Monday, January 9, 2017

Childhood in Medieval London

By Kristin Gleeson

In Medieval London and throughout all England, parents were concerned about the rearing and education of their children, just as society is today. In the later Medieval period as guilds became more strict, professions were more formally established, among other things, parents worked hard to prepare their children to pass successfully into adulthood, something evident from the many manuals from that time that address these issues.

 The parents were right to be concerned with the many obstacles that faced a child before he reached adulthood. The specter of death hung over all children. There were high risks of infection from various diseases including the plague, the pox, sweating sickness, flux and various fevers, in addition to malnutrition. Any number of possible accidents could befall a child. He or she could get run down by a horse or fall into a hearth fire. A month-old girl, Joan, in Queenhithe, died after a sow entered the home and “mortally bit the right side” of the child’s head. It was disease, though, that caused the majority of childhood deaths in the Medieval period.

 London had a large population of foreigners, especially French, Flemish, Italian and German, but still, the parishes were small and people in each tended to know and protect one another. In that light the London children were probably the best supervised of the whole of the country. The streets were crowded with adults going about their business or pleasure and would notice any child at risk or a child seriously misbehaving.

The first years of a child’s life were usually spent in a cradle, the limbs tightly swaddled in cloth. By their second or third years they would be walking, learning to talk and being toilet trained. At that time the parent would shown them the "jakes" streets and latrines of London,  and in the wealthier families, the use of the chamber pot.

Contrary to some common understanding Medieval society did recognize childhood as something separate from adulthood. There were toys for children of varying quality, the more luxurious ones for the upper classes. Children’s clothes were sturdy and made to size and were not necessarily the adult clothes made smaller. One wax chandler had a little painted table and stool and silver beads and a crucifix for his child.

There were also many guides to raising children, especially in the later Medieval period, all of them filled with plenty of sage advice on best practices for the upper classes, but also for those in trade and other less well off people. Generally, a mother guided the daughters to adulthood while the fathers taught their sons. For the most part, training manuals were focused on the male children, but regardless of which gender it was directed towards, the common theme on child rearing present in all the books was the well known concept, “spare the rod, spoil the child.” A manual written for those who would earn a living cautioned against idleness as well. “You must eat what you get with your hands” it said, while another stated, “a man’s arms are for working as a bird’s wings are for flying.”

 A child’s day (if the manuals are to be believed) usually began by rising early and then attending prayers or some form of devotions, followed by sponging or brushing the day’s clothing, cleaning shoes, combing hair and washing the hands and face and then cleaning the teeth by washing them with an ivory or wooden stick. The manual advised, too, that a child should dress according to his rank in a neat manner with a napkin “for cleaning the nose of all filthiness.”

 After making his bed and a breakfast of meat and drink of small beer or milk, the boys would go off to school, or if school wasn’t an option, they might play in the streets. Schooling for boys was seen as very important in the late 14th and 15th centuries as the many guilds increasingly required functional literacy from anyone enrolling for an apprenticeship. .Daughters usually stayed at home with their mothers who were responsible for all aspects of their daughters’ education.

 Elementary schooling could be obtained from private individuals, a small establishment with just a few pupils, or even a school set up by the church. Some children attended at the expense of the parish. Some girls of the better classes attended the grammar schools for 4 or 5 years where they learned English, accounting, perhaps a little French and Latin. Generally, the male pupils were taught Latin, literacy in English and training in keeping accounts, all tasks needed for a successful working life. To guide the teaching many schools used primers, and each student would pack their satchel with books, pen, parchment or a wax tablet and stylus. Along with Latin and accounts they were taught respect towards their parents and to learn society’s etiquette to maintain their social positions, or to improve it if possible. The general outlook was to help the child achieve a sense of stability and level-headedness that would garner good will among the neighbours.

“If you be well at ease, and sit warm among your neighbours, do not get new-fangled ideas, or be   hasty to change or flit; for if ye do, ye lack wit and are unstable, and men will speak of it and say: ‘This fool can bide nowhere!’”

From: Science & Literature in Middle Ages
The reality was somewhat different from what the manuals would have us believe. Most educational programmes had limited success and many students never learned the required behavior. Most of the apprentices and servants came from the countryside and may or may not have had the recommended training before they arrived in the city. For many Londoners as well, fine manner and cleanliness weren’t always necessary or possible, especially among the lower classes. It is more likely that these children were loud and boisterous, played games in the street and drank too much beer, frequented taverns, tore their clothes and weren’t always polite. Upper class youths no doubt failed these standards on various occasions too. In one instance a goldsmith’s son, William, standing at the top of a lane near Cheap, urinated into a urinal and poured it into the shoe of another young man, and when the man complained, William struck him with his fist. A man standing nearby reprimanded him for his actions. William grabbed a staff and bashed the man on his head so hard that he died.

 After a morning of school, at midday, the youths would break from school, games, or whatever they were doing, and go home for the main meal. City taverns had numerous places to buy food so many Londoners would buy their beer and meat there and take it home for the meal. If not a meat pie, the food would often be served up in 4 day old bread carved into a trencher that acted as a plate or bowl. Diners ate in pairs sharing the beer or wine cup.

In the afternoon the boys returned to their games or schools and the girls to needlework or household chores. The evening meal was light and usually followed by leisure activities. Leisure activities for children took many forms. They might watch a cock fight or play ball in team with other scholars in London fields, play tag, run a race or play hoops. Older boys might go in for bear baiting, throwing javelins, sword practice, wrestling or knucklebones, or even go to the tavern. Occasionally boys would act as jockeys in horse races.

 By the time children reached their teens it was time for the next stage of their lives. For many it meant apprenticeship or service. In the early Medieval period the minimum age for apprenticeship was thirteen, but by the end of the 15th century it rose to sixteen years of age. Entry into university or legal training rose to the late teens by the end of the 14th century. The age to enter service could be as young as seven, but older children were preferred because they were more useful and generally more responsible. London provided many opportunities for temptation, something clearly evident from the terms of the various apprentice contracts. The apprentice contracts also tried to ensure that the teens behaved themselves by requiring them to refrain from late nights, gaming, visits to the theatre and taverns and consorting with prostitutes.

 The relationship between apprentices and masters was very complex. The living and training arrangements could often create misunderstandings. A master could be tempted to abuse his apprentice in matters of discipline because he held the balance of power. The apprentices ultimately could look forward to the day when they would be householders, hold a mastership and be guildsmen. Servants, in contrast, had no such potential achievements. Though they might live among those they served and have kind masters, their pay was much less.

Wheel of 10 Ages of Man, Psalter of Robert de Lisle
The age at which a youth was considered an adulthood rose throughout the Medieval period. The apprentice contract influenced the rise to some degree. A seven year contract for any apprentice meant that adulthood would be deferred to at least 25, or longer, if the apprenticeship exceeded the seven years. Some guilds required an apprentice to serve his master for a further few years. For girls, the picture is less clear. Schooling, if it did take place was shorter and more often than not she entered into marriage at a younger age and her value was in her potential as a wife, so her age for adulthood would be lower. By the time a youth reached adulthood, it was hoped that the boys would be “sad and wise,” prepared for their adulthood and the girls would be suitably skilled for their duties as a wife and mother.

In some ways the childhood of Medieval times differed little from today’s childhood. They were instructed by their parents, played games and got into trouble, and above all the parents hoped to instruct them to take their place in society. And like today, there were varying degrees of success. 


Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin Gleeson lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, where she plays harp and runs a book club for the village library. She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national archives, library and museum in America. She has also worked as a public librarian in America and now works at a library in Ireland.You can read more about her books on her website.

 Kristin Gleeson’s novel, The Imp of Eye features a thirteen year old orphan boy in the streets of London in 1440.

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