Medieval Childhood and Adolescence

Medieval Childhood

One thing to keep in mind: the information about medieval children is constantly being developed and uncovered.

Fiction can give us a sideways glimpse of history. For example, we can figure out that women sang lullabies to their children. How do we know? Many songs exist in which the Virgin Mary sings such calming music to her child, Jesus.

This yonder night I saw a sight,

A star as bright as any day,

And ever among a maiden sang

‘By, by, lully, lullay.’

This maiden was Mary, she was full mild,

She kneeled before her own dear child….

She soothed him, she blessed him,

She sang ‘dear son, lullay.’ [i]

Nursery rhymes, references to games, and carols suggest a lively presence of children in the historical and literary record.

[i] Nicholas Orme, Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), 10.

Here below, student Allison Estrada-Carpenter was excited to explore the complex issue of medieval childhood.

By Student Allison Estrada-Carpenter


 Ideas of Childhood  in the Middle Age

The study of childhood became popular among academics in the 1960s and 70s. It is important to note that the recent scholarly consensus on medieval children believes “people in the Middle Ages did recognize the life stage of childhood and distinguished it from adolescence and adulthood” (441 Hanawalt). This presentation will discuss four significant elements of the medieval childhood experience, including:

1. Home Life


(Click to Enlarge)

2. Gender, Class, and Education


Princess Merida in Brave
Princess Merida in Brave

 4. Gendering of Deaths


( Tombstone art made through

Medieval Adolescents



Youth are described as “lean (even though they eat heartily), swift-footed, bold, irritable, and active” (Bede as qtd. in Hanawalt 443). Parents would give their children advice similar to what teens hear today:

– dress appropriately

-do not gamble

– do not waste money


(Click on picture for more information on the role of adolescents in war).

Boys in the nobility class generally completed their military training when they were 15-17 years old. Girls in the nobility class were usually educated on how to be a wife. However, women like Christine de Pizan did suggest “teaching young noblewoman the proper way to conduct a budget and even instructing them in land laws” (Shahar 221).


“We should remember that most children would have grown up with a number of siblings or half-siblings. Margery Kempe famously had fourteen children” (Goldberg 257).

 *Popular Culture Connection*: Disney’s Robin Hood

This film

  • illustrates Goldberg’s point that in medieval culture it was common to have multiple children.
  • shows Heywood’s point that the peasant class often lived in cramped quarters and had little money.
  • Having little money is one factor in why children became abandoned. Fortunately, as Hanawalt points out, those that were wealthier often took in abandoned children.

 Gender and Education Differences

“In the late Middle Ages, Europe became pre-occupied with rearing and educating children and youth for successful passage into  the adult world” (Hanawalt 443).

Purposes of Education

Early Medieval Education
Early Medieval Education

“The proclaimed aim of education was to raise a Christian human being and it was universally emphasized that Christian morals took precedence over worldly knowledge and vocational skills” (Shahar 166).

It was also important to develop certain traits like modesty, chastity, and obedience. All of these traits, especially obedience, were stressed more for girls than boys.

“A woman, unlike a man, was destined to be obedient all her life” (Shahar 166).

Except history has shown that not ALL medieval women were obedient.

PicMonkey Collage

(Clockwise, from top left, images not from life:

Christine de Pizan, Joan of Arc, Birgitta of Sweden, Margery Kempe)

Young Death in Medieval Culture

Scholars, notably Hanawalt and Boswell, note the grief medieval parents experience at losing children. Unfortunately, this was very common in this time period. “Infant mortality ran from 30 to 50% primarily because of harmful bacteria” (Hanawalt 450). She also asserts that some male infants may have lived longer because they were given nursing preference and had more access to wet nurses.

             ! DEATH BY CHORES !              

Piles and Piles of dishes

* 60% of fatal accidents for children age one-six involves play (Hanawalt 449)*

Children would often “play” chores and die as a result.


– working with pots

-gathering food

– drinking water


-observing and mimicking men outdoors


Adolescent males often died as a result of playing

–  target practice


– football


However, it is important to note that “deaths involving children are unlikely to have been consistently reported” (Goldberg 255).

Sources on this post:

Boswell, John. The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York:Pantheon, 1988. Print.

Goldberg,P.J.P. “Childhood and Gender in Later Medieval England.” Viator. 39.1 (2008): 249-262. Web. 23 Jan. 2014

Goldberg, P.J. “Migration, Youth, and Gender in Later Medieval England”. Youth in the Middle Ages. Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2004. Print.

Hanawalt, Barbara A. “Medievalists and the Study of Childhood.” Speculum 77.2 (2002):440-460. Web. 22 Jan. 2014

Heywood, Colin. “The Child and the Home: A Historical Survey.” Home Cultures 10.3 (2013): 227-244. Web. 14 Feb. 2014

Shahar, Shulamith. Childhood in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 1992. Print