the immortal soul, if individuals were considered to have one, was not necessarily considered to have resided in a child from the moment of its conception. Therefore, infanticide was not regarded as murder. Whatever we may think today of this custom, people of these ancient societies had what they had considered sound reason for performing this act.
The fact that infants were, on occasion, abandoned or killed at birth apparently didn’t interfere with the ability of parents and sibling to love and cherish a newborn once it had been accepted as part of the family.
In the fourth century, Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire, and many Barbarian tribes had began to convert as well. Under the influence of the Christian Church, which has seen the practice as a sin, the attitudes of western Europeans towards infanticide had started to change. More and more children would be baptized shortly after they were born, giving a child an identity and place in the community. This made the prospect of deliberately killing a baby an altogether different matter. This however does not mean that infanticide was eradicated overnight through Europe, but as was often the case with Christian influence, over time ethical outlooks altered. The idea of killing an unwanted infant was more commonly viewed as horrific. As was the case with other aspects of western culture, the Middle Ages had served as a transition time between the ancient societies and the modern world.
Without any hard data it is hard to say just how fast that society and family attitudes changed in any given geographical area or among any particular cultural group. By the late Middle Ages, the concept of infanticide was thought to be distasteful enough that to be falsely accused of the act was regarded as a salacious slander. In Barbara Hanawalt’s examination of more than 4,000 homicide cases from the medieval English court records, she had found that only three cases of infanticide had occurred, while there may have been, and most likely were, secret pregnancies and clandestine infant deaths as well. Today, we have no other evidence available to us to judge the frequency of infanticide, but we cannot assume that it never did happen. We also cannot assume that it occurred on a regular basis either. What is known is that no folkloric rationalization does exist to justify the practice, and folk tales dealing with the subject are cautionary in nature.
With the tragic consequences that fell on characters that had killed their babies it seems fairly reasonable to conclude that medieval society as a whole had regarded the practice as a horrible act. The killing of an unwanted infant was therefore the exception, not the rule, and cannot be regarded as evidence of widespread indifference towards a child from their parents.
There is also a common misconception that childhood in the Middle Ages was dreary and dull and no one but the nobility had enjoyed any leisure time or recreational activities. Life was hard compared to our times, but all was not dark. From the peasantry to townsfolk to the gentry, people in the Middle Ages knew how to have fun and the life of a teenager at that time was certainly no exception. A teen may have spent a large amount of each day working or studying, but in most cases they would still have a little bit of time to participate in recreational activities in the evening, and even more time on holidays, such as Saints’ Day, which were pretty frequent. They may have spent time alone, but more than likely would participate in social activities with coworkers, fellow students, fellow apprentices, family or friends.
For some teenagers, childhood games that they played when they were younger, such as marbles and shuttlecocks had evolved into a more sophisticated or strenuous pastime, like bowls and tennis. Adolescents would engaged in more dangerous wrestling matches than playful contests they had attempted as a child, they would play some very rough sports, like football and variations of it that were precursors to today’s rugby and soccer. Horse racing was also a fairly popular sport in the outskirts of London. Younger teens and pre-teens were quite often jockeys due to their lighter weight.
Mock battles among the people in the lower classes was frequently frowned on by the authorities. Fighting “belonged” to the nobility and violence and misconduct could ensue among youths that had learned how to use swords. Archery was also encouraged in England because of its significant role in what has become known as the Hundred Years’ War. Recreational activities such as falconry and hunting were also limited to the upper classes. This is partially due to the cost of participation and the forests where the sport may have been found were almost exclusively the property of the nobility. If peasants were found hunting in the forests, which they usually did do for food rather than for sport, they would be fined.
Archaeologists have discovered among some castle remains intricately carved sets of chess and tables (a precursor to backgammon). These hint at some popularity of board games among the noble classes. There is also no doubt that the peasantry would have been unlikely to acquire these costly trifles. It is possible though that less expensive or homemade versions could have been enjoyed by the lower classes. Nothing has been found to support this though. Leisure time, which would have been required to master such skills would’ve been prohibited by the lifestyles of all people, except for the wealthiest. However, other games, such as merrills could have easily been enjoyed by anyone that was willing and able to spend a few moments collecting stones and roughing out a crude gaming area. This game would require only three pieces per player and a rough three-by-three board.
A favorite pastime that was enjoyed by city teens was dicing. Long before this time, carved cube dice had evolved to replace original original game of rolling bones, but bones were occasionally still used. Rules would vary for the game from era to era, region to region, and even from game to game. As a game of pure chance, when it was honestly played, dicing was a popular basis for gambling. The game prompted some cities and towns to pass legislation against the game. Teens who had engaged in gambling were likely to indulge in other “unsavory” activities. Some activities could result in violence and riots. In hopes of getting rid of such incidents, city fathers had recognized the need for adolescents to find release for their youthful exuberance. They would declare saints’ days, which would bring on the occasion for great festivals.
The festivities that ensued would make for opportunities for people of all ages to enjoy public spectacles, ranging from morality plays to bear-baiting, as well as contests of skill and feasting and processions. Whatever entertainment that occupied a teen’s free time, there was almost always an opportunity to meet, flirt with, and fall in love with members of the opposite sex.
As is today, Christmas was a popular holiday in the 14th century, and along with it is the tradition of having Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was the subject of some of the earliest extant mystery plays of the Middle Ages. He became a favorite patron of guilds and confraternities, since he was associated with helping the poor and with merchants and baking. His association with students and the poor became associated especially with Friars Minor, the Franciscans, and actually Greyfriars in Oxford’s actual name is the College of St. Nicholas.
The later middle ages is when several traditions became associated with the celebration of St. Nicholas Day, which was then held on December 6th. One of these traditions was that of the “Boy Bishop”. Students would choose one of their own at this time to rule them for the Christmas season, often to delicious excess. Gift giving at this time would also become involved with the celebrations. Many of these traditions would also become associated with the twelve days after Christmas, as gift-giving was also associated with the New Year and became the tradition of arrival of Magi bearing gifts for the Christ Child on the 6th of January.
Even after tight controls were placed on the traditional celebrations, Nicholas would continue to play an important part in less official ones. The holiday was also often accompanied by devils or fairies, such as Black Peter. St. Nicholas would come to visit the homes of children in the Netherlands. Instead of leaving gifts of toys and such as we do now, Nicholas would leave candies, fruits, and “Nicholas cakes” in the shoes of the good children, bundles of switches would be left for bad children. Mummers’ processions were also quite often involved in St. Nicholas Day too. Somewhat of a result of these decidedly secular observances, Nicholas would gradually lose status as one of the more exalted saints of the Catholic church. The invention of Santa Claus would be something different altogether.
Many of the St. Nicholas Day customs would die out in Europe by the 19th century, only to be reinvented by American writers like Washington Irving and Clement Moore, who would reinvent the old saint in a new guise. Nicholas, who had once rode a white horse like a knight, was now equipped with a sleigh and his reindeer. The spirits who had once accompanied Nicholas were now transformed into toy-making elves. The American Santa Claus has traveled back across the Atlantic in the past one hundred years and has reawakened the memories of the old customs that have been long forgotten in European countries. However, like so many of the “old traditions” that we observe, St. Nicholas has become a product of the 19th century, though his antecedents may certainly be found in the St. Nicholas of the Middle Ages.
Today, parents are expected to teach their children certain things, manners, hygiene, how to socialize with other people, how to become adults, and in the 14th century parents were expected to do the same. Parents taught their children some other things as well, but they were, in ways, the same as they are today. They were expected to teach them manners, personal hygiene, all of the skills that were necessary to survive in the hostile world that they lived in, and how to get along with their neighbors.
While most families had undoubtedly managed this with little outside help, in the later middle ages, there had existed some instruction manuals to assist them. A couple of these were “The Young Children’s Book”, “How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter” and “Symon’s Lesson of Wisdom for All Manner of Children”. Some of these were particularly popular with the wealthy townspeople who had wanted their child to blend into the polite society. It is highly unlikely that most city-dwellers, let alone the peasantry, had followed such advice to the tee. Yet there were manuals that did offer an idea of what kind of behavior was expected of a well-bred individual. As they give us a clue on how some children were raised, children of the time, as they are today, were more likely to behave as their parents taught them.
Instructions for a morning routine had included, prayer, washing of the face and hands, combing hair, cleaning teeth, and if necessary, cutting of their nails. A lot of people still do these things today. One may imagine though that in the wealthy or noble households a servant may clean the child’s shoes, sponge and brush their clothing, make their bed, and if there was no servant the child was expected to do these things for themselves.
The matter of a child’s diet was also addressed. In a society where beer and wine were common, children too drank, but they were limited to two or three glasses of wine or “small beers” a day. The beer that they had drank was of a lighter alcoholic content, likely made from a second brewing. Food was to be consumed in moderation and a child was expected to wait to be fed. Young diners were instructed to wipe their knives on trencher and not the tablecloth. They were to wipe their cups with a napkin after they drank and were to put meat scraps in a voider instead of putting it back on the serving dish. Pets were also not allowed near the table.
Out in public, boys were expected to doff their caps to their elders and greet people with courtesy. When they entered a house they were to say “God be there” and if a holy-water strop was nearby they were to dip their fingers and cross themselves.
Manuals had plenty of advice on what not to do as well. There was to be no throwing of sticks and stones at horses, dogs or people, no fighting, no swearing, or getting the clothing dirty, and no imitating adults behind their backs. Books even discussed accidents that may befall a child at play.
Education was primarily a matter for home or monastery until the later part of the Middle Ages. Schools would not start to appear around then as well in the more populous areas, such as London. Peasants would have had no incentive to teach their children to read and their parents could hardly read much themselves. Guilds started to require youths to be able to read and write before they were accepted as apprentices so youngsters began to attend school at that point more frequently. In all phases of training, discipline would have become a practice when children strayed from what they were taught.
The primary guidelines of discipline were followed by medieval parents in the training of their children was the biblical admonishment: “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. Scolding was considered to have been ineffectual. Cursing a child was considered a terrible thing to do. Centuries before the field of child psychology came into being, medieval parents would have no use for a “time-out”, which might have appeared more like a reward rather than a penalty. Corporal punishment was undoubtedly the norm. From the perspective of modern society, “beating” a child will certainly appear as “medieval”. However, corporal punishment had its practical side. Is it kinder to smack a child on the bottom when he reaches for a cooking pot or 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 some harsh measures to prepare a child to live in it. As children grew, they could expect corporal punishment not only from their parents, but also from their teachers and neighbors if they were caught making mischief. Pain was the medieval way of illustrating that actions would have their consequences. As with all aspects of family life, how a parent handled discipline surely varied from family to family. There is no reason to think though, that by definition, a father who dispensed corporal punishment to a child could not love that child as well.
At the same time, there were also those parents who would abuse their children, just as there are today. Generally, the use of corporal punishment was a disciplinary action that had been taken to shape a behavior, not a pervasive dispensing of beatings for no reason at all. However, discipline could get out of hand. When it did, the actions had usually came to the attention of the community. While legal action was rarely taken, in a tightly-knit society, such as the medieval village, the mere awareness that neighbors knew your business had influence. Furthermore, the very fact of extreme discipline incited comment makes it clear that unwarranted beatings were not commonplace. Even in the busy, crowded communities, such as London, folks would keep a watchful eye on the children among them. Some people were even known to fight for a child’s welfare—literally. In one incident, in early 14th century London, neighbors intervened when a cook and a clerk were beating a boy that was carrying water. A scuffle had ensued and the child’s tormentors were subdued. The neighbors hadn’t even known the boy, but they firmly stood up for him, even when they were physically attacked as well. They stood by their actions when the cook and clerk later sued them for damages. The punishments that children had faced during the 14th century were ultimately a way to prepare them for leaving home.
Although the majority of children had spent their childhood almost exclusively in the home of their parents, there were some who had left home to live with relatives, future relatives, employers, masters in trade or even virtual strangers. It was uncommon for children to leave the home before the age of ten or twelve. Some children who had left home were noble offspring of either gender who had been sent to live with the family of which they would one day marry into, or even had already officially married.
In these such cases, their move was less a departure from home than a transference to a new home and family. The sons of knights would at times live in the castle of their father’s liege-lord where they’d train to be knights themselves. Traditionally, this would happen at seven years old, and was not a hard or fast rule. Origins of this concept have been obscured and romanticized in later literature to the point of folklore. Boys were just as likely to make the move at the age of ten or twelve or even in their later teens.
Children of poor families at times would enter service to bring income into the household and to reduce the number of mouths to feed at home. Service had seldom began before the age of twelve and would more frequently start well into their teens. Servants would live with fairly prosperous families and would be fed and often clothed by their employers as well. Any pains of separation that were experienced by their parents were somewhat put at ease by the knowledge that their offspring were being cared for, frequently in a far better manner than what they could offer themselves.
Apprenticeships also began in the teen years. As centuries had passed the age of acceptance became older, due to the insistence on part of guilds that potential apprentices be able to read and write. In London, during the 14th century, thirteen was specified as the minimum age of apprenticeship by a city ordinance. By the late middle ages, apprenticeship could begin as late as eighteen years old. Within most homes, children would stay home where they would continue their lessons, play, help their families, and experience the joys, as well as pains of growing up.
Physical manifestations of biological puberty were and still are difficult to ignore. It is hard to believe that such obvious indications as the onset of menses in girls or the growth of facial hair in boys were not acknowledged as a part of the transition into another phase of life. If nothing else, bodily changes of adolescence made it clear that childhood would soon be over. It has been argued that adolescence was not recognized by society in the 14th century, as stated before, as a stage of life separate from adulthood, but this is not at all certainty. To be sure, teens were known to take on some of the work of full-fledged adults, but at the same time, such privileges as inheritance and land ownership were withheld in some cultures until the age of twenty-one.
Disparity between the rights and responsibilities will be familiar to those who remember a time in the United States when one was only able to vote starting at the age of twenty-one and able to be drafted at the age of eighteen. Today the age for voting has been set at eighteen and the age to join the military is still eighteen. In the 14th century, if a child had left home before reaching full maturity, the teen years were the most likely time for them to do so. This didn’t mean he was “on his own”, the move from the parents’ home was almost always into another household. An adolescent would be under the supervision of an adult who would feed and cloth the teenager and whose discipline the teen would be subjected to. Even as youths left their families behind and took on increasingly more difficult tasks, there was still a social structure to keep them protected, and to some extent, under control.
The teen years were also a time to concentrate more intensely on learning in preparation for adulthood. Not all adolescents would have the option for schooling. Serious scholarship could last an entire lifetime, in some ways education was an archetypal experience of adolescence. Formal education was unusual during this time and some cities, such as London, had schools that children of both genders attended during the day. They would both learn to read and write, which was a skill that became a prerequisite for acceptance as apprentices in many Guilds.
A small percentage of peasant children had managed to attend school so as to learn how to read and write and understand basic maths. This would usually take place at a monastery. For this education, their parents had to pay their lord a fine and usually had to promise that the child would not take ecclesiastical orders. When they had grown up, these students would use what they had learned to keep the village or court records, or even manage the lord’s estate.
Noble girls, and on occasion boys, were sometimes sent to live in nunneries in order to receive their basic schooling. The nuns would teach these children how to read, and possibly write, and made sure that they knew their prayers. Girls were likely taught spinning and needlework and other domestic skills, so as to prepare for marriage. On occasion, such students would also become nuns themselves. If a child was to become a serious scholar, his path usually would lye in the monastic life, an option that had been rarely open to or sought by average townsmen or peasant. Only boys with the most notable acumen would be chosen from these ranks. They were then raised by monks, where their lives could be peaceful and fulfilling, or it could be frustrating and restrictive, depending on the situation and their temperaments. Children at monasteries were usually the younger sons of noble families, this practice was known as giving the child to the church in the early part of the Middle Ages. This practice was outlawed by the church as early as in the 7th century at the Council of Toledo, but it was still known to have taken place on occasion in centuries that had followed.
Monasteries and cathedrals would eventually begin to maintain schools for students who were destined for secular life. For younger students, instruction began with skills of reading and writing and then moved on to the Trivium of the Seven Liberal Arts. The Trivium would include grammar, rhetoric, and logic. As they grew older they would also study what was known as the Quadrivium, which would include arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Altogether these would make the Seven Liberal Arts. Younger students would be subject to corporal discipline by their instructors. By the time they finished their studies of the Seven Liberal Arts, they would then enter University, but such measures were rare. Advanced schooling was almost exclusively for males, but some females were able to acquire an admirable education as well.
In the late Middle Ages, nunneries suffered a drop in literacy. This would reduce the available options for a quality learning experience. Higher education for females would depend largely on individual circumstances. In the 12th century, cathedral schools had evolved into universities. Students and masters would band together into guilds to protect their rights and further their educational opportunities. Embarking on a course of study with university was a step forward to adulthood, but it was a path that would start during adolescence. Students were usually still in their teens when they would enter university, and legally not yet in full possession of their rights.
A student that began his studies at university would be known as a bajan. In many cases a bajan would undergo a rite of passage, which was called the “jocund advent” upon his arrival at university. The nature of this varied according to place and time, but it would usually involve feasting and rituals that are similar to hazing in modern fraternities. After a year at school, a bajan could be purged of his lowly status by expounding a passage and debating it with his fellow students. If he was successful in making his argument, he would be washed clean and led through town on an ass. This was possibly due to their monastic origins, students were also tonsured (the tops of their heads would be shaved), and had worn clothing that was similar to a monk, a cope and cassock or a closed-over, long-sleeved tunic and overtunic. Their diet could be fairly erratic if they had been on their own and with limited funding. They would have to purchase what was inexpensive from the shops in the city, and early universities also had no provisions set aside for housing. A young man had to live with friends or relatives or else he had to fend for himself. Before long colleges were set up to aid less affluent students, the first college being the College of the Eighteen in Paris. In return for a small allowance and a bed at the Hospice of the Blessed Mary, students were asked to offer prayers and take turns carrying the cross and holy water before bodies of deceased patients. Some residents proved to be insolent and even violent, and disrupted the studies of the more serious students, and would also break in when they stayed out after hours. Therefore, The Hospice of the Blessed Mary began to restrict its hospitality to students who had behaved more pleasantly. It would also require them to pass weekly examinations so as to prove their work was meeting expectations. Residency would also be limited to one year, and the possibility of a year’s renewal at the discretion of foundationers. Institutions, such as the College of the Eighteen would evolve into endowed residences for students, among them was Merton at Oxford and Peterhouse at Cambridge. Over time these colleges would begin to acquire manuscripts and scientific instruments for their students and offer regular salaries to teachers in an effort to prepare candidates and their guests for a degree.
Students would attend lectures regularly, and in the early days of universities, lectures would be held in a hired hall, such as a church or a master’s house. Soon buildings would be constructed for the express purpose of teaching. When not in lectures a student would read significant works, write about them, and expound on them to fellow scholars and teachers. All of this was done in preparation for the day that he would have to write his final thesis and expound on it to the doctors of the university in return for his degree. Subjects that would be studied would include theology, canon law and common law and medicine. The University of Paris was the best for theological studies, the University of Bologna was renowned for its law school and Salerno’s was unsurpassed for its medical school.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, numerous universities had sprang up throughout Europe, including in England. Some students were not content with limiting their studies to only one school. Earlier scholars, such as John of Salisbury and Gerbert of Aurillac had traveled far and wide to grow their education. Now students were following in their footsteps, sometimes literally. Many of these were serious in their motives and driven by a thirst for more knowledge. Other students, known as Goliards, were more lighthearted in nature, and were poets just seeking adventure and love.
All of this may present a picture of students thronging the cities of medieval Europe. In reality scholarly studies at such a level were unusual. By and large, if a teen were to undergo any form of structured education, it was more than likely to be as an apprentice.
There were the few exceptions, but apprentices usually began in their teens and would be as such for seven to ten years. It was also not unheard of for sons to be apprenticed to their own fathers, in fact it was fairly uncommon. Sons of a master craftsman were by Guild law automatically accepted into the Guild,yet many still would take an apprenticeship route with someone other than their father. They did this for the experience and the training that an apprenticeship had offered.
Apprentices in larger cities and towns were supplied from the outlying villages in large numbers. This would supplement the labor forces that had dwindled from diseases, such as the plague and other factors of city living. Apprenticeships would also take place in village businesses and a teen might learn milling or felting cloth. These were not limited to males but there were fewer girls than boys. Girls would be trained in a wide variety of trades, and were more than likely to be trained by a master’s wife. His wife would very often know nearly as much about her husband’s trade as he had, and at times more. Although such trades as that of a seamstress were more common for females, girls were not limited to learning skills they could take into a marriage. Once they were married many would continue plying their trades.
Youngsters rarely had a choice of which craft they would learn, or with what particular master they would work. The destiny of an apprentice was usually determined by the connections his/her family had. An example of this lies with a young man whose father had a haberdasher for a friend, may have been an apprentice to that haberdasher, or perhaps to another haberdasher in the same guild. This connection may have been through a godparent or a neighbor instead of a blood relative as well. Affluent families obviously had more affluent connections. A wealthy Londoner’s son was more likely than a country boy to find himself learning the goldsmith trade.
Apprenticeships were also formally arranged with contracts and sponsors. Guilds would require that bonds of surety be posted to guarantee that an apprentice would fulfill their expectations. If they didn’t, a sponsor was liable for the fee. In addition, sponsors or the candidate themselves would at times pay the master a fee to take on the apprentice. This would help the master cover some of the expenses of caring for the apprentice over the next several years. A relationship between a master and his apprentice was as significant as that between a parent and an offspring. The apprentice would live in his master’s house or shop and usually would eat with his family. He/She would also wear clothing that was provided by their master and were also subject to that master’s discipline as well. Living within such close proximity, an apprentice could and often did form a close emotional bond with their “foster family”. They might have even “married the boss’s daughter/son”.
Whether they had married into the family, apprentices were often remembered in their master’s will. There were also cases of abuse at times that may end up in court. Though the apprentice was usually the victim, at times they would also take extreme advantage of their benefactors. They may steal from them or even engage in violent confrontations. An apprentice sometimes would run away as well, and their sponsor would have to pay the master the surety fee to make up for the time, money and effort that had gone into training the runaway. These people were there to learn and the primary purpose a master had taken them into his home was to teach them, so learning all skills that was associated with the craft was what would occupy most of their time.
Some masters may take advantage of the “free” labor, and would assign menial tasks to their young worker and teach them the secrets of the craft only slowly, but this was not all that common. An affluent crafts-master would have servants that would perform unskilled tasks he needed done in the shop. The sooner that an apprentice was taught the skills of the trade, the sooner the apprentice could help him properly in the business. The last hidden “mysteries” of the trade would possibly take some time to acquire. An apprenticeship was not, of course, all work, and most would also engage in an active social life.
Not all teens would go to school, but those who did were not entirely consumed with learning, many teens also worked, and just about all of them played, just as they do today. Teens in peasant homes were most likely to work instead of go to school. These teens could have been an integral part of a peasant family’s income as productive workers that would contribute to the farming operation.
As a paid servant in another household, usually in another town, an adolescent could either contribute to the total income or simply cease using their family’s resources. This would increase the overall economic standing of those that they had left behind. Children would provide valuable assistance to their family as early as the age of five or six. This assistance took the form of simple chores and didn’t take up a whole lot of a child’s time. Such chores that were done by a child were herding geese, sheep or goats, gathering of 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 home, girls would help their mother with the tending of a vegetable or herb garden. They would also help make and mend clothing, churn butter, brew beer, or perform simple tasks to help with cooking.
Out in the fields, boys, no younger than nine and usually twelve years old may have assisted their father by goading ox while his father would handle the plow. As a teen had reached their teens, they may continue to perform these chores unless younger siblings were there to do so. They would most definitely increase their workloads with more demanding tasks. Most difficult tasks were reserved for those with the most experience. Handling a scythe was something that would take great skill and care and it was unlikely that an adolescent would be given the responsibility of using it during the most pressing times of the harvest. Work for a teenager was not just limited to being within the family. It was fairly common for one to find work as a servant in another household.
In all of the poorest medieval households, it would not be surprising to find a servant of some variety or another. Service would mean one would have part-time work, day labor, or working and living under the roof of their employer. The type of work that a service would do was no less variable, there were shop servants and crafts assistants, laborers in agriculture and manufacturing and of course there were also household servants of every kind. Some individuals would take the role of a servant for their entire life and servitude was frequently a temporary stage in the life of an adolescent.
Service would last three years for those working in labor, and would often would live in another family’s home. Servitude would be a way from some teens to save up money, acquire skills, make social and business connections and absorb a general understanding of the way that society conducted itself. This was all in preparation for entry into society as an adult. A child may possibly enter service as young as the age of seven years old. Most employers though would seek older children to take up positions as servants at the age of ten or twelve. The amount of work that was carried out by a younger servant was necessarily limited. Pre-adolescents would rarely, if ever, was suited to heavy-lifting or to tasks or to take tasks that required fine manual dexterity. If an employer had taken on a seven-year-old servant they would expect the child to take some time to learn their tasks and he would probably start with very simple chores. Within a household a boy would be employed as a groom, valet, or porter. Girls would be employed to be housemaids, nurses, or scullery maids. Children of both genders would work within the kitchen. With a little bit of training a young man or woman might be hired to assist at some skilled trades including: silk making, weaving, metalworking, brewing, and wine making. In villages they could also acquire some skills including: cloth making, milling, baking and blacksmithing. Children could also help in the fields or in a household.
By far, the majority of servants in town and in the countryside came from poorer families. Much like an apprentice, servants at times had to post a bond so that their prospective employer might take them on. This would assure the boss that they would not leave before their agreed-upon term of service was up. There were also servants who had come from more noble origins, particularly those who would serve as valets, ladies’ maids, and other confidential assistants in illustrious households. Such individuals may be temporary adolescent employees from the same class as their employers or long-term servants from the gentry or urban middle class. They may have even been educated at University before they took on their posts.
By the 15th century, several manuals giving advice for such esteemed servants were circulating London and other large towns, and not only noblemen but high city officials and wealthy merchants would be seeking to hire individuals who could perform delicate duties with tact and finesse. It was not unusual for brothers or sisters of servants to find work within the same household. When an older sibling had moved on from service a younger might take their place. They could also be employed simultaneously at different jobs. It was also not uncommon for servants to work for their family members. A childless man of prosperity in a town or city may employ his country-dwelling brothers or his cousin’s children. This may seem to be 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 their accomplishments.
It was also a common procedure to draw up a service contract that would outline some terms of service. These contracts would include how much they were to be paid, length of their service, and living arrangements. There were some servants that would see little legal recourse if they encountered some difficulty with their masters. Masters and servants both would bring their conflicts to the legal authorities for resolution on a regular basis. Household servants almost always would live with their employers. To deny one housing after having promised it was considered to be a disgrace. Living together in such close quarters could result in terrible abuse or close bonds of loyalty. In fact, masters and servants of close ranks and age were known to have formed bonds that lasted a lifetime, or friendship during their term of service. On the other hand, it was also not unknown for masters to take advantage of their servants, particularly teenage girls in their employ. Relationships of most teenage servants to masters fell somewhere between fear and adulation. In the end they would still do whatever work was asked of them. Servants would be fed, clothed, sheltered, and paid by their employers. During their free time they would seek out ways to relax and have fun.