The Baptism Experience in the Life of Children in the Medieval Ages

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Of all the misconceptions of the Medieval Ages, some of the most prevalent include the life of a child during this era. During this time it is believed that many children were shown no recognition and they were treated as though they were adults as soon as they could walk and talk (Snell). Scholars of this era tell a different story. It could be reasonably argued that childhood was recognized as a phase of life, and one that had value even though some didn’t seem that way (Snell). Though children may have had hard lives, they also had good lives.

One of the most commonly mentioned arguments for the non-existence of childhood is that the representation of children depicts them in adult clothing. The theory was that if they wore grown-up clothing they were also expected to act grown up. Written work and artwork in this era showed children as having intense jobs to help out their families. Few works have children, but the most prevalent child was the christ Child. Artwork and written work is one of the things that is used to make this claim, but there isn’t much else to back it up.

During this era there were laws in place to protect the children. They were carefully put into place to benefit the children especially orphans (Snell). Children were also separated from adults in the way they were treated for illnesses. Children were more recognized as vulnerable and in need of special protection. This argues against the claim that they were always treated as adults. When a child was sick, there were special precautions and medications put in place to heal them before the illness got worse.

A more recognizable argument would be the idea that adolescence was not recognized as a category of development. There was no clear difference between childhood and adulthood. The evidence that backs up this claim is the simple word “adolescence”. There was no clear word to describe this phase in life. There was not distinct characteristics of the difference between a child and an adult. The laws put in place about financial responsibilities contradict that. Age 21 is when a child could finally take over their own financial abilities (Newman).

The next misconception of the Medieval Ages was that children were not valued by their families or even by society. No times in history have particularly sentimentalized infants or toddlers, but that doesn’t clearly mean that they were undervalued. The main reason for this misconception is the lack of representation in popular culture. Chronicles and biographies written during this time included a few details about the childhood of any individual (Western Heritage). Even a hero’s story didn’t include the younger years of their lives, and artwork included other children besides the Christ Child seemed to be non-existent. The lack of representation led many to believe that they were of limited important rather than complete undervalue. An important thing to remember is that Medieval society was primarily an agrarian one. The family unit is what made the economy work. For a peasant family, children were very valued because of their ability to help raise money for the whole family. Their work was of great value to that family. Children of a noble family would perpetuate the family name and increase the family’s holdings through the service of their lords and through great marriages. Some marriages were formed before the bride and groom-to-be were even born. These facts led to the conclusion that people of the middle ages weren’t any less unaware of children than people are today.

An aspect more difficult to understand of the Medieval Ages is one of emotional affection. In a society that places a high value on its younger members, it is natural for us to assume that parents loved their children. Biology suggests a bond between a child and a mother who nursed him or her. Yet in the medieval household is has been theorized that affection was majorly lacking. Ideas to support this include rampant infanticide, high infant death rate, the use of child labor, and extreme discipline. Children had a hard life and it wasn’t all the parent’s fault, but this led many to believe that there wasn’t a true connection between the child and parent.

The concept of childhood in the middle ages and the important is not to be overlooked in history. There were many laws in place to protect children and provide a clear explanation that childhood was a distinct phase of development. So this argues against the misconception that children were treated as adults. The laws put in place had explanations such as children are not to be treated or expected to act like adults. Laws for the rights of orphans make it clear that children did have value in society. Children during this age would often suffer from a lack of attention or affection. Coming from a society where much value is placed on the children, and much hope was put into a couple’s relationship to have children this was a strange finding. There have been many cases of child abuse and neglect in western society, to take these individual cases as indicative of an entire culture would be an irresponsible approach to history. Instead, let us take a look at how a general society chose how children would be treated. When you look farther into the childbirth and baptism, you will see that most families valued the children and supported them greatly in the medieval world.

One of the most valued reasons for getting married was to have a child. The birth of a baby was regarded as a joyful experience. During this time there was a possibility of complications, which included birth defects or breach birth. This could affect the mother, child, or both. Childbirth was extremely painful even in the best circumstances. There was no effective anesthetic to make the pain go away. After the birth, the child would be swaddled tightly in linen strips so that its limbs would grow strong and straight. The baby would then be laid in a cradle in a dark area. Their eyes would be protected from the lights. The next phase would then be baptism.

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The main purpose of baptism was to wash away sins and drive all evil from the newborn child. This practice was very important to the Catholic Church. Many women did baptism because of fear of infant death. They didn’t all do it for religion, rather they believed it was a way to overcome fear. Another significant reason for baptism was the welcoming of a new Christian soul. During Baptism as the name was given to the infant that would identify them for the rest of his or her life. This ceremony established a lifelong however long that may be to their godparents. This created a relationship from the child to the community that was beyond blood. The godparents were put in the child’s life to pray and instruct them in faith and the correct morals. Marriage to one’s godchild was prohibited because the relationship was considered as strong as a blood connection. A child was baptized the day he or she was born. The Church kept women away from the church for several weeks after giving birth, this included the baptism of the child. The father, godparents, and midwife would bring the child to church. The ceremony was not favored by the child but it was considered necessary for welcoming the child.

A scary thought during the Medieval Ages was the high mortality rate. It was horrendously high for children because of their still-growing immune system. Some believed that the high rate was because of the inability of parents to properly care for a child. They lacked an interest in the child's true wellbeing. Neither idea is supported by facts. Many people stated that medieval children spent his or her first year wrapped in swaddling, laid in a cradle, and ignored. Like stated before, swaddling theoretically helped their arms and legs grow straight. This involved wrapping the child's arms and legs close to its body. This would immobilize the child and make it easier to remain out of trouble (Snell). They were not swaddled continuously. The child was changed regularly and let go to crawl around. This was not technically the norm in all medieval cultures. Irish children were never swaddled and still grew strong just the same. Swaddled or not it is believed that the child spend much of its time in the cradle when it was home. If the child is unswaddled it was tied into the crib to keep them from crawling out. Outside of the home, mothers often carried their babies. Some children were even to be found near parents in the fields during the busiest harvest times. Infants who were not swaddled were simply naked or wrapped in blankets to protect against the cold. The child would quickly outgrow clothes so most were left unclothed because sewing took too long.

An Infant’s mother was ordinarily its primary caregiver, especially in poorer families (Gabriele). Other family members may assist, but the mother was responsible for feeding the child because she was physically equipped for it. Richer families had the luxury of hiring a full-time nurse while the peasants lacked that ability. A wet nurse would be put in place if the mother was too ill to nurse or had passed away during childbirth (Gabriele). The church highly encouraged the nursing of a child, therefore, nurses were typically not put into place unless they were needed. In some families, a wet nurse would be put into wealthier families and the parents would lose touch of their child. In some families that was the case, but most parents did take an interest in the welfare and activities of their children. Parents took great interest in choosing who would nurse their children (Gabriele).

During this time there was a lack of technology to grasp the concept of germs as the cause of diseases. There were no antibiotics or vaccines. In the Medieval Ages, diseases that could be cured with a simple shot or tablet took too many young lives. Nursing a baby improved the immune system so if they were not nursed, their risk for disease and sickness increased (In the Middle Ages there was no such thing as childhood). The main cause of this would be unsanitary methods. Being confined during swaddling led some children to die from fires. Once a child began to move around, the danger increased. Some fell down wells and into ponds or streams. The highest estimated percent of the death rate reached 50%. Thirty percent is more commonly figured. These percentages include the number of infants who died a few days after or during childbirth (Snell).

It has been argued that adolescence is not separate from adulthood. Teenagers were known to take on some of the work of full-time working adults. Even though children worked at a young age they were not to inherit or own land until they reached the age of 21. Some children left their homes before the full maturity age was reached. They would usually leave during the teen years and move into another household. In this household, the child would be looked over by another adult who fed and clothed the teenager. The teen was also subject to that adult’s discipline. As teens would leave their homes there still were laws and social norms in place to protect and keep them under control.

The teen years were a time to focus on growing up and preparing them for adulthood and the responsibilities that would accompany them. During the Medieval Ages, formal education was quite unusual. By this time there were some options of schooling for his or her future. In some cities, schools of both genders attended during the day. They learned to read and write. This was a skill that became a prerequisite for acceptance in many societies (Cybulski). Peasant children weren’t as able to attend school as other children were. Only a small percentage had the chance to attend school, they would instead go to a monastery to learn how reading, writing, and basic math. This education required payment to the lord and a promise that the child would not take ecclesiastical orders (Cybulski). The children would then use what they learned to record village court records. Some were even given the task to manage the lord’s estate. Girls and sometimes boys were sent to live in nunneries. This gave them basic schooling. The children would be taught how to read and make sure they knew prayers. Girls were taught skills to prepare them for marriage such as spinning and needlework. Some students would then turn into nuns (Cybulski). The monastic life was an option for serious scholars. This was an opportunity only for serious scholars. It was rarely open to townsmen or peasants. The boys who were chosen were raised by the monks. Their lives could be peaceful and fulfilling or frustrating and restrictive. Most of the children in the monasteries were sons of families known to “give their children to the church”. This practice had been outlawed, but many people still referred to it.

Education after high school looked different depending on gender. Most of the higher up education was for males. This led to later struggles in reading for women (Gabriele). When individuals reached university age, they banded together to protect their own rights. One of the main arguments of going to a university was that they were then considered adults. The main reason for this was the factor of living on his own. Nonetheless, university students were often known to make trouble. Rules and guidelines kept students in line. This would lead society to believe that they are not yet completely adults.

Although some students went to school, others did not get to gain a formal education. For these children, they were in the working field. Many had a job. Teens of peasant’s most likely worked instead of attending school. They needed to help raise money for their families. They were a good part of the family’s income (Orme). Adolescent’s frequently worked as servants in another household almost always in other towns. Children also provided valuable assistance to the family as early as age five or six. They did simple chores around the house. Some of these chores included getting water, heading geese, sheep or goats, gathering fruits, nuts, or firewood, walking and watering horses, and fishing. Older children in the family were required to watch over younger siblings as well. Jobs differed if you were a boy or a girl (Orme). Girls helped out their mothers with tending vegetable or herb garden, making or mending clothes, churning butter, brewing beer and performing simple tasks to help with the cooking. A boy at the age of 9 to 12 years old would assist his father by goading the ox while his father handled the plow (Newman). As children got older they would continue to perform chores unless they had younger siblings to take over those tasks. Harder tasks were left for experienced children. Difficult tasks included things like handling a scythe. Teens did other jobs outside of the house like being a servant, but most of the time they still helped out in the house.

Servants were very common in all houses beside the poorest of homes. Service could be considered a part-time job such as day labor, working and living under the roof of an employer ('In the Middle Ages there was no such thing as childhood”). There were shop servants, craft assistants, laborers in agriculture and manufacturing and of course, household servants. Servants were mostly temporary with some carrying servants work out their entire life. This work gave children the change to save up money, acquire skills, make social and business connections, and absorb a general understanding of the way society conducted itself (Medieval Children). This work really prepared them to be a member of society as an adult. Children as young as seven searched for service types of jobs, but most often older children got the job because of their experience. A common age among children was ten or twelve. Younger servants had more limited jobs. A younger child would spend time training to become more equipped for the job. He would then start out with very simple chores around the house (Western Heritage). Service jobs looked different for young boys and girls. Boys would most likely become grooms, valet,s or porters while girls would become housemaids, nurses, or scullery maids. While their jobs differed they could both work in the kitchens. With some training young girls and boys could assist in skilled trades such as silk-making, weaving, metalworking, brewing, or winemaking. In villages, tasks varied such as clothmaking, milling baking, and blacksmithing. Servants would also hel[ in the fields or household. Many of the servants working in a town or countryside came from lower-end families

A common misconception during the Medieval Ages was that life was dull. No one could enjoy recreational activities except for the noble people of society. Life was harder for lower-end people, but that doesn’t point them to a bad life. People were all in different social classes, but within each class, they found ways to have fun besides just working all the time. Teenagers spent much of their time working and being educated, but they still managed to have fun after those requirements. They also got holidays off to socialize with others (Newman). Bowling and tennis were activities that evolved from early childhood games such as marbles and shuttlecocks. In teen years, children would get involved in more dangerous activities such as wrestling and competing in sports such as football (Cybulski). Theses games were similar to our present-day football and soccer. Interestingly, many teens were jockeys during this time because of their lighter weight. Horseracing was a popular activity for people living in London. Although many people participated in the fighting, this was likely frowned upon by authorities. Fighting was supposed to be kept only for the more noble people in society. Another reason this was frowned upon was because of the danger involved. Teens could participate in violence and misconduct if they really knew how to use a sword (Gabriele).

Throughout the Medieval Ages, Childhood was something that varied greatly based on the child’s family life. There were a bunch of different opportunities available for each child no matter the social class. Family life was a big deal during the Medieval Ages. Some children may have had hard lives involving tough work and responsibility, but they still managed to have good fun no matter where they stood.

Works Cited

  1. Cybulski, Danièle. 'Childhood in the Middle Ages.' Medievalists, Accessed 6 Nov. 2019.
  2. Gabriele, Matthew. 'What You Didn't Know About Children In The Middle Ages.' Forbes, Accessed 6 Nov. 2019
  3. 'In the Middle Ages there was no such thing as childhood.' The Economist, Accessed 6 Nov. 2019.
  4. 'Medieval Children.' Medieval Chronicles , Accessed 6 Nov. 2019.
  5. Newman, Simon. 'Children in the Middle Ages.' The Finer Times, Accessed 6 Nov. 2019.
  6. Orme, Nicholas. 'Childhood in Medieval England, c.500-1500.' Representing Childhood, Accessed 6 Nov. 2019.
  7. Snell, Melissa. 'Childbirth, Childhood and Adolescence in the Middle Ages.' ThoughtCo, Accessed 6 Nov. 2019.
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