How did children live in the middle ages?

Written by Kari Westbye

Even though the necessities of life could vary greatly in the middle ages there wasn’t a great difference in the attitudes towards children in different countries. There was no independent children’s culture. They were present at all of life’s events. We can see this in frescoes, old adages, documents and various holy vessels. It doesn’t appear they were pictured because they were children but rather because they belonged there.

Many children were born in the middle ages but many died too. Those who survived grew up strong and healthy, but life could be fraught with dangers too and only a very few became very old. Children were a necessity and a source of wealth. It was also important to belong to a clan so in order to provide the child with a safety net they were often raised by others. There were few towns so most children grew up in rural districts.

There were a lot of things a child had to learn. There was a very clear differentiation of work between the sexes and everyone had to submit to the common good. The boys would go with their fathers to work and learn to run a farm and wield a sword.

The girls learned to run a household and generally become competent in all matters related to the home and family. The girls also learned to embroider. After a while, as the closters were built they (the better off at least) could learn finer embroidery techniques. Children were treated as adults, they were learning to be adults.

But what did they play with? During the celebrations of seasonal or family events the adults and children played games together and sang.

A silver tankard from the 1300s was found in Denmark. In the enamel pictures, in beautiful colors we see children playing. One has a blindfold on and is playing blindman’s buff with adults and other children, another one is walking on stilts and in still another two boys are facing eachother with hockey sticks ready to hit a ball. The sticks were probably made out of some crooked branches. The balls were leather-sewn, they have been found several places. Tops have also been found, as well as pieces to various games, such as watermill and bowling. Tools carved out of wood have also been found, wooden horses, hobby horses, barrels and toy boats, and of course wooden toy swords. Ceramic and wooden dolls have been found, they surely made a better impression wearing doll clothes, some children have also played with ceramic doll cups and cooked doll food in a wooden-legged kettle on a stool. Marbles of clay have been found as well as carved wooden birds. Many of these toys have been found in Greenland, Denmark and in Bergen. Children everywhere played with the same things than as now and most of them dressed the same way, boys and girls.

Updated 1. January  2000 by The Local History Resource Centre, Fet, NORWAY