Girls Growing Up in Later Medieval England

By Goldberg, Jeremy | History Today, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Girls Growing Up in Later Medieval England


Goldberg, Jeremy, History Today


Children, our grandparents were told, should be seen and not heard. The historian of the later Middle Ages finds that children, and particularly younger children, are rarely either seen or heard. And if this is not so true of boys, it is rather more true of girls. Most medieval sources are concerned with householders. Householders were exclusively adults and predominantly adult males, who enter administrative, judicial or fiscal records because they tended to carry obligations of service or taxation, or because they were held responsible for their own transgressions or those of their dependants, be they wives, servants or children. We lack the diaries, letters or autobiographical materials that do so much to illuminate the childhoods of at least a literate few from the end of the sixteenth century. Those sources that do exist, be they sermons or advice manuals, tend to be prescriptive rather than simply narrative.

It is in the absence of sources that obviously reflect affective relationships that a particular historiography of medieval childhood has emerged. We are told that children were born into a hostile or at least uncaring world. Numbers of girl babies were disposed of at birth as a burden to their parents. There was little bond between mother and child as many children passed their infancy suckled by a wet-nurse. As an infant the child was constrained in swaddling bands and left unattended and unchanged for many hours on end. Until the child reached her fifth birthday, she was treated with indifference because high rates of infant and child mortality warned parents against investing emotionally in such fragile lives. Parents regularly brutalised their children by beating them. From the age of about seven to nine a girl might be sent into hard service. There she might be ill-treated or sexually abused by masters or other males within the household. By the time she reached her twelfth birthday a girl was of age to be married. This would be a business transaction in which the girl was merely a chattel transferred from the patriarchal authority of her father to that of a husband and a father-in-law. She would pass from a childhood largely devoid of nurturing, of play, or of what we would recognise as education, to the role of wife and mother whilst still a teenager. Happily, two of the most recent monograph studies of medieval childhood reject some elements of this particular story, but the discussion that follows is predicated against this background.

We may not be overburdened with sources, but we do have some that take us a bit further. They need to be treated with caution, however, as they may dazzle and mislead. Juries' verdicts contained in coroners' rolls, for example, concerned as they are with both homicides and accidental deaths can offer unique insight into the lives of even very young children, but only because they have suffered some fatal misfortune. For every baby in its cradle gored by a passing pig or toddler drowned whilst exploring its environment, thousands of others probably survived or failed to survive for more mundane - hence unrecorded - reasons. Similarly, lore of childbirth or childcare would be passed down by experience and word of mouth.

Let us begin with a story derived from the consistory court of the Archbishop of York relating to the disputed marriage of one Alice, the daughter and heiress of the former Gervase de Rouclif, and lady of the manor of Rawcliffe (near York). Alice was born c.1353 in a basement room within her parents' manor house. Her mother, Elena, was attended at the birth by one Elena Taliour, who had been hired to be the baby's wet-nurse, and another older woman whom we may presume to have been the midwife. That same day Alice was carried by her nurse the couple of miles to the parish church of St Olave in York to be baptised.

Some months later Elena was churched (the ceremony of ritual purification) in respect of Alice's birth and her husband held a feast to celebrate the churching. …

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