History for Fantasy Writers: Medieval Childhood

A common understanding about the Middle Ages goes something like this: people didn’t love their children the way we do today, because so many died in infancy or childhood. Sometimes parents didn’t even name or baptize their children until they were three years old because they didn’t want to become too attached. Childhood was brief, as can be seen in old paintings where children of a very young age are already dressed as adults. Noble children were sent off as a page at age seven and common children were apprenticed out by age ten, so children many times were not even raised by their own parents. The legal age of marriage was fourteen for boys and twelve for girls, so obviously childhood was pretty much over by then. Boy golly, weren’t those Middle Ages a drag?

You may be guessing that this is wrong, pretty much start to finish. Good guess! So, what do we know about childhood in the Middle Ages, and in what ways might this prove useful to the fantasy writer?

Babies

Infancy was defined much the same way all across Europe: it lasted until the kid got teeth and could walk. The child had already survived its first big challenge, childbirth. With luck, so had the mother. Babies were fussed over and coddled (and swaddled) much the same as they are today.

What about, I hear someone protest, the not naming the kids thing?

That is a spurious claim not backed up by evidence. Beginning in the 15th century we have many parish registers. In those we see children being baptized and named within about a week of birth. It didn’t happen immediately because of the physical concern of bringing mother and child to the church, especially in bad weather. In some cases there was a longer delay, but this was to allow the godparents, extremely important in medieval families, to arrive from out of town. We also have evidence of names being chosen at or even before birth. For example, the Empress Constance named her new-born baby Constantine, and only later was he given the name Frederick Roger (after his two grandfathers), and so we know him as Emperor Frederick II.

Infant mortality was high, heart-breakingly so, but doesn’t mean that somehow parents back then did not grieve for their loss. Cemeteries show ample evidence, even down to the burying of toys alongside the tiny body. Death in childbirth happened, but so also were the risks extremely high right through infancy.

One cause of death that mystified me for a while was “teething.” How could anyone die of teething? But it was the fever that can accompany teething that was the culprit.

Children

From, let us say the age of one, to around twelve were the years of childhood—basically from the onset of mobility to the onset of puberty. It was widely understood that children needed protection and that they were not yet fully members of society. We can see this in court records, including a few cases where a child committed a capital crime but was treated differently because of his age.

As they grew up, children played children’s games, as children have always done. We know this because we have archeological evidence of toys. Children were not treated as little adults, mainly because there’s no way for a little kid to behave like an adult. A child’s brain is not sufficiently developed.

Adolescents

Ah, the teen years, as problematic then as they are today.

Puberty is the great divide between childhood and adulthood, but there’s a gray area in between called adolescence. The word means growing into something, specifically maturity, so it holds within itself the sense that the person is not quite fully grown. We moderns have rather lost the notion in some ways; there is childhood, then there is adulthood, with some slight shifts between eighteen and twenty-one.

The age of adolescence was then as now considered a dangerous age, one in which the individual was more likely to act rashly while at the same time is now old enough to do real damage. We can see plenty of evidence for this, not least in the most common cause of death for this age group: accidents.

While the beginning of adolescence was clear enough (the Catholic Church fixed this at fourteen for boys, twelve for girls, though this line was drawn formally only at the beginning of the 13th century), the ending of adolescence was much less clear. While it is true that a prince might be crowned king at age fifteen (in England), he was not thought to be old enough to rule without the advice of his elders. Technically he could; in practice it was very rare. King Louis XIV did not rule of his own until he was twenty-one, and did so entirely on his own choice.

In the cities, by the late Middle Ages (we know very little about these matters before the 13th century), a man could not be a citizen until he was a master in a guild, and he couldn’t do that until he was married. This left some men as journeymen long into their twenties and even later, caught in a limbo between youth and maturity.

In the countryside, marriage was the big marker. A young woman was not her own master until she had her own household. For the young man it was working his own land (rather than his father’s).  There were interesting ramifications to this. For instance, if the woman married too far above her station, she would forever be under the thumb of her mother-in-law (the reverse operated, too). The young man’s father might live for quite a long time, leaving him forever junior despite his age. We have any number of cases of young nobles plotting against their fathers who had failed to die in a timely manner.

In short, the line between youth and maturity was not drawn consistently. It lay somewhere in the mid-twenties, but this could bend as much as a decade in either direction. It could flex according to social station and even to changing economic fortunes.

As a postscript, here are some specific age markers, post-medieval (specific to USA). At age eighteen, we can serve in the military, and compulsory education ends. We can marry without parental permission. At age twenty-one we can drink. The car insurance companies don’t think we’re entirely grown up until age twenty-five. We have to be thirty-five to be President, so in some ways we don’t recognize full maturity until the mid-thirties. In many ways we have lost adolescence entirely, redefining it as “teen” and covering only the years with that suffix. At the same time, we have added phases in early childhood, from toddler to pre-school to primary grades and so on.

For Writers

The markers for age have always been social constructs, varying by time and place and estate. This offers all sorts of opportunities for the fantasy writer. The most obvious point of interest is the coming-of-age story. What do we mean by this phrase? What is “of-age” and how does one come to it?

Each stage of life offers something. How are infants cared for? How about children? Is it the same with elves as it is with sprites?

One can show children at play, probably mostly as background, but coming up with something unique for your dwarf children or ogre bairns can add just the right touch of pathos or humor to a scene. We can also see them at their chores. Then there’s education. Will you have schools? Will the schools all be on the same model? There might be tutors, residential schools (the kids live away from parents), and day schools. What other models can you find?

As they age, children offer more and more opportunities. They start to fall in love. They fight with their elders and with each other. They run away. They go to work.

Those coming-of-age stories are nearly always about the adolescent years, but is it the same for each of your fantasy creatures? What might a writer do with a teenage dragon? If your elves live a thousand years, how long will the kid’s “goth” phase last? On the other hand, if your pixies only live a few years, when is there time for school?

And, finally, maybe you invent other phases of life. Perhaps you have a race that are male for part of their life, female for another. Or they have an incredibly long childhood that divides into phases—of learning, or of emotional growth, or of magical power. As with all things fantasy, the possibilities are endless.

Please post your thoughts and comments to this post!

References

A dozen pictures from Pieter Bruegel the Elder showing young people at play:

The Florilegium is one of the treasures of the early Internet. Pre-web, but it’s been moved over:

Larsdatter has a huge collection of articles on medieval topics:

There are tons of books on childhood in the Middle Ages. Barbara Hanawalt has one of my favorites, Growing Up in Medieval London. Her The Ties That Bound is also excellent, though it covers more than just childhood. The other work I’d recommend is Shulamith Shahar, Childhood in the Middle Ages.

For those wanting more, here’s a bibliography that will give you an idea of how big the topic really is:

E.L. Skip Knox is the creator of the fantasy world called Altearth, a place where magic is real, monsters roam the land, and the Roman Empire never fell.

I am a retired medieval historian who is now engaged in deconstructing the Middle Ages into a fantasy setting. I've been writing my entire life, from poetry to science fiction to history and now to fantasy. I've been married since 1969 and have three grown children and two grandchildren.

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Orc Knight
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Orc Knight

I may not have fully satisfying answers, but I will try.

1. I do understand compulsory and mass education is relatively new to human society. The world is still a fantasy world at heart and one that plays on the tropes and cliches that comes with it. A lot of the schooling for the upper echelons ends around ten years and then going into university level and magical school training. I suppose a bit better explanation for the mass and compulsory education is more the nobs getting the good tutors and teachers and putting their kids in what amounts to a private school. It is still very much an upper echelon thing, as they have to have all the skills necessary to go into the world's politics, trades and arts. Middle classes are more reliant on individual tutors and governor/ess sorts. So, it can be upwards of ten years or as few as five.

2. Again more or less the same as humans. There's always demand for those skilled in trades to ply it. As of recent times (in the world itself, within the last two hundred to three hundred years), the demand for engineers and architects has been high across all societies, not for a recent upsurge in cathedral's or huge bastions of architectural masterpieces, but to simply create buildings able to withstand attacks of powerful of characters who make messes of fortifications and castles without the need of siege machines.

3. They are fully physically mature around twenty years old,which I guess I should have mentioned with the above. Or made it clearer. Old age usually sets in around five hundred, though as I said, most have been lucky to see their three hundredth. I suppose it would be slow growth to a hypothetical slow decline, should they reach that age. It is a very rare to see true elders among the elves. Those that live to see such age are usually extremely powerful and dangerous. Or just really lucky. Though the ages they live to is long enough that most humans that live under them feel like they live forever and don't change.

Orc Knight
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Orc Knight

All right, I'll roll right down the list.

1. There are schools, though the most likely to actually see any use out of them are the High, Drow and Sea elves, who are more used to mass education, instead of for the rich and nobility in general. Several of my characters are illiterate and don't really care.

2. There are plenty of trade apprenticeships around, though I guess I should have specified that the soldier/knightly class consists heavily of Wood Elves. Though every race usually keeps a strong supply of them as war happens often.

3. They can marry before hundred and often are. The royal pedigree's tend to hold off until after one hundred and have had a few wars under their belt and can hold their own in single combat. Again, this is more specific to wood elves then the other types, though they tend to follow it.

As for other stuff, there's always the usual sort of play, fist fights are often encouraged and cheered on even by the adults. They are generally allowed a fair bit of freedom. Even if going to the outskirts of civilization for adventure can be life threatening. Though several of the royal families often start training their children for the duties of war and soldiery as young as ten. The ruling part can be learned after they can handle weapons properly. Though as time goes on, they can start actually being fairly normal children, including playing among the other races once that particular divide is taken down.

Orc Knight
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Orc Knight

I’ll throw my elves in here, as they have an extended adolescence and even that varies between the varieties among them. At one hundred years of age, they are generally considered fully adult and as of the writing, most of my elf characters are in their sixties and seventies, the equivalent of sixteen and seventeen. At least mentally as they are fully mature by twenty.

And more often then not, most of them are or have been what amounts to child soldiers. They can live up to seven hundred years, though most are lucky to see three or four hundred. The orcs and trolls are about the same, maturing quicker if only out of necessity. Things start slowing down once everyone stops trying to kill everyone else, but it is the worlds standard for the longest while.

rktho
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rktho

In my book, my characters are ALL dragons. Teenage years begin at twenty-five and last until age forty. My main protagonists are around thirty-two (one of them is thirty-four.) They’re questing without the adult supervision they were supposed to recruit because the person they had in mind was acting out of character and tried to destroy the thing they were trying to return in the first place. What would be some ramifications of four adolescents travelling unchaperoned on the wing?

My protagonists’ assets:

-Three of my characters are experienced game hunters.
-One of my characters knows the best lodgings.
-That same character speaks two foreign languages and one dead one, which comes in handy with expatriates of other dragon species they occasionally cross.
-My central character occasionally has dreams he doesn’t realize are visions of the distant past– or sometimes recent– past.

What they’re up against:

-For starters, the crystal they’re trying to return is also sought after by pretty much the entire realm, due to the heavy reward attached to it the protagonists are trying to claim.
-The dragon who put out the reward in the first place, the emperor, is secretly a dark wizard, and is chasing the protagonists, trying to kill them. He also has a pet snake with dragonlike intelligence.
-The Chief Inquisitor of the highest level of law enforcement is after the crystal on the emperor’s orders.
-His right hand man is looking for the crystal and is also secretly a wizard, working against the emperor. (He’s also trying to find a traitor in the secret police, except he IS that person.)
-The police are also searching for a dangerous terrorist who disappeared ten years ago and recently resurfaced. He is ALSO a wizard, and he’s trying to kill the emperor. And to do that, he needs the crystal. He’s not afraid to display his powers in public or kill bystanders as long as the evil emperor is killed. He’s the only wizard who’s not trying to hide the fact that magic is real and he can use it. He can’t fly, but he can teleport.
-One experienced bounty hunter with several kills under his belt has been commissioned by a powerful crime lord, who has ordered his best hunters to search for the crystal at the Inquisitor’s request.
-That hunter has a rival in the form of another hunting duo with something to prove.
-That adult help they rejected earlier? He’s in disguise, following them, trying to steal the crystal. He’s working with the Inquisitor’s right hand, and he’s also a wizard. Both he and the Inquisitor’s henchman have sons in wizard and police training who are helping them.
-And, for good measure, the emperor’s master’s secret apprentice, who has been sent to eliminate him as he has become a liability. And to do that, he needs the crystal.

Congratulations to anyone who can keep track of all that, by the way.

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