Married Life: Child Rearing and Parental Affection

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Married Life: Child Rearing and Parental Affection


Infant Care. In general, newborns and infants were recognized as especially vulnerable and in need of loving care. Writing around 1250, Bartholomew the Englishman said that if it is too hot or too cold when a baby comes from the womb into the air, the baby becomes miserable and cries. Following the advice of medical writers, he suggested that to cleanse the infant’s limbs of their stickiness, they should be washed in rose petals pounded with salt and that the midwife should rub the child’s gums and the roof of its mouth with honey to cleanse and soothe its mouth and stimulate the baby’s appetite. He also advised that the infant should be bathed frequently and anointed all over with the soothing oil of myrtle or roses, and he warned that the newborn should lie in a dim room because too bright a light would hurt its young eyes. Other writers recommended that the newborn be wrapped in warm wool or cotton and placed in its mother’s arms to ease its transition from its mother’s womb and minimize the trauma of birth as much as possible.

Nursing of Infants. Mothers were told to nurse their children for eighteen months to two years. Moralists frequently denounced women who sent their newborns to wet nurses, interpreting the act as motivated by a mother’s selfish desire to restore her looks and resume sexual relations, which lactating mothers were supposed to avoid. Furthermore, beginning with St. Jerome in the fifth century, didactic writers warned against wet nurses who were gossips, or drunken and lascivious. This warning was based on the medical belief that the blood that had nurtured the

child in the womb transformed into breast milk after birth, and that any mental or physical defect of the wet nurse could be transmitted to a child through her milk. If a nursing infant became ill, its mother or wet nurse, not the baby, was given medicine.

Tender Care. The writings of Bartholomew the Englishman provide many glimpses into medieval child rearing, including the practice of swaddling, or wrapping a child tightly with narrow strips of cloth. He argued that young children should be swaddled so their limbs would grow straight, and they would not grow up deformed. He also advised that children need a great deal of sleep because they eat so much and must digest the food: “Therefore, nurses are accustomed to rock children in their cradles, … to bring the child gently and pleasantly to sleep. Also, they are accustomed to sing lullabies and other cradle-songs to please the child.” A mother, or nurse, tends to be happy if the child is happy and sad if the child is sad: “She picks him up if he falls, and gives him milk if he weeps, and kisses him when he lies down, and gathers him up and holds him tight when he sprawls. She washes and cleans him when he soils himself, and feeds him with her fingers when he refuses to eat.”

Overlaying. The clergy encouraged parents to nurture their children. Their sermons also frequently included warnings about overlaying. Priests regularly admonished parents about bringing an infant into their bed, for fear that a sleeping parent might roll on top of the child and smother it by accident. How frequently such deaths occurred is unclear because the records of medieval courts and coroners do not record cases of this sort.

Childhood. Medieval society generally recognized that children went through a variety of stages of life as they grew, matured, and became more independent. Bartholomew the Englishman identified childhood as between the ages of seven and fourteen. During these years children were considered easy to mold and educate. Because young children were impressionable, Bartholomew warned, particular care had to be taken with their food and drink.

Little Boys . Bartholomew described small boys as worried about nothing and caring only about their own enjoyment. Boys did not fear dangerous activities, he said, and were always hungry; they loved apples more than gold and enjoyed games and singing; and they laughed or cried easily. Bartholomew also described how they squirmed and wriggled while their mothers tried to wash their faces and comb their hair, noting that within minutes of their mothers’ efforts at grooming, they were dirty and disheveled again.

Little Girls. In contrast to his rather lively and realistic description of little boys, Bartholomew offered only a brief description of little girls. He said they were modest, timid, and liked to wear dainty clothing. Girls walked with small steps and a light gait. Most of his description of girls was based on the works of ancient authorities such as Aristotle and Isidore of Seville. He also made conventional comments about women’s weaker and deceitful nature and the absolute necessity for a woman to remain a virgin. Like Bartholomew, many other medieval writers on child rearing and education focused mainly on boys while tending to ignore girls and expect that they would be brought up by their mothers to be chaste daughters and obedient wives.

Parenting Advice. Many of the pedagogical sources on medieval child rearing repeat harsh commonplaces not unlike “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Equally familiar were admonitions to children to honor and obey their parents. Yet, some writers urged parents not to be too harsh and alienate their children through overzealous discipline. Ratherius of Verona, who wrote around 950, advised children that if they became financially secure in adulthood they should be sure their parents did not languish in poverty, as happened all too frequently in his view.

Parental Duties. Medieval writers rarely went into great detail about the child’s growth and psychological development because their focus was on the religious education of children. In the thirteenth century, however, Bartholomew and other writers began to discuss the stages of childhood in more depth and to offer age-specific advice on the upbringing of children. For example, John of Wales (died 1285) urged parents to educate their children well and in a manner appropriate to their station in life, so they would have the skills necessary to handle their inheritance. He went beyond formulaic references to biblical teachings to include ancient models of proper education; for example, that of Alexander the Great and the Spartans’ training their children to withstand physical hardships such as cold or hunger. While John approved of physical punishment, he warned parents not to discipline their children to excess. If parents did not correct their children’s faults, he argued, they would be accountable for their negligence before God, but by the same token, parents should present good examples to their children, avoiding drinking, gambling, and wasting their estates.

Child’s Play. Gilbert of Tournai (died 1284) presented a lively account of boyhood, describing how boys trampled corn, stole grapes and apples, and broke the branches of trees. He also mentioned behavior he considered inappropriate and immature in boys, such as revealing their limbs, kissing girls, swearing, truancy, being disrespectful, and doing what they wanted rather than obeying adults. Girls were warned against laughing in church, wearing makeup and perfume, and being overly interested in fashion.

Parental Affection. The stern tone of most medieval moralists and educational writers can leave the impression that medieval children grew up in a harsh and uncaring environment. Part of this impression results from the nature of the evidence that has survived. Learned treatises written by clerics, who did not have children themselves, cannot convey the quality of the emotional bonds between medieval parents and children, and there is little direct evidence of paternal or filial affection because illiteracy was widespread among medieval Europeans and because few personal documents by those who could read and write have survived. One valuable exception to this dearth of historical material is the manual written by the Frankish mother Dhuoda, in 841-843. Written in the form of a long letter to her elder son, who with his infant brother had been taken away from her by their father, Dhuoda’s advice reveals her deep parental affection for her children and abiding concern for their upbringing. Mothers were often parted from their children throughout the Middle Ages. The inquisitorial records of Jacques Fournier include a poignant description of a mother leaving behind her child in the fourteenth century, as she fled the Inquisition: “She wanted to see him before going away; seeing him, she embraced him; then the child began to laugh; as she had just begun to leave the room where he was lying, she eembraced to him ; then the child began to laugh; and so it went, many times over. So it was that she could not bring herself to part with the child.”

Familial Love. Giles of Rome, a thirteenth-century writer, considered parental love for children to be stronger than children’s love for their parents because it lasted longer. Parents start to love their children before they are even born and are more certain of their relationship with their children. Giles believed that a child was never able to achieve absolute certainty about who its mother and father were and came to love its parents through living with them. This conclusion is an interesting early opinion about the socially constructed nature of familial love.

Maternal and Paternal Affection. The mother’s affection for her child was a common motif in religious and popular literature. Hagiography included many stories of mothers who overcame the dangers and difficulties of travel to bring a sick or wounded child to the shrine of a saint. Religious writers frequently compared God’s love to a mother’s feeling for her child. Nor was this belief merely literary convention. Coroners’ records are filled with examples of mothers running into burning houses or fighting with animals in desperate efforts to save their children. Descriptions of fathers taking sick children to saints’ shrines or attempting heroic rescues exist as well. There are many accounts of fathers who died while trying to save their adolescent daughters from rape or abduction.

An Unloving Mother. Not all medieval mothers were naturally warm and caring. In the eleventh century the French theologian and historian Guibert de Nogent recorded how he was raised by his widowed mother and a tutor she had hired. Guibert professed to love his tutor, even though the man beat him frequently, and he was devoted to his mother, although she seems to have been rather remote. When Guibert was about twelve years old, she decided to enter religious life and left Guibert alone in the world to survive by his own devices until he found his way into monastic life. Though he claimed to love his mother and to believe that she loved him, Guibert described her as a “cruel and unnatural mother” for abandoning him, and his memoir presents a picture of a troubled man who never came to terms with the experiences of his childhood.


Bartholomew of England, On the Properties of Things: John of Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum: A Critical Text, 3 volumes, edited by M. C. Seymour and others (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975-1988).

Guibert de Nogent, A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, translated by Paul J. Archambault (University Park: Pennsylvania Clare ndon Press, 1975-1988).

James Marchand, “The Frankish Mother: Dhuoda,” in Medieval Women Writers, edited by Katharina M. Wilson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984), pp. 1-29.

Marie Anne Mayeski, Dhuoda: Ninth Century Mother and Theologian (Scranton, Pa.: University of Scranton Press, 1995).

Jenny Swanson, “Childhood and Child Rearing in ad status Sermons by Later Thirteenth Century Friars,” Journal of Medieval History, 16 (1990): 309-331.

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Married Life: Child Rearing and Parental Affection

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