Medieval Childhood

This blog post will be a summary so far of a module I have been studying in my third year at Winchester University. Medieval childhood is described by the historian Gregory Bailey as largely a hidden topic but crucial in understanding what people considered to be the life cycle in this period. Its culture comes through literary and archaeological processes, but rarely were children’s livelihoods fully documented, the exception perhaps being a royal or noble child where adolescence can be traced. Within the Medieval Life Cycle module we discuss whether infancy and adolescence was considered an important stage in the act of growing up. The inclusion of primary sources suggests that ‘childhood’ as we would think of it today existed but came from a decidedly different approach since medieval children were raised to be miniature adults. In order to fully understand this stage in life you have to ascertain whether the stereotypical belief that medieval parents cared little for their children was true. So far with the support of coroner’s records and middle English poetry such as The Pearl, author unknown, the conclusion is that parents cared deeply for their own but considered childhood to be phase that has to pass before a child could become useful within a household.

When flicking through various historiographical sources social rank and gender divides play a huge role in adding discrepancies in research. Male documentation is vastly superior to female due to their lives needing to be traceable in case any issues arose in regards to inheritance or educational training. The assumption was that females were raised to be good wives, unless one was a particularly prominent member of society, or history, even then female childhood is a gap largely unfilled. Of course childhood phases could be tracked by other means such as the taking of religious sacraments. The centrality of religion cannot be underestimated in the medieval period and was part of a child’s life from birth. There was no privacy during childbirth and the infant would have been baptised within a week therefore placing them under the church’s protection, and due to high infant mortality, burial within consecrated grounds. Baptisms were family events that occurred at the same time as church meetings, mass and occasionally family feuds/fights and godparents were expected to invest in the child for life. There are cases of a child being baptised in the mother’s womb if both or either were at risk. As large family numbers were the norm infanticide was common among the poorer societies and was usually conducted within minutes of the birth taking place. Infanticide was not legally outlawed in England until 1643 but abortion was disallowed by the church throughout the middle ages. However nineteenth century historiography has since interfered with the much of the correct ideologies about medieval abortion, therefore stable conclusions cannot be made.

Much of the literature reaffirms that a child remains with their mother or wet-nurses until the age of seven when they are considered old enough for education. For lower society this would be apprenticeships, chores in the household or agricultural training. Noble born children would be sent to another household to learn the tactics of being a courtly knight, if a boy, or a virtuous maiden if a girl. Apprenticeships are good examples for assessing adolescence in the middle ages. An apprentice was usually never within the guild of their own family, but always were apprenticed with a trade family that was socially connected to them. The distance one would travel for training varies from their native village/town to several towns or cities away. Usually parents looked for apprenticeships with families that are of the same social status, Althoff, a social historian, calls this ‘co-operative bonds’. In nearly all apprenticeship contracts, ordinarily called ‘indentures’, it was normally the father that agreed upon the settlement. An example of this would be Giovanni de Cogorno who placed his son with a master notary (secretary) for fifteen years, which is one of the oldest apprentice indentures to survive. It was the adoptive family circle that enables the apprentice to gain moral, religious and secular learning that would be useful once the apprenticeship finished.

People who partake in apprenticeships were usually forbidden to marry until their training ends. However there was several cases brought into the guild where male apprentices have broken their oaths with fellow female apprentices and therefore had to face a charge and give up the girl. Apprenticeships usually had two stages, as a novice you learnt using your masters tools. However if you are promoted to journeyman then you had to provide your own tools and begin work on a masterpiece which would hopefully gain you access into your chosen guild. This took a lot of time since apprentices were forbidden from working on personal work on Sundays. This meant adolescence in the middle ages usually had to contain a lot of education and structure, whether this be at university, apprentice or work. The concept of ‘teenager’ did not exist until the 1950’s therefore from the age of seven, you were considered as a young adult and were expected to behave so.

Medieval childhood tends to be a rigid structure of church practices and life phases that usually either lead to marriage for girls or a public life for boys and choice did not always fall to the child. Much of what happens in a child’s life was chosen by their parents or kin network even down to which career path you chose, whether it be ecclesiastical or secular.

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