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The Medieval Child, Part 5: The Learning Years, Page Three

Childbirth, Childhood and Adolescence in the Middle Ages



With few exceptions, apprenticeship began in the teens and lasted from seven to ten years. Though it wasn't unheard of for sons to be apprenticed to their own fathers, it was fairly uncommon.1 Sons of master craftsmen were by Guild law automatically accepted into the Guild; yet many still took the apprenticeship route, with someone other than their fathers, for the experience and training it offered. Apprentices in larger towns and cities were supplied from outlying villages in substantial numbers,2 supplementing labor forces that dwindled from diseases such as the plague and other factors of city living. Apprenticeship also took place in village businesses, where a teenager might learn milling or felting cloth.

Apprenticeship was not limited to males. While there were fewer girls than boys taken in as apprentices, girls were trained in a wide variety of trades. They were more likely to be trained by the master's wife, who often knew nearly as much about the trade as her husband (and sometimes more). Although such trades as that of seamstress were more common for females, girls were not limited to learning skills they could take into a marriage, and once they married many continued plying their trades.3

Youngsters rarely had any choice in which craft they would learn, or with what particular master they would work; the destiny of an apprentice was usually determined by the connections his family had. For example, a young man whose father had a haberdasher for a friend might be apprenticed to that haberdasher, or perhaps to another haberdasher in the same guild. The connection might be through a godparent or neighbor instead of a blood relative. Affluent families had more affluent connections, and a wealthy Londoner's son was more likely than a country boy to find himself learning the goldsmith trade.

Apprenticeships were formally arranged with contracts and sponsors. Guilds required that bonds of surety be posted to guarantee that apprentices fulfilled expectations; if they did not, the sponsor was liable for the fee. In addition, sponsors or the candidates themselves would sometimes pay the master a fee to take on the apprentice. This would help the master cover the expenses of caring for the apprentice over the next several years.

The relationship between master and apprentice was as significant as that between parent and offspring. Apprentices lived in their master's house or shop; they usually ate with the master's family, often wore clothes provided by the master, and were subject to the master's discipline. Living in such close proximity, the apprentice could and often did form close emotional bonds with this foster family, and might even "marry the boss's daughter." Whether or not they married into the family, apprentices were often remembered in their masters' wills.

There were also cases of abuse, which might end up in court; though apprentices were usually the victims, at times they took extreme advantage of their benefactors, stealing from them and even engaging in violent confrontations. Apprentices sometimes ran away, and the sponsor would have to pay the master the surety fee to make up for the time, money and effort that had gone into training the runaway.

The apprentices were there to learn and the primary purpose the master had taken them into his home was to teach them; so learning all the skills associated with the craft was what occupied most of their time. Some masters might take advantage of the "free" labor, and assign menial tasks to the young worker and teach him the secrets of the craft only slowly; but this was not all that common. An affluent craftsmaster would have servants to perform the unskilled tasks he needed done in the shop; and, the sooner he taught his apprentice the skills of the trade, the sooner his apprentice could help him properly in the business. It was the last hidden "mysteries" of the trade that might take some time to acquire.

Apprenticeship was an extension of the adolescent years, and could take up almost a quarter of the average medieval lifespan. At the end of his training, the apprentice was ready to go out on his own as a "journeyman." Yet he was still likely to remain with his master as an employee.

The life of an apprentice was not, of course, all work, and most engaged in an active social life. Please join me next time for The Medieval Child, Part 6: Teens at Work and Play.

The Medieval Child Table of Contents


1. Hanawalt, Barbara, Growing Up in Medieval London (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 147.

2. Ibid, p. 146.

3. Power, Eileen, Medieval Women (Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 49.

Sources and Suggested Reading

The links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants.

Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History
by Barbara A. Hanawalt

The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England
by Barbara A. Hanawalt

Medieval Children
by Nicholas Orme

Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages
by Frances and Joseph Gies

Medieval Women
by Eileen Power

Medieval People
by Eileen Power

Life in Medieval Times
by Marjorie Rowling  

The Renaissance Man and His Children: Childbirth and Early Childhood in Florence 1300-1600
by Louis Haas

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