A Child’s life in the Middle Ages

 By Imogen Corrigan on 11 June 2014

Where are the children in medieval art? This lecture goes from before the cradle with superstitions surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, to the trials and tribulations of teenage years and all too often to an early grave.

From observations of art in over 1000 medieval churches we find very little information about children. When searching for them, they might be tucked up in a laundry basket or, as it shows on a misericord carving, being dragged from a kennel.

Alternatively, children might be depicted as a young adult such as in the picture at Blickling Hall of Anne Boleyn when her age is given as 3 years, 11 months and 13 days. It was suggested that she is depicted as she might be at 33 years so that she could be recognised at her Resurrection.

From 1538 baptisms had to be recorded providing evidence of large families. It was hoped that at least ‘an heir and a spare’ should survive! A tombstone in Laycock depicts the Lord and Lady with their children, 13 boys and 5 girls. Infant mortality was high, a quarter dying in the first 3 months and half never reaching their tenth birthdays. Many were roughly treated and died of what we would now call manslaughter. Of 4000 murders only 3 of the victims were children. By the age of 10-12, children were regarded as being responsible for themselves. They had to work hard alongside the adults.

In 1215, Magna Carta asserts that the property rights of wards must be maintained by their guardians. Such children could not be forced to marry.

There were various attempts to aid conception. The legend of St. Margaret being swallowed by the red-eyed dragon and hacking her way out of his stomach was meant to instil a desire to survive childbirth. However, the mother-to-be was encouraged to go to confession and communion first. If the mother died, a caesarean might be carried out by the midwife or the butcher so that an emergency baptism could be done. If it was not an emergency, the baptism was carried out very soon after birth the name given being the saint of the day. Don’t ask a pregnant woman to be a godparent as she will soon be dead!

Dead children were mourned, while those with deformities were not abandoned even though they usually ended up as beggars.

There is a fifteenth century illustration in the Hours of Ann of Cleeves showing the toddler Jesus with a baby walker.

The lucky few children went to school where there was a high standard of education given by the Benedictines until standards slipped by the fifteenth century when lay headmasters took over. Chartres Cathedral has a misericord showing grammar being beaten into the boys. But life was not all work and study. Brueghel has a picture of at least 200 children playing more than 75 games.

As today, there was plenty of advice around on how to bring up children for the best.

For some illustrations, see Imogen Corrigan’s website:

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A Child’s Life in the Middle Ages