Child Rearing in the Middle Ages - Sarah Woodbury

Child Rearing in the Middle Ages

It’s hard to get a handle on what child care was like in the Middle Ages–or what exactly was the prevailing philosophy.  Certainly, the ideal childhood of today’s middle class in the US or Europe, did not exist during the Middle Ages.

Sources that describe what child rearing was like are all over the map, in terms of the degree of care, love, maternal obligations, and how long childhood lasted.  A child’s life was also circumscribed the class into which he was born.

Certainly infants were viewed as needing loving and attentive care:  “Writing around 1250, Bartholomew the Englishman said that if it is too hot or too cold when a baby comes from the womb into the air, the baby becomes miserable and cries. Following the advice of medical writers, he suggested that to cleanse the infant’s limbs of their stickiness, they should be washed in rose petals pounded with salt and that the midwife should rub the child’s gums and the roof of its mouth with honey to cleanse and soothe its mouth and stimulate the baby’s appetite. He also advised that the infant should be bathed frequently and anointed all over with the soothing oil of myrtle or roses, and he warned that the newborn should lie in a dim room because too bright a light would hurt its young eyes.”

Someone nursed a child (in the upper classes, this would be a wet nurse) until they were 18 months to 2 years old.  True childhood lasted until around the age of 7, at which point, depending upon the class and gender, a child went to school, was apprenticed in a craft, was sent away to be trained as a knight (upper class boys), was put to work for the family’s benefit, or continued under the tutelage of the mother for training in adult, household responsibilities (girls).

“Childhood has become such a distinct period that it is hard to imagine that it was not always thought of in that way. However, in medieval times, laws generally did not distinguish between child and adult offenses. After analyzing samples of art along with available publications, historian Philippe Aries concluded that European societies did not accord any special status to children prior to 1600. In paintings, children were often dressed in smaller versions of adult-like clothing.

Some believe that children were actually treated as miniature adults with no special status in medieval Europe. Aries interpretation has been criticized, however. He primarily sampled aristocratic, idealized subjects, which led to the overdrawn conclusion that children were treated as miniature adults and not accorded any special status. In medieval times, children did often work, and their emotional bond with parents may not have been as strong as it is for many children today. However, in medieval times, childhood probably was recognized as a distinct phase of life more than Aries believed. Also, we know that in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome rich conceptions of children’s development were held.”

Education for girls, though allowed in certain places and more common in some countries than others, was not the rule by any means:  “The subject of education for women, however, was a hotly debated issue throughout the Middle Ages. As education was directly connected with the church it was inevitable that the church’s views of women should have led predominated. St. Thomas of Aquinas,1225-1274, who was perhaps one of the great teachers of the period declared what was clearly a widely supported notion regarding women:

“The woman is subject to man on account of the weakness of her nature . . . Man is the beginning of woman and her end, just as God is the beginning and end of every creature. Children ought to love their Father more than they love their mother.”

Medieval society, and particularly the powerful domains of church and state, clearly had no place for well-educated women.”

3 Replies to “Child Rearing in the Middle Ages”

    1. That’s the scoop anyway. I think if a mother passed off the nursing to someone else, that’s conceivable. At the same time, hard to imagine how you don’t get involved emotionally in a child you nurse. Thanks for commenting!

  1. Child mortality up to the mid-1800’s was so high that parents did not get much emotionally involved with infants by simple precaution. I don’t remember the exact proportion of children reaching adulthood, but I can say that less than a half lived past 5 years of age. Years ago, while I was studying the history of mourning sample-making, I was struck by the numerous premature deaths in the Victorian families, both for children and for women of child-bearing age.

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