Last week I read this fascinating article in The New Yorker, “Spoiled Rotten”, about how American children in the 21st century are the most privileged and insufferable children in the history of the world. It compares case studies of children in L.A. with children in a Peruvian tribe, studies that were done independently by two friends who later compared their research.
Reading about how spoiled and willfully incompetent modern American children from the L.A. study were compared to the industrious and helpful children of the Peruvian Amazon study of course turned my thoughts to medieval children. How would the little tykes of a thousand or so years ago have compared to the kids we encounter every day?
As with everything else about society in the middle ages, there are a lot of misconceptions. There was a historian, Philippe Ariès, in the 1960s that advanced the theory that medieval children were pretty much treated like little adults. He came to this conclusion partially from contemporary pictures of medieval children that depicted them in miniature adult clothes. There also seems to be a theory out there that because of the high infant mortality rate parents weren’t as emotionally attached to their children.
In actuality, according to medieval chronicles, children were seen as different and special, in need of their own sets of rules in social settings like schools and monastic life and in need of specialized medical care. They were loved and regarded as a central part of their families right from birth, just as kids are today, and the death of a child was a blow that some parents never recovered from.
Life was different, however, depending on where you were born on the social scale.
Royal and noble babies were almost always given to wet-nurses when they were born. Which is ironic if you consider that medieval chroniclers, secular and religious, stressed the importance of a woman nursing her own baby. Many of these medieval Dr. Spocks recommended that babies be fed on demand, not on a set schedule. High and low, babies were wrapped in swaddling at an early age. This was seen as the best way to help their limbs to grow straight. It’s also interesting to note that medieval child-rearing manuals recommended pressing a baby’s ears and nose on a regular basis to make sure they didn’t grow too prominent.
Another thing that modern folks might find surprising about the prevailing medieval opinion on child-rearing is that it was recommended that babies and children be frequently bathed. So wipe your mind of the notion of dirty little medieval kids running around all over the place.
And boy did they run around! Up until the age of seven or eight kids were pretty much allowed to be kids. As the thirteenth century Franciscan monk Bartholomaeus Anglicus put it:
“Children have soft flesh and lithe and pliant bodies, nimble and light of movement, and are easily trained. They live without thought or care. … They love talking to other children and avoid the company of old men. They keep no secrets but repeat all that they see and hear. Suddenly they laugh, suddenly they weep, and are continuously yelling, chattering, and laughing. They are scarcely silent when they are asleep. When they have been washed, they dirty themselves again. While they are being bathed or combed by their mothers they kick and sprawl and move their feet and hands and resist with all their might. They think only about their stomachs, always wanting to eat and drink. Scarcely have they risen from bed than they desire food.”
In other words, not much has changed. But the further you slid down the social scale, the more children were expected to do “chores” and help out at an earlier age. Easy tasks that could be accomplished by young hands were given to children, such as minding sheep, sweeping, picking rocks out of gardens, etc. But none of this labor was too hard or too strictly enforced until the children were older.
Higher up the social ladder children still had responsibilities at an earlier age. Just like today there was a certain responsibility for a mother to teach her sons and daughters their ABCs before they were six so that they would be ready for school.
A lot of changes happened in the lives of children when they reached age seven or eight. If you were a noble son you would be sent away from home to be raised and trained by a relative or family friend. The point in these situations was for the boys to learn discipline and manners as well as the skills of a knight. They would even serve at table so that they learned what it was to serve. Girls would begin learning etiquette and the skills they would need to be a noble wife. All of this intensive training set them up to be ready for and capable of the young marriages that would perpetuate a noble line.
Middle class and artisan children underwent a similar change at age seven or eight. Boys who were set to learn a trade would be sent to live with a master craftsman outside of the home. It was against the rules of medieval guilds for fathers to train their own sons. As with nobility, this apprentice system was designed to teach children discipline and self-control along with their trade.
Middle class and some peasant children often went to schools. By the 12th century every respectable town had a school. Teachers were paid by the student’s families. A good teacher could command a hefty fee and some even managed to make fortunes. By the end of the 12th century the Church began encouraging church schools that would educate even poor children up to the age of eleven or twelve for free. This caused a huge fight with the teachers who charged for their services.
Girls were allowed in these schools as well as boys up until the age of eleven. This was a time, remember, when women were allowed to conduct business and inherit property. They needed to have at least a rudimentary education if they would be in a position to inherit all that. Girls weren’t permitted in institutions of higher learning, however.
There are so many more things I could say about the lives of children in the middle ages. The most important thing to take away though is that they were not serious little drudges, doomed either to a life of manual labor or early marriages and responsibility. They were kids just like our kids are today. Only unlike our children today, they were expected to engage in the work of the family and to shoulder a larger load of responsibility than our children have now. But as the New Yorker article suggests, this could have physically and psychologically been a really good thing for children. They had a use, a purpose, beyond growing up. (Really, go read that article, it’s awesome!) Yes, there was more of a focus on discipline, but I think we tend to vilify discipline in the modern era far, far more than it deserves.
Yep, I think there are a lot of lessons modern children could learn from medieval ones. I also think that, medieval or modern, kids will be kids. And it’s a wonderful thing.