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Medieval Children

Updated on June 21, 2011

Medieval Children

There is a lot of misinformation about children in the middle ages, some of which is bandied about by seemingly-reputable books, which should know better. This paper exposes some of the more common statements made about children and attempts to correct the myths.

Content warning: This paper discusses sex and illegitimate children in an academic manner, and is probably not appropriate for children under the age of 13 (although I'll eat my hat if younger kids haven't heard most of this stuff and more on television already).

Image: Saint Dorothy with child. I do not know why St. Dorothy is depicted with a child in this picture, although she is the patron saint of midwives.

Myth: People Didn't Love Their Children

The Fostering System

Medieval people loved their children as much as the average parent today. Society dictated that they be raised in a very different manner than children today, but that does not mean that parental love was not there. For every horrible parent (Lady Jane Grey's mother was, by all accounts, a horrible woman), you find parents who dearly loved their children (Catherine of Aragon doted on Mary, her only surviving child). But that's just as true today as it was then; we all know there are some modern parents who are so horrible that the government has to take away their children. God forbid future historians judge us all by the actions of people who show up in court records.

One of the things that is held up as evidence that people didn't love their children is the concept of fostering. When a child was 7 or so, his or her parents would sometimes foster the child to another family. Boys were fostered more often than girls and were typically fostered younger (girls might not be fostered out until they were in their early teens). Fostering was done among the noble classes, although among the middle classes, boys and girls might be sent away to apprentice, or boys might be sent to school. Peasant children were raised at home until they were older teens, when they might try working for themselves as day-laborers or servants.

Fostering among nobility served many purposes. For a boy, it was a chance to learn some social skill, such as business, court politics or the knightly pursuits. Even if a father had one of these skills himself, having someone else teach his child was important. One, if you were lucky, you could foster your child to someone with more skills or better political connections than your own. This was a way of moving your child up in the world. Secondly, a foster family became a second family. Medieval society revolved around who you knew--who could get you a job, speak on your behalf in court, get you title or lands. Medieval people forgot more about networking than modern people have ever learned. By forging a connection through a foster family, you gained a wider circle of friends and influence.

A foster family was also a chance to learn social interaction skills. As everyone knows, children behave differently around strangers than they do their family. In fact, many educated people and church officials encouraged fostering because they said that parents, in their love for their children, were too weak to raise children properly. Parents might be soft and not discipline a child as they ought to. If a child did not learn humility and obedience from parents, then it was set up to fail as an adult, and perhaps even to go to hell for its sins.

While boys might be learning a trade or the military arts, girls learned the feminine arts of running a household, sewing and embroidery, music, and (especially in the later middle ages) reading, writing and maybe a foreign language or Latin. Girls too benefited from having an extended family because many surrogate parents took it upon themselves to help look for a girl a husband. Who she married would remain the decision of the parents, but children were rarely (if ever) married to strangers; a foster parent might be well placed to recommend a cousin that was up and coming. And contrary to popular belief that marriages were made without any consideration to the young people, suitors would be introduced prior to the signing of any contract, and usually even left to converse privately. While the acceptance of a marriage proposal might hinge on how well that one "date" went, it did at least weed out people who immediately disliked one another.

In some cases, the foster family also offered a girl a financial leg-up. Queens tended to have large entourages of young ladies-in-waiting from noble families. This was the highest level of fostering a girl could achieve. If she did not displease the queen, a lady-in-waiting would not only have the opportunity to be introduced to all the best eligible men in the realm at court, but the queen would usually help arrange a marriage with the gentleman of her choice (pressuring the parents into consenting, if necessary), and often the queen would provide at least some of the girl's dowry.

A foster family also provided a backup family. Many children lost their parents before they were fully grown. In fact, an older father might specifically seek out a younger foster father, so that if he died, his child would still have a father-figure to look after him or her. Foster families were often people who were kin through blood or marriage to the child.

Interestingly enough, however, foster families were usually not legal guardians. While a foster family was charged with raising the child and preparing it for adulthood, the parents could reclaim their child at any moment; the foster family had no legal claim to possession of the child, and the foster family could not enter into a contract, such as marriage, on behalf of the child. If they found a likely suitor, they could make all the arrangements, and even negotiate the marriage contract, but only the parents could actually sign their child into a marriage contract.

A legal guardian, at least in England, was almost never someone who had a claim on a child's inheritance; the courts didn't want to hand a child over to someone who might kill the child in order to inherit the child's wealth. If a father died while his child was in the care of a foster family, the child would usually have a legal guardian appointed to take care of the child's inheritance and legal affairs, although the guardian typically left the child with the foster family, especially if that had been the express wish of the deceased parent.

Legal guardians tended to be friends of the family, although distant relatives--especially those related through marriage, which did not have inheritance ties--were sometimes used. Legal guardians did not often raise the children themselves, but rather found them a good foster family.

Even when parents were alive, they would sometimes appoint a legal guardian for their child. The legal guardian would then act in the best interest of the child and the child's family, and was treated, legally, the same as the child's parents. The legal guardian could contract a child's marriage the same as the parents and, in many cases, the parent's legal rights to their child were subordinate to that of the guardian, meaning they did not have full possession of their child. They formed a sort of joint custody with the legal guardian and it took an act of the court to dispose of a legal guardian, once appointed.

Because the legal guardian could contract marriage, some people actually bought the guardianship of a child in order to further their own political agenda, such as marrying a lesser-ranking or poorer family member (maybe even their own biological child) to the adopted child. Thankfully, however, most children were not reduced to being pawns, because only families in dire straights sold the guardianship of their children. And most guardians really did have the best interest of the child at heart. Thomas Seymour was Lady Jane Grey's guardian (he forgave her father some debts, so he did in fact buy her guardianship), and although he attempted to use her for his own political gain, he did think that she too would ultimately profit. The concept of "conflict of interest" pretty well did not exist; a parent or guardian's gain could reasonably exist side-by-side with the gain of the child. If a daughter married up the social network and ended up with more wealth or title, and her father or brother also got a position in court thanks to the influence of the in-laws, where was the problem with that?

Many children remained close to one or both parents, and even to some siblings, even if they spent a lot of time apart. Letters home, or to siblings in other households, were not uncommon; in the early parts of the middle ages, clerks usually took dictation of the letters, then a clerk at the other household would read the letters to the recipients, but by the late middle ages, children were usually taught reading and writing, so that they could send letters to their family themselves. Also not to be underestimated was the usefulness of messangers, and families (especially those who were illiterate) often sent messages this way.

Parents might travel to visit their children in other households, siblings or cousins might visit one another when passing through on business, and homesick children were often bundled up and sent back home to visit for short periods of time, especially around a holiday. When someone became very sick, a call went out to family members and most everyone came in haste to the bedside of the ill person.

Even when raised apart, brothers and sisters were instilled with the notion of loyalty to one another. Sisters would look to their brothers for help in things like legal matters, where a brother could act as a legal representative for his sister in court (women typically needed a man to bring a suit for them in court). If a woman had a conflict with her husband, she often looked to her brother to help protect her interests; even if there was no real love between then because they did not grow up knowing one another well, blood was thicker than water in the middle ages, and brothers usually took up for their sisters on principal. Sisters, in turn, often took in a brother's daughters as foster daughters.

Image: King Solomon teaching a child.

Myth: All Medieval Marriages Were Child Marriages

True child marriages (defined as the child being married before reaching puberty) were limited to the royal families of Europe and were rarely practiced by the nobility and never by the middle or lower classes. In fact, poor people were usually 20 years old or older before marrying the first time, because it took so long for a man to earn enough money/land to support a family and a woman earn enough money for a dowry (if he could ever afford to marry at all; the poorest men could not). Among the middle classes, girls married in their late teens or early 20's, but men were usually well into their 20's or nearly 30 before marriage because neither men nor women in an apprenticeship program were allowed to marry until they had completed their contract. A man who went into a business, such as merchanting, would also need time to accumulate enough wealth to marry. Girls tended not to apprentice as many years as men, and those who did not apprentice at all were able to marry younger.

It was only among the nobility that girls married in their early to mid-teens, shortly after the onset of menstruation (which, it has been speculated, came sometime between ages 12 and 15, unlike today, where it is happening in girls as young as 9). Boys would be ready to marry in their early to mid-20's, depending on how accomplished they were at their chosen profession, or if they had come into their inheritance early. While the age of majority fluctuated in different times and places throughout the middle ages, pretty much everyone agreed that a girl came into her majority (and was legally an adult) at a younger age than a boy. However, there were sometimes different ages of majority for different social interactions: the age of majority for marriage might be different from that of full inheritance, which might be different from that of being able to give legal testimony or sue in court.

Legally, neither a boy nor a girl could give full consent to marry if they were in their minority (which, for the purposes of marriage, was at least the age of puberty, if not older). The church frowned on child marriages and would sometimes annul marriages made when one or both participants was still a child if 1) the wronged party wanted out, 2) the marriage had not be consummated.

The legal loophole that was often applied to get a marriage without attracting the church's censure was engagement; the church did not have a say in engagements, only in marriage, because an engagement was a legal contract, whereas marriage was a religious ceremony. For almost all intents and purposes, contractual engagement was as legally-binding in the middle ages as marriage. Contractual engagements did not usually require the consent of the children; they would only have to consent in a few years when they were old enough to actually marry. And, if in that time, they had sexual relations, it pretty much sealed the deal and implied consent to marriage. The church was loathe to separate a couple who had had sexual relations, because if there had never been an implied marriage, then they had committed the sin of fornication. A girl could also become a social pariah for having had sex with a man who turned out to not be her husband, and any children born of the union would become bastards. Catherine of Aragon fought against Henry VIII's wish for an annulment for just those social reasons.

When children were engaged, the girl was almost always sent to the court of her future husband to be fostered. There her future mother-in-law would usually raise her as her own daughter. And the children were sometimes schooled together, or usually allowed to play together, so that they grew up as companions from early on. Which is why you see many queens and kings who were deeply in love, despite their arranged child marriages. Medieval people had sense enough to put the children together and leave them alone to develop a bond.

Still, a girl who had not reached puberty, whether engaged or actually married, was typically kept from her intended/husband until she had at least achieved her menses. And depending on the family in charge of them, the couple might not consummate their marriage for a couple of years after a girl reached puberty, because some people (especially women) recognized that it was more difficult and dangerous for very young girls to bear children.

While it might be abhorrent to the modern parent to think of a girl of 14 or 15 years of age marrying and having children, it must be remembered that medieval society was quite different from modern society. For one thing, life expectancy was quite short. In the 1200's, the average medieval peasant died of old age in their mid-40's. Wealthy people might get an extra decade. A couple of England's kings lived well into their 60's (I think Longshanks may have even broke 70) and were considered quite venerable. Women usually stopped bearing children in their mid-30's; almost no women bore children past the age of 40. With fewer years afforded them in life and child production, medieval people had to grow up faster and get started on children earlier in order to keep up the population.

A noble girl of the middle ages typically knew all she needed to know about being a wife by the time she was in her early teens. And she would have a household full of servants to help her with her labors, and she would typically have at least one much older woman whom she was expected to turn to for guidance and instruction. If the girl was the wife of the heir to the throne, she typically stayed under the guidance of her mother-in-law and rarely had to make any decisions at all, at least not until she became queen in her own right. In the case of the Goodman of Paris's 15 year old wife, who was an orphan, she had an older widowed woman who was the head of her household, and the Goodman instructed his wife to listen to her and take her advice into serious consideration. Medieval people recognized that being a wife and mother was a large chore, and even if girls were prepared for the role early, they were certainly not thrown to the wolves; there were plenty of women about to help and guide.

Image: A wedding proposal (note the bride's mother in the background; she surely helped arrange it).

Myth: Boys Were Always a Lot Older Than Girls at Marriage

Although it was not uncommon for an old man to marry a young girl (and this was socially acceptable), not all marriages had a great age discrepancy. Throughout most of the middle ages, parenting guides typically recommended that the bride and groom be very close in age. In fact, documents from the later middle ages show that the age of prospective spouses was a very important consideration, with parents trying to narrow the age gap between bride and groom as much as possible. If there was an age gap, men were typically older than women, simply because women had limited number of years of reproductive capacity, whereas men had a much longer fertile period. The average age gap between men and women in most times and places during the middle age was around 7 years.

Young women were induced to marry older men for a number of reasons. Older men already had a household established, and so were less likely to require a dowry of their wives. Poor women could thus marry and even move up in the world if they were willing to marry an older man. The Goodman of Paris's wife was a 15 year old orphan of minor nobility, while he was an older man (guesses range from 40-60 years of age) of common birth, but with excellent political position in Paris. It is likely that she had little to no dowry, and it was probably reckoned that her youth and noble bloodline (which any children of theirs would be able to claim) were a fair exchange for his wealth and political power.

Besides being excused from the normal demands of dowry, a woman marrying an older man would usually stand to inherit most of his wealth upon his death. An ambitious woman might even look forward to being a widow, considering her few years as a married woman a form of apprenticeship, and upon the death of her husband, she would inherit his lands or business and be able to run it herself. It was much faster to inherit land or a business than to have to buy or establish it from the ground up.

Older men, on the other hand, married younger women for several reasons as well. If the man had no children, a younger woman was his best hope for having some. And he would soon need someone to look after him in his old age--a task most easily performed by a young woman. This kept him from being a burden on any children he already had, or, in the absence of children, kept him from being alone or confined to a religious house. Some men also preferred to marry young women because they felt that they could train them to run the household the way they wanted it run; an older woman would have her own opinions and habits in regards to running a household which might come into conflict.

I found a comment made by a historian in a documentary on the subject of young girl/old man marriages amusing. She was discussing an 18th century Russian diplomat and nobleman who met a 15 year old Spanish girl in California and he proposed marriage. They couldn't get married without a papal dispensation and he had to complete his mission first, so, if everything worked out for them, they would be married in about three years (when she would be 18 and he would be in his mid-40's). The historian made some comment about the man being a pervert who liked young girls. I found this amusing because it's such a modern notion and wasn't at all the view of the people actually involved in the transaction.

We see a female 15 years old as a girl, and so a man in his 40's must be a pedophile. But in that day and age--and in the middle ages too--15 years old was considered an adult and she was of perfectly marriageable age. It would be like someone today saying that a man who is 40 should not marry a woman who is 23 (incidentally, the ages of my husband and myself when we started dating). No one considered my husband a pedophile because of our age difference, because I was an adult, legally and socially, with a college education and a job of my own; I was not a child. People in the middle ages (and 18th century California) did not consider a woman 15 years old to still be a child either. You have to be careful, when looking at the past (including the middle ages) that you do not apply your own social conventions to the time and judge based on that; girls were considered mature at a younger age in the middle ages, and it didn't have anything to do with a bunch of old men wanting their way with them.

One thing that many people do not take into consideration when condemning medieval marriage among young people, is that teen pregnancy is a problem in our own time. It's a problem because young people, newly into puberty, wish to do that act which causes reproduction. It's a natural, animal need to preserve the species. Medieval society frowned on sexual encounters outside of marriage, ESPECIALLY among women. In fact, noble women who lost their virginity before marriage were almost never able to marry (where it was common knowledge that a girl had been had, a sizeable bribe had to be paid to the prospective groom or his family to induce them to take her). Therefore, there is a conflict between what nature wants (sex) and what society expects (no sex before marriage). The natural conclusion, therefore, is to marry girls when they come into sexual maturity; that way, all of their sexual encounters are within marriage. In the case of one German burgher in the 16th century, when it became known that his daughter had had sex outside of marriage, many people blamed him, not her. She was 23 years old and not married; if she had succumbed to passion, it was his fault for having not put her into marriage before that time.

If parents could, they liked to marry their sons before they had sex outside of marriage as well, but there was very much a sexual double standard in the middle ages, with people caring less about men having pre-marital sex or even adultery within marriage. While both was condemned by the church, it was usually overlooked socially. If a boy had relations with a prostitute or peasant girl before marriage, that was usually no big deal, so long as he was fairly discreet and did nothing to stain the family's honor (such as become overly and publicly attached to said peasant girl, or being boastful or conspicuous about his wenching). Men, therefore, had an outlet for their early sexual needs, while women had to procure theirs through marriage; thus why girls were typically married younger than men.

Interestingly enough, however, young men who were ill-behaved (namely sexually, but in other matters as well) were often married younger than might be usual (even if it meant the young couple had to live in his parents' home) in order to curtail his shameful activities. While society wasn't completely condemning of a man's adultery within marriage, it had much narrower limits than sex outside of marriage. If a man's wife was barren, old or ill (which included pregnancy), people understood the need for sexual outlet, even if it was technically a sin. And, of course, kings always had great leeway when it came to producing bastards. However, if a young man was married to a young, healthy girl, his responsibility was to get children with her and there was much social disapproval if he neglected her in favor of other women. He was also expected to act like a husband and spend much less time drinking, gambling, hanging out with friends in public and getting into trouble. He was expected to earn to provide for his wife and his family and not waste his money on entertainment. Parents, therefore, could use marriage as a way to control rebellious, wayward boys.

Image: Mary marries Joseph (who, throughout the middle ages, was usually depicted as an old man, although there is no biblical precedence for it).

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Myth: Medieval People Had No Concept of Childhood

This statement is quite preposterous, as it implies that medieval people treated children as if they were adults. I have yet to see a picture of children pushing a plow--namely because it was physically impossible for a child to push a plow. I have, however, seen toys, both from archaeological digs and in pictures. Adults don't play with toys, children do. That, therefore, would seem to imply that medieval people recognized that children were different from adults and had different needs. Also, if there was no concept of childhood, why were there courts which governed the affairs of orphaned children and kept their inheritance safe until they reached the age of legal majority? If a child was the same as an adult, they would have been left to fend for themselves.

There were Dr. Spocks in the middle ages too, always commenting on how best to raise children. And almost all agreed that infancy lasted until age 7. A child was not deemed capable of really looking after itself in infancy; it needed constant and direct parental supervision. However, at the age of 7, most children were ready to begin seriously working towards their futures. This is no different than the modern division between children too young for school and children ready to start school (at age 5 or 6, usually). While we put children into kindergarten, medieval parents started teaching their kids to sew or polish armor-basic tasks that will allow them to work up to more complicated jobs.

Childhood or adolescence was deemed to be from age 7 until at least puberty, if not full legal majority; writers disagreed on exactly when childhood ended and adult life began. Some even said there was a third level, where a child might be sexually mature and might even be legally mature, but he was not considered intellectually mature (and a full adult) until the mid 20's or even 30 years of age. This shows up in guilds, where there was usually a minimum age or minimum number of years of independence required before someone could become a full-fledged member or serve in an advisory capacity. Likewise many government jobs at the city level had a minimum age requirement that was above and beyond the age of legal majority. Just as American kids are legally adults at age 18, but are not treated as real adults until they are 21, out of college, or have actually demonstrated adult behavior, so too did medieval people have a gray area between legal adulthood and social adulthood.

A similar myth that is even more ludicrous is "Medieval people dressed their children like miniature adults, and this shows that they thought of them as miniature adults." Being treated like a miniature adult implies that you are required to earn a living and support the family. Unlike Victorians, who did use child labor, medieval people don't seem to have employed children in jobs which were wage-earning before the age of 12 or so. Children had chores they were expected to do--be that at home, in the shop of a master craftsman, or in the home of a foster family--but these did not earn wages and did not support the family, and were considered a hands-on learning experience more than a job. In short, the medieval version of school (albeit a trade school).

As for children being dressed like adults, what's so odd about that? Look at babies today. Do you see babies wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes? Yes. Do we expect our babies to go out and rope cattle in those blue jeans, or run a marathon in their tennis shoes? No. Blue jeans and tennis shoes on babies is an utter waste, because they serve no function, other than to cover nakedness. They are put on babies purely because blue jeans and tennis shoes are fashionable. Why should we dress our babies in weird clothing that looks nothing like what we wear? Medieval people probably cooed and giggled over wee leather baby shoes the same way mothers today get all mushy over teeny tennis shoes.

Image: A mother shoos children away from people dancing naked around an idol.

Myth: Parents Had to Pay Men to Marry Their Daughters

The Dowry and Dower System

This is a false view of the dowry system. What many people do not realize that there was frequently a dower system in place as well (which is wealth coming from the groom and his family) that was often equitable with the dowry.

The purpose and amount of the dower and dowry varied in time and place in the middle ages. Where women were scarce (which happened where men kept more than one wife or where they might have a lot of slave girls), the dowry might be non-existent and a man would have to offer a fully-furnished home, as well as have a good trade or prosperous land before he could entice a woman into marriage. However, where men were in short supply (like in war-torn countries), women would have to offer land or rental income in addition to the typical household goods in order to attract a man. And in the case of Renaissance Italy, noble families spent ever more ridiculous amounts of money on the dower, dowry and the wedding festivities (which became huge public spectacles), until marrying any child could come close to bankrupting the family. But in most times and places, the dower and dowry were fairly equitable and not too onerous.

The dower and the dowry were for the couple, not for the couple's family, so it was never about buying or selling children into marriage. A woman's dowry typically consisted of clothing and/or fabric, household goods like dishes and cookware, and furniture. Among wealthy women it might also include a house, horses, livestock and/or income-bearing land. Dowries did not often consist of direct payments of cash, except at the very highest levels of society (such as royalty), or when a woman was physically lacking (such as not being a virgin or being crippled). The primary responsibility of the dowry was to help the young couple set up house.

Contrary to another popular belief, medieval people did not often keep multiple generations in one house. They had household system much like ours today, where children usually moved out of the parents' house by their early 20's, and parents then lived alone (empty nest) until they were too old to take care of themselves, at which point they went to live with a child, or they paid someone to take care of them, either in-home or at a religious house (the precursor to the nursing home, essentially).

If a girl didn't have a dowry, she didn't have the money necessary to set up her own independent household, and living at home while married was done as infrequently then as now. While men could and did take wives without a dowry, it put a larger share of the financial burden on them, because they then had to procure all the items needed for a household, in addition to securing the house.

In most cases, a woman's dowry remained her own. A husband usually did not have the right to sell any of his wife's dowry possessions without her permission. When a woman brought land into the marriage, the husband usually had legal control over it (although whether he actually controlled, or she did, depended on the couple), but courts usually recognized her legal ownership. There are a few cases, I believe in England, where wives sued their husbands for mismanagement of their dowry lands. A woman could will her dowry goods to anyone she chose, including to daughters or the church, and the husband had no say in the matter. If the husband pre-deceased his wife, she retained full legal right over all her dowry property and also gained full legal control over her dowry lands (many widows were able administrators of their own property). If the wife pre-deceased the husband, he almost never got any of her dowry goods by will, and never got any by laws of inheritance. When a wife died without a will, her dowry goods and property either went to her children, or, in the absence of them, to her family.

The dower was provided by the groom or his family, and it was a promise of wealth to the bride. If a husband pre-deceased his wife, all items which were given in dower become her sole legal possession. For instance, in England, it was common for a man's estate to be divided up upon his death, with 1/3rd going to his heir or split equally among his children, and the other 2/3rds went to his wife. Upon her death, 1/3rd would automatically revert back to his children, while the other 1/3rd was hers to will to whomever she wished. In the absence of children, a man's property reverted back to his nearest living kinsman.

The dower stated, before the wedding, what property a woman was to get as her permanent share. The dower might be more than a 1/3rd of his property, or it might be less; if less, she would get what was specifically stated for her, and then a court or the husband's will would decide what her other portion would be. Most dowers were set up so that a woman could have an income in her widowhood, so it usually included land which produced an income, rental properties, or if a woman had a trade (as was common in middle class families), the shop and tools of the trade. A man's use and disposal of goods or property that were part of his wife's dower was usually regulated. A man could not endow a wife with a lot of land, and then sell it away and leave her with nothing, just as he could not write his wife out of his will.

Image: Husband crowns his wife queen.


Medieval people loved their children, but they had different ways of showing love than modern people. Medieval people sent their children away, not because they didn't love them, but because they hoped they would develop skills and social connections that would serve them well throughout life (just as some modern people send their children to boarding schools in the hopes that they will get a better education). Medieval people didn't marry their children young out of ignorance of their childhood, but rather as a way to legitimatize teen sexuality.

There were bad medieval parents, to be sure: people who abused their children horribly, people who had no thought for their children's happiness, people who used their children solely for their own personal gain. However, bad medieval parents do not seem to be any more common than bad modern parents. There were very close, very loving homes, there were families with severe sibling rivalry, there were families where a parent favored one child overmuch, or where a black sheep was cast out. In short, medieval families have more in common than not with modern families.

Image: The Virgin Mary catches a child that has fallen from a tall building.

Do you have any questions about medieval children? Ask them here and I will try to answer.


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    • profile image

      Lilac de Nubia 

      4 years ago

      Interesting article. I'm a history student and medieval history is my favorite

    • TheMedievalNun profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      @anonymous: Yes, I'm afraid that is more or less correct. I was just glancing through one of my husband's books yesterday and there was a brief mention in it of an English wool merchant (not even a nobleman, but a man of wealth) who got a girl at a food shop in Calais pregnant not once, but twice, while he was on his business trips. His friend wrote to him of the second pregnancy (he had already left for England again), and the friend's note kind of hints that, you know, he might ought do something to help the girl out.

      Court-ordered child support was still about 500 years away.

      Some men acknowledged their bastards--especially if the social difference between the father and the mother was not that great. A king, for instance, would almost never acknowledge a bastard he got on a poor peasant girl, but if he was dabbling with a noblewoman, then he might.

      Culture and time period also mattered. Most early medieval cultures and Gaelic cultures gave men both more leeway to have extramarital affairs, and encouraged them (or at least didn't penalize them) to acknowledge their bastards. In Gaelic Ireland (not to be confused with the English-controlled parts of Ireland), throughout the middle ages, most bastard children seem to have been acknowledge (I get the impression it was bad form not to acknowledge them) and they inherited equally with the legitimate children. The Church had a very hard time stamping out the old Gaelic tradition which prized a virile man and didn't care which woman his children came from (Gaelic cultures were polygamous before Christianity came along.)

      While it was not common to treat illegitimate children the same as your legitimate ones, it was also not uncommon for a man to treat his mistress and bastard child(ren) kindly. If a woman graduated from being a fling to being a mistress, she was usually supported--meaning a roof was kept over her head, food on the table, and wood in her fireplace. A bastard child of a nobleman really couldn't expect to be given land, but, in a few instances, his father might buy a title of knighthood for him and let him make his way in the world as a landless knight. More common, however, was to educate the boy--if he showed the least bit of intelligence--for a career in the church, or buy him an apprenticeship in a trade. A girl might expect to get goods and/or money for her dowry and make a much better match that her single mother would have ever been able to provide.

      Note, however, that I have been saying "men;" young men were usually still under their family's authority and not free to make their own decisions, nor did they have their own money to spend. Whether a family would support a son's mistress or bastard child was a bit more iffy; after all, they didn't have any feelings of attachment to the girl. So it was much more risky for a girl to engage in extramarital relations with a young man than it was for a woman to engage with a man.

      And I don't think we can overestimate the use of abortifants (medicine used to induce a miscarriage) in the middle ages. The fact that priests were railing from the pulpit against such medicines (and superstitious charms and primitive condoms made from animal bladders or intestines) indicates that there was a pretty widespread use of such things to try to control pregnancies. Of course, their birth control wasn't nearly as effective as ours, but obviously there were plenty of people desperate enough to try it.

      Lastly, abandoning unwanted children was not uncommon in the middle ages. While some childless couples adopted unwanted babies, there were many more unwanted babies than there were childless couples who would take them in. Some babies no doubt died of exposure and neglect, but most seem to have just been left on the doorstep of the nearest church. The Church considered taking care of such children a charitable act, and people would have either been paid by the Church to take them in (like our foster care system today), or someone in the church itself would care for them. Boys were likely to go on to have a position in the church (for the slow-witted, that might mean being a humble janitor or farming the church's fields; for the bright or artistic, they might become a priest or scribe; for the really unlucky who had a beautiful voice, it might be the life of a eunuch for them). Convents tended to require an entrance fee to get in, so an unwanted girl would probably be placed in someone's employ as a servant as soon as she was old enough to work. Unless she somehow lucked out and caught the attention of a man who was willing to marry her without a dowry, she was likely to follow in her mother's footsteps, winding up an unwed mother.

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      6 years ago

      I am sorry but I am a little bit confused. You say that that it was acceptable for young men to have sex with peasant girls?

      "If a boy had relations with a prostitute or peasant girl before marriage, that was usually no big deal, so long as he was fairly discreet and did nothing to stain the family's honor (such as become overly and publicly attached to said peasant girl, or being boastful or conspicuous about his wenching)."

      As far as I know there was no form of birth control back then. So if a guy has sex with a peasant girl there is a good chance of that peasant girl getting pregnant. How can knocking up a young peasant girl not be something that brings dishonor on his family? Are you saying that peasant girls had no worth in medieval society? You could just knock a girl up and then have no social responsibility to take care of her or her baby? Maybe I am missing something and if so please explain but what you are saying just doesn't sound very realistic.

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      7 years ago

      This was excellent information. Very well thought out and full of common sense. Thank you!


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