Children in the Middle Ages

Kindheit, Kindsein und Kinder im Mittelalter

The life of the children in the Middle Ages cannot be described in more general terms, as it was determined by many different factors. These include the origin, social status of the family, place of residence and gender. In general, the children of rich bourgeois families and aristocrats had a better life than children of poor peasants. In addition, infant mortality was very high, and many fatal diseases were rampant during this period.

The perception of children in the Middle Ages

Children in the Middle Ages were perceived as very ambivalent. On the one hand, the birth of offspring was a positive factor in the life of the parents and a great source of happiness. Medieval citizens were encouraged by the Church to lead a Christian way of life, to marry and to bring forth many children. On the other hand, religion also negatively perceived children (as they came from the carnal desires of the body which the devil supposedly initiated). Those who decided in the Middle Ages for a consecrated and pure life renounced the choice of having a family and went to the monastery as a monk or nun.

Status of children in medieval society

Zwei Mädchen in Mittelalterkleidern.
Two girls in medieval dresses.

Childhood was considered an innocent phase of life, as the children knew neither sexual desire nor the meaning of death. They were also alien to fraud, bigotry, hypocrisy and lies. Based on these findings, the custom arose that children walked at the head of processions during religious celebrations. In the Middle Ages, children also were regarded as a God-given gift and less as the property of their parents.

Farmers needed a lot of labour and therefore produced many children. For nobles and rich citizens, it was extremely important for political reasons to produce a male heir. This was the only way to ensure the survival of the dynasty. Due to the high infant mortality rate, there had to be a constant supply of offspring, as usually less than half of the children in a family survived.

The education of children in the Middle Ages also depended on the social status. For the offspring of rich people, private lessons took place in the home. In the city, boys and girls attended a primary school together to learn to read and write. In the countryside there was often no instruction at all

The treatment of medieval children

In contrast to today, children were breastfed relatively long in the Middle Ages, on average at least two years. In this way, a healthy diet was ensured, the long lactation probably also served as a method of contraception. Women from the nobility very often entrusted their children to a wet nurse, in order to be able to participate in social life again. As a result, they were able to get pregnant again faster in order to finally give birth to the male successor, if they were bearing only girls.

If the parents lived as non-free peasants, eventually the children had to serve as maids and servants very early on. Those who did not want to obey these rules were usually punished with blows. In general, physical violence was a common means that could be used in the education of children in the middle Ages. Since the children knew no other way, they probably found this behavior normal.

The fact that education with the rod was common practice is evidenced by a number of literary works. Thus Berthold of Regensburg proclaims in his “preaching” from 1240: “From the time when the child speaks the first evil words, you shall have a rebuke ready, If you do not do so, you will experience bad things in them…”

Nevertheless, it was already known in the Middle Ages that a child withered without any verbal communication, as discovered by the experiments of Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century. He ordered a group of children to be raised without any verbal interaction to find out what language they would eventually speak. But all the children died.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Children’s Games
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – children’s games, 16th century

Children in the Middle Ages and their rights

In medieval society there was an arrangement of citizens in different age groups, in total there were seven different levels. The first stage of childhood only lasted until the third year of life. This is followed by the second stage, which was considered to have been completed by the time he reached the age of 14. These strict ideas had a great influence on the everyday life of many medieval children. Child labour and extremely early vocational training were the order of the day to contribute to the economic survival of the whole family.

From the age of six at the latest, most medieval children had to work in the Middle Ages, whether they wanted to or not. Children from the lower social classes, both in the countryside and in the city, were particularly affected. In addition to agriculture, children worked in mining, as servants and in crafts. They were often used for work for which a small body size was advantageous.

Freizeitideen für Kinder mit Bezug zum Mittelalter

Games for children in the Middle Ages

Of course, in the Middle Ages, the children knew not only the concept of work, but also the concept of play. However, the social status of parents was crucial to the ways in which children were allowed to live out their play instincts. Depending on the social class the offspring also had completely different toys at their disposal. By default, this included gyroscopes, dolls, marbles and animal figures made of wood and clay. When the family belonged to the rich upper classes, the children got painted birds made of ceramics and rocking horses, but also musical instruments such as flute, tambourine and drum.

Just as today, children in the Middle Ages played a lot in the sand and the earth to build houses, walls and towers from them. Very popular were games to promote skill and strength, such as head-stands and running. Presumably the bouncing game, called heaven and hell, was already known in the Middle Ages. In addition, there were catching, display, role, search and throwing games with balls, coins and rings. Dice were also very popular in the Middle Ages. The advantage was that even poorer families could carve a pair of Dice out of bone in no time.

However, the children from the poor underclass did not have much time to play after working. This changed in the countryside in the winter months, as the days became shorter and temperatures became steadily cooler. Then there was less work to do on the farm. As a result, the offspring could spend more time with the family and playing. Those who had many siblings always had a sufficient number of playmates to choose from.

Clothes of medieval children

Children’s clothing did not differ significantly from the clothing of adults in the Middle Ages. They were similar in cut, material and color and differed only in size. But if one compares different finds, one will find different forms of children’s garb. The status of the family within society also led to a differentiation in clothing.

Children’s garb of lower social classes

Jungen im Mittelalter: Sie trugen ebenfalls ein Unter- und Obergewand, eine Hose, Gürtel und Schuhe.
Boys in the Middle Ages: Like adults, they wore an upper and a lower garment, trousers, belt and shoes.

The children’s clothing of the lower social classes was very simple. Mostly, mothers made them themselves from flax, linen and wool. What was important was a full and comfortable cut, which could provide sufficient freedom of movement for unhindered work. In this way, the children in the Middle Ages often grew into their too large garments with time in effect increasing the useable lifespan of the garment.

Servants wore simple tunics and wide trousers. The maids’ garb included an undergarment, a robe, a waistband, or a cloth. Both boys and girls wore leather waistcoats and sometimes an apron, depending on their profession. Contrary to popular belief, farmers did not necessarily belong to the lower stratum. Free peasants who owned their own land could bring it to some form of prosperity. Accordingly, the clothes of the children of free peasants looked different from the clothes of the children of non-free peasants.

Garb of children of higher social classes

In the early Middle Ages, the garb of the social classes did not differ significantly. Differences were more evident in sumptuous jewelry and accessories such as ornamental weapons and ornamental armor. It was only from the High Middle Ages that the nobility began to prefer much more opulent cuts that a less well-heeled person could not afford, since the amount of textile used alone would have cost too much.

For this purpose, the garments of the higher classes were richly decorated and, inspired by the flourishing trade, made of much more precious materials. The children’s clothes were in no way inferior to that of the adults.

Noble tunics, elegant skirts, tight-fitting pants, courtly dresses and long coats were among the garments of the aristocrats as well as wealthy citizens. In addition, the noblewoman decorated her wardrobe with fine embroidery and bristles. On the other hand, the majority of the population did not have the financial means to decorate their clothes. Often the wardrobe was inherited from one child to the other and patched together to prolong its use.