June - growing up in the medieval period

Children enjoying the dragon procession in the courtyard at Chirk Castle on Knights and Princesses weekend
Published : 30 May 2017 Last update : 19 May 2017

Chirk Castle is preparing for the Annual ‘Knights and Princesses’ event, but as hundreds of young would-be princes and princesses parade regally around the courtyard, it might be interesting to reflect on what life might have been like for children in the real ‘Middle Ages’

Starting on a negative note, the death rate amongst children was high – as many as 49% may have died by the age of nine, out of which 25% would have died in their first year! We mustn’t think that such a high death rate suggested a lack of parental care and affection – more likely we are looking at the result of poor hygiene and even poorer childcare education.

Life was an inevitable sequence of stages – from birth to 7 was a time of growth, 7 to 14 was a time of play and beyond 14 was time for physical, intellectual and sexual development.

Birth took place, for the well-born child, in a private chamber with the mother surrounded by other women. Less-comfortable arrangements existed for the peasant child’s entrance into the world, but both high and low born would often have to wait to be baptised at either Easter or Whitsun, with the chief godparent often giving the child their name.

Although children are in evidence in paintings and drawings from the period, it is thought that very young children were not considered ‘useful’ until they reached the age when they might help around the home, or were old enough to train for a role in life.

Formal education for the noble child began at about 7 years, probably under priestly supervision, with the basic study of basic alphabet: at the same time, the peasant child might be taking up real responsibilities around the house – cleaning, looking after the cooking, looking after livestock etc.

In the Twelfth century, the Church began to produce laws which made provision for children, and thus created an ‘age of responsibility’: the boundary between childhood and adulthood became 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Below these ages children were considered too immature to commit sins!

At the age of 12, boys from noble classes would begin training (often as a page in a greater household) in the chivalric skills they would later use – aristocratic manners, swordsmanship; whereas his peasant counterpart might, if he lived in the town, be sent into service, or placed in an apprenticeship. Apprenticeship was not open to the very poor, who might spend the rest of their unskilled lives working with livestock, or tending the fields.

The 12 year old girl, if she was an heiress, could well be married off as part of a political arrangement, while the peasant girl of the same age would be at home, practising the domestic which would dominate her life. Marriage, except for the heiress, might not take place for rich or poor until their mid 20s.

Children vary from one another as much as adults, so we can be sure that a Medieval childhood was a rich and a varied state: generally, it differed from today’s modern society in its high mortality and the fact that young people started ‘real’ work so much earlier, but home life, play, and training for work are stages through which modern children still move.

Our Knights and Princessess weekend on 3 and 4 June takes a bit of a brighter approach for aspiring young Knights and Princesses, with storytelling, dragon processions, games and activities. Don't forget, kids in costume get in free.