Family life in the fourteenth century

Family life is an essential aspect of the stories of all THE MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLES. Sometimes children’s lives are the, or at least a, focus of the book’s storyline and, of course, sometimes those storylines are sad, but by no means always. 

It can’t be denied that having children was generally much riskier in the Middle Ages than in the twenty-first century. 

Of course, it started with simply being pregnant. “Natural” it might be, but the difficulties that some pregnant women experience now were almost certainly untreatable in the fourteenth century, indeed unrecognised for what they were. And imagine being pregnant when you were labouring in the fields from dawn to dusk, then returning home to a cold and dark, and possibly damp one-room cottage. Of course, women across our modern world still labour when they’re pregnant, but I think a medieval peasant woman’s lot must have been very hard. The sheer fact of being pregnant and giving birth posed a huge risk for both mother and child. Losses, of both pregnancies and babies, were inevitably high.

Birthscene (Wenzel Bible), 14th century. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For those babies who did survive their birthing in the middle of the fourteenth century, a dangerous world awaited them. It was a time when plague stalked the land; when bad weather (testing enough these days for some of us) often upset the natural cycle of food production and brought famine to many; when the new baby stood a fair chance of dying from disease or malnutrition before it could even walk; and when, once a child was on the move, the risks of injury or death from accident or ignorance were manifold. Of course, risks still attend our lives today but, in the Middle Ages, childhood was a time of considerable hazard, and the low life expectancy overall for people of the time is reflected in the high mortality rate of children.

The life of a child in the Middle Ages, especially perhaps a peasant child, was certainly very different from one now. They were expected to work from an early age, perhaps as young as five. Peasant children would accompany their parents into the fields and work alongside them. Maybe they didn’t do a great deal of actual work, but they carried out simple tasks and learned the jobs their parents did, doing more and more as they grew older. Middle class children – say, the sons and daughters of artisans – might have had it slightly easier. They might possibly get a little education, and they might be sent away at a relatively young age to be apprenticed to a craftsman – girls as well as boys. Otherwise, they stayed at home and worked alongside their parents, probably acting as skivvies but also beginning to learn the craft that they would almost certainly follow when they were older.

Even upper-class children’s lives weren’t necessarily easy. As with Dickon, the eponymous squire in Squire’s Hazard, a boy might be sent away at the tender age of seven to learn to be a page and then a squire in another household. A girl might be dispatched to another household too, to learn to be a “lady” under the watchful eye of a woman who was not her mother. Then they might be married off when they were still quite young, maybe as young as twelve or fourteen. Lower class people did not marry so young. 

A knight and his squire. From Paul Mercuri, Costumes Historiques (Paris, 1850s/60s). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Inevitably, loss and grief come often to Meonbridge parents. The first Chronicle, Fortune’s Wheel, opens with a young boy’s death, and the recent birth of that boy’s sister. The boy’s death was caused by an accident in his father’s mill, but it came soon after his parents had lost five other children to the plague – the Black Death, as we call it (1349-50). It’s hard to imagine the devastation such great loss would bring. Even the arrival of another baby might not be enough to stem their grief…

In Book 4, Children’s Fate, plague returns (as it did in 1361). It was called the Children’s Plague, because so many who died were young. It is not known exactly why, but we might speculate that those who died didn’t have the immunity that their parents might have gained after having survived the earlier plague. Not that medieval people of course knew about such things. 

There were other worries too: I have already mentioned accidents, which were commonplace for children. Sometimes quite young children were left in charge of their younger siblings. So far, so normal. But in houses where the only form of heating was an open fire, and the roof was made of straw, one doesn’t need an especially vivid imagination to envisage the potential dangers. Farm implements were probably left lying about, ponds and rivers wouldn’t have been fenced, wells were undoubtedly uncapped – there were all manner of possible hazards to tempt the wandering child.

The interior of a very cramped, and rather dangerous-looking, medieval cottage.

The Ties That Bound by Barbara A. Hanawalt, was published quite a long time ago, in 1988, but I still refer to it often as an excellent and insightful guide to the lives of peasant families in medieval England. The book covers many different aspects of family life but, inter alia, includes many examples of the hazards of childhood.

Then, as now, too, there were threats from other people. In Children’s Fate, young girls, ostensibly apprentices, are exploited by their unscrupulous mistress. In A Woman’s Lot, young boys find themselves in trouble, intimidated into mischief by a teenaged ruffian. In De Bohun’s Destiny, Dickon, still a child, is attacked by his grandfather’s enemies. In Squire’s Hazard, a teenager now himself, Dickon is under threat again, this time from a bullying fellow squire.

None of this is exclusive to the Middle Ages, of course, there have always been people who exploit the young.

But, despite their relative hardship and perhaps greater chance of mistreatment of one sort of another, I am certain that medieval children had fun too. They played. They laughed. They teased each other. Though I presume they had few toys, especially the poorer children. I have it that one or two Meonbridge fathers carved wooden animals for their little ones, as I imagine parents have always done. I also have children themselves being creative, such as the little girl who “fashioned a little ship from a curl of tree bark” to serve as an Ark for her wooden animals.

Children’s Games, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1560.
Public Domain, by Wikimedia Commons

I have no doubt that, despite all the possible doom and gloom, and the hard life endured by most of Meonbridge’s working people, their children would have brought them joy, just as ours do today. I am certain too that children were as much loved and cherished then as they are now. Parents would have had to face loss more often than we do, but I don’t believe they felt the loss of a child any less keenly than modern parents would. Though they might believe the child – assuming it was baptised – had gone to a better world. 

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Christ blessing the children, Erfurt Angermuseum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, all these experiences, both good and bad, are timeless. They happen now too, the agonies and the joys. The big difference, perhaps, is that, in medieval times, the losses were attended by both lack of knowledge and understanding, and the greater risk of them occurring.

If you’d like to read a few excerpts from my novels of passages about children, why not read this blog post:

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