Growing Up in the Middle Ages: The Unseen Narrative of Medieval Childhood

by Megan
June 27, 2023
When we think of the Middle Ages, we often conjure images of knights, castles, and epic battles. Rarely do we consider the lives of children during this time. However, understanding childhood in the Middle Ages gives us a more comprehensive view of medieval society and underscores the resilience and adaptability of human beings throughout history.

Childhood in the Middle Ages, roughly spanning from the 5th to the 15th century, was a vastly different experience than what we associate with childhood today. It was a period often characterized by hardship, labor, and precocious adulthood, molded by the social norms, religious beliefs, and economic realities of the era.

In medieval society, high infant mortality rates resulted in a different perception of childhood. Children were seen as miniature adults and were expected to contribute to the family and society at an early age. This perspective was not born out of cruelty or negligence but rather the harsh realities of life at that time.

From the age of seven, a child's life in the Middle Ages took different paths depending on their social class. Peasant children were introduced to labor early, assisting their families in the fields, homes, or trade. They learned essential skills not from formal education but from practical, hands-on experience. Despite the rigors of this life, moments of play and childhood camaraderie were woven into their daily routines, usually with handmade toys or improvised games.

For children of nobility, the path was different. Boys were often sent to serve as pages in a lord's household, where they received training in chivalry, warfare, and courtly manners. At around fourteen, they would graduate to become squires, directly assisting knights and furthering their martial skills in preparation for knighthood. Girls of noble birth, on the other hand, were usually educated at home or in the households of relatives. They learned reading, writing, music, and other skills deemed necessary for their status and future roles as wives and mothers.

It's important to note that formal education, as we understand it today, was largely the preserve of the clergy. Monastic schools, cathedrals, and, later, universities were places of learning, but they primarily catered to those who would join the Church or pursued scholarly professions.

Life expectancy was considerably lower in the Middle Ages, and the dangers of disease, famine, and war were constant threats. Consequently, children were frequently exposed to death and loss, which profoundly shaped their worldview and emotional development.

Despite the hardships, children in the Middle Ages found ways to adapt and thrive. They played games, celebrated festivals, and nurtured friendships. Storytelling, songs, and folk traditions provided joy and fostered a sense of community.

In summary, childhood in the Middle Ages was a complex blend of labor and play, education and practical skills, and early responsibility in the face of mortality. Understanding this part of history not only gives us insight into the past but also helps us appreciate the evolution of childhood and the resilience of children throughout the ages.