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Historical Essays: Childhood in Medieval England
Toys give us a positive view of medieval childhood. Demography, the study of births and deaths, shows more of its darker side. The death rate among medieval children was high by modern standards. It has been suggested that 25% of them may have died in their first year, half as many (12.5%) between one and four, and a quarter as many (6%) between five and nine. There is no evidence that these deaths lessened parental affection and care for children, however, and the interest of adults in children can be traced throughout the middle ages. Medieval people inherited ideas about human life from the classical world. They thought they knew how infants grew in the womb and developed and matured after they were born. Life was viewed as a sequence of stages—“the ages of man.” Infancy up to the age of 7 was viewed as a time of growth, childhood from 7 to 14 as one of play, and adolescence from 14 onwards as one of physical, intellectual, and sexual development.
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Childhood required special clothes, from infant wrappings to miniature versions of adult dress. In wealthier families there were cradles, walking frames, and specially made toys. The metal toys already mentioned were only a small part of the stock of toys in use. Dolls, known as “poppets,” must have been widespread, but they have not survived since they were made of cloth or wood. Children are mentioned making their own toys: boats from pieces of bread, spears from sticks, and small houses from stones. Many games were played, from games of skill with cherry stones or tops to activities such as archery, football, and dancing. The oral culture of children is not recorded until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when scraps of verse and songs are noted in books, especially school notebooks. These point to the existence of nursery rhymes similar to (but not identical with) those of later times, as well as to children knowing and sharing in the songs and phrases of adults.
The education of children in England can be traced from the seventh century. Initially it centred on the training of boys as monks, girls as nuns, and other boys as “secular clergy”—those clergy who lived in the everyday world and eventually ministered in parish churches. This education was based on the learning of Latin and was usually provided in monasteries and nunneries. Education spread to some of the laity as early as the seventh century, and by the end of the ninth century it often took the form of learning to read and write in English rather than Latin. Schools of a modern kind, free-standing and open to the public, first appear in records in the 1070s and became very numerous thereafter, although monasteries and nunneries continued to do some educational work. Boys were usually sent to school, while girls were taught at home. We cannot say how many children were educated, but the number was substantial and probably grew considerably after about 1200. Education began by learning the Latin alphabet, and many boys and girls proceeded no further, using the skill chiefly to read in their own language, either English or, between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries, French. Only a minority of boys went on to learn Latin grammar and to become proficient in the language. Women (even nuns) rarely learnt Latin grammar after 1200, and their abilities in the language were chiefly restricted to being able to pronounce texts from Latin prayer-books in a devout manner, without a full understanding of the meaning.