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The Medieval Child, Part 3: Surviving Infancy

Childbirth, Childhood and Adolescence in the Middle Ages

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In Part 2 of our series, we looked at childbirth in the Middle Ages, and the importance of baptism to the child and his kin. In this segment, we'll take a look at what life was like for the infant, and find out what we can and can't know about his chances for survival.

When we think about daily life in the Middle Ages, we cannot ignore the death rate that, compared to that of modern times, was horrendously high. This was particularly true for children, who have always been more susceptible to disease than adults. Some might be tempted to see this high rate of mortality as indicative of either an inability of parents to provide proper care for their children or a lack of interest in their welfare. As we shall see, neither supposition is supported by the facts.

Life for the Infant

Folklore has it that the medieval child spent his first year or so wrapped in swaddling, stuck in a cradle, and virtually ignored. This raises the question of how thick-skinned the average medieval parent had to be in order to disregard the persistent cries of hungry, wet and lonely babies. The reality of medieval infant care is a trifle more complex.

Swaddling

In cultures such as England in the High Middle Ages, babies were often swaddled, theoretically to help their arms and legs grow straight. Swaddling involved wrapping the infant in linen strips with his legs together and his arms close to his body. This of course immobilized him and made him much easier to keep out of trouble.

But infants were not swaddled continuously. They were changed regularly and released from their bonds to crawl around. The swaddling might come off altogether when the child was old enough to sit up on his own. Furthermore, swaddling was not necessarily the norm in all medieval cultures. Gerald of Wales remarked that Irish children were never swaddled, and seemed to grow strong and handsome just the same.1

Whether swaddled or not, the infant probably spent much of its time in the cradle when it was home. Busy peasant mothers might tie unswaddled babies into the cradle, allowing them to move within it but keeping them from crawling into trouble. But mothers often carried their babies about in their arms on their errands outside the home. Infants were even to be found near their parents as they labored in the fields at the busiest harvest times, on the ground or secured in a tree.2

Babies who were not swaddled were very often simply naked, or wrapped in blankets against the cold. They may have been clad in simple gowns. There is little evidence for any other clothing, and since the child would quickly outgrow anything sewn especially for it, a variety of baby clothing was not an economic feasibility in poorer homes.

Feeding

An infant's mother was ordinarily its primary caregiver, particularly in poorer families. Other family members might assist, but the mother usually fed the child since she was physically equipped for it. Peasants didn't often have the luxury of hiring a full-time nurse, although if the mother died or was too ill to nurse the baby herself, a wet nurse could often be found. Even in households that could afford to hire a wet nurse, it was not unknown for mothers to nurse their children themselves, which was a practice encouraged by the Church.

Medieval parents sometimes found alternatives to breast feeding their children, but there is no evidence that this was a common occurrence. Rather, families resorted to such ingenuity when the mother was dead or too ill to breast feed, and when no wet nurse could be found. Alternate methods of feeding the child included soaking bread in milk for the child to ingest, soaking a rag in milk for the child to suckle, or pouring milk into his mouth from a horn. All were more difficult for a mother than simply putting a child to her breast, and it would appear that -- in less affluent homes -- if a mother could nurse her child, she did.

However, among the nobility and wealthier town folk, wet nurses were quite common, and frequently stayed on once the infant was weaned to care for him through his early childhood years. This presents the picture of a medieval "yuppie syndrome," where parents lose touch with their offspring in favor of banquets, tourneys and court intrigue, and someone else raises their child. This may indeed have been the case in some families, but parents could and did take an active interest in the welfare and daily activities of their children. They were also known to take great care in choosing the nurse, and treated her well for the ultimate benefit of the child.3

Tenderness

Whether a child received its food and care from its own mother or a nurse, it is difficult to make a case for a lack of tenderness between the two. Today, mothers report that nursing their children is a highly satisfying emotional experience. It seems unreasonable to assume that only modern mothers feel a biological bond that in more likelihood has occurred for thousands of years.

It was observed that a nurse took the place of the mother in many respects, and this included providing affection to the babe in her charge. Bartholomaeus Anglicus described the activities nurses commonly performed: consoling children when they fell or were sick, bathing and anointing them, singing them to sleep, even chewing meat for them.4

Evidently, there is no reason to assume the average medieval child suffered for lack of affection, even if there was reason to believe his fragile life would not last a year.

   Continued on Page Two: Child Mortality.

The Medieval Child Table of Contents

Notes

1. Gies, Frances, and Gies, Joseph, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (Harper & Row, 1987), p. 199.

2. Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 176.

3. Gies, Marriage and the Family, p. 201.

4. Ibid, p. 203.


Guide's Note: This article was originally posted in November of 2000 and was updated in May of 2009.

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