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For anyone who has ever plopped their rambunctious child in front of a Disney movie or used their smartphone to quell a mini-revolt at a restaurant, it’s inconceivable to consider what being a mom was like just a generation or two ago. Parenting without handheld smartphone games or a plethora of mommy blogs to lean on? Yikes.
If you think being a mom in the age of rotary phones and frozen TV dinners might have been difficult, imagine raising your children roughly a millennium ago in the Middle Ages. Medieval moms had a vastly different world to bring children into and, as a result, employed a variety of distinctive parenting practices. Here, we’ll give you the most shocking examples.
And while there are certainly plenty of contrasts with how we raise our kids today, you might be surprised to see just how many of the basic tenets of motherhood have remained.
Before that, though, let’s make some things clear.
Many of the traditions of this era were, perhaps unsurprisingly, dictated by precisely when and where a mother lived…and also what class they were.
Lezlie S. Knox, an associate professor of history and director of the medieval studies program at Marquette University, likes to advise against painting the people of this time period with too broad of a brush. She explains that “The ‘Middle Ages,’ broadly speaking, refers to the period from the 2nd century up through the 17th—i.e. at least a millennium—encompassing a geographical area that stretched at least from Scotland to Syria.” As a result, Knox says, “generalizations are problematic.” In short, not all mothers followed the exact same traditions.
1. Some moms would have other women breastfeed for them.
One tradition that was not uncommon for some moms in this era was to employ “wet nurses”—women who would breastfeed other people’s children.
Mothers of different backgrounds would have a wet nurse for different reasons. Jonathan R. Lyon, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, explains why wet nurses were part of life for many upper class mothers: the likelihood of disease and death in this era necessitated that a noble family produced many offspring so that some could survive into adulthood and become an heir.
“For royal families and for noble families … it was essential to have heirs, preferably quite a few,” says Lyon. “Extended time nursing babies of course made it harder for women to conceive again, so giving babies to wet nurses was a way to make queens and noblewomen ready to have more children more quickly.”
The fertility advantages of having a wet nurse are echoed by Knox—“Breastfeeding sometimes appears to have had a contraceptive effect which meant lower status women might give birth to fewer children than higher status ones.” That said, Knox is quick to point out, breastfeeding was not a definitive obstacle to having multiple children: “We also have evidence of lower status families with quite a few children, suggesting a limited effect.”
Mothers of lesser means would occasionally use wet nurses for a different reason: they had to go back to work after having a child. Lyon elaborates on the economics of the time: “Women needed to work in the Middle Ages. On a peasant farm or in a family-run business in a medieval town, wives and older children worked.” The survival of the family rested on the shoulders of every single able-bodied family member.
Lyon stresses that the ‘stay-at-home-mom’ is a somewhat modern concept. As a result of this reality, families in the middle or lower classes “frequently paid for a wet nurse or asked a relative to be a wet nurse to multiple children” so that “mothers could get back to work more quickly.”
For mothers of means, discernment reigned when choosing a wet nurse, in a way perhaps not too dissimilar from today’s parents finding a surrogate. Knox shares that “choosing a wet nurse was a critical choice.” The beliefs of the day, states Knox, “conveyed the idea that various characteristics were transferred to the child through breast milk—you wanted someone of upright character.” Pick a good wet nurse, get a good kid.
While folks today might not expect intelligence and values to be transferred through breast milk, nearly all parents still give strong consideration to anyone who spends a significant amount of time with their children.
2. Medieval moms had to grapple with a very high mortality rate.
While tragic circumstances still affect families today, those in the medieval era were often faced with a constant stream of pestilence, infection, and loss. The act of childbirth was an especially dangerous undertaking in those days. This was a stark fact of life for mothers across all social and political classes.
“The majority of parents in the Middle Ages would have buried at least one child, and quite possibly several during their lifetimes.” —Jonathan R. Lyon
“The majority of parents in the Middle Ages would have buried at least one child, and quite possibly several during their lifetimes.”
—Jonathan R. Lyon
“The odds of mother and child both surviving childbirth were not very good,” declares Lyon, “After that, there were so many more deadly childhood diseases than today, without any modern medicine of course, that the odds of children surviving to the age of 5 or so were also very low.”
The high mortality rate was a very difficult set of circumstances for mothers and communities to deal with, especially when involving children.
The constant specter of loss did not mean families lived in a constant state of sorrow, but it did necessitate different approaches to building a family, such as having multiple children knowing that some just may not live past a certain age. Lyon relays how losing a child was just a part of life for any medieval mother: “The majority of parents in the Middle Ages would have buried at least one child, and quite possibly several, during their lifetimes.”
3. Childbirth could involve the use of smells, sneezing, and a variety of other practices.
With such danger associated with the necessary act of procreation, it is no wonder that parents and midwives in the Middle Ages would try to use all known and passed down knowledge to have a healthy and successful birth.
One of the most remarkable documents to emerge from this period in time is a medical text from the 12th century known as the Trotula, an extensive collection of knowledge about women’s health in that era.
There were many directives for ensuring a successful birth in the Trotula. One instruction was to induce sneezing, which was thought to help direct energy to pushing out the infant. The Trotula (translated from Latin) states: “When the time of birth arrives, let the woman prepare herself as is customary, and likewise the midwife should do the same with great care.” Logical enough.
“And let sneezing be induced with the nose and mouth constricted, so that the greatest part of her strength and spirit tends toward the womb,” it continued. Indeed, the inducement of sneezing during labor is mentioned multiple times in the paragraphs of the Trotula.
Another item of interest is the belief that the womb reacted differently to different kinds of smells. Specifically, that that the womb would push toward sweet smells and away from unpleasant one. The Trotula text declares: “the womb follows sweet-smelling substances and flees foul-smelling ones. For this, odoriferous spices are good, such as musk, ambergris, aloewood, and similar things, and also odoriferous herbs, such as mint, fennel, oregano, and similar things.” This certainly led to some mothers in labor having to endure a smorgasbord of unpleasant orders being waved in their face while trying to push. Though, perhaps that was also motivating?
Additionally, women might have worn or clutched trinkets or religious artifacts while giving birth. Knox says there are medieval sources that “indicate that women might have an amulet or similar with them as comfort against the very real pains of childbirth.”
Rather than seeing these as nothing but bizarre superstitions, Knox contends that modern mothers can be just as quick to lean on items or practices that put them at ease: “There are plenty of practices women today use that could be characterized similarly—take the fetishization of a birthing plan, candles, music, or even the concept and marketing of a ‘push prize’”… So, while some may find it odd that the Trotula advocates hanging a piece of coral around the neck of an expectant mother, you have to admit it’s not much stranger than demanding that your husband blast some Enya to calm you down during your sixth hour in labor.
4. Honey was used as a way to encourage speech in children.
In addition to advice on giving birth, the Trotula provides a number of directives for new mothers regarding how to care for a newborn baby.
One specific tip for mothers is keep their baby’s nose clean and to use honey as a way to make sure the child will be able to speak later in life. Reads the document: “And so that it might talk all the more quickly, anoint the palate with honey and the nose with warm water, and let it always be cleaned with unctions, and let the mucous secretions always be wiped off and cleaned.” While the use of honey to encourage speech may have fallen out of style (honey poses a botulism risk and, according to the Mayo Clinic, should not be fed to any child under a year old), mothers still have to wipe clean “mucous secretions” today and, in all likelihood, will be doing so for the next thousand years.
Though the anointment with honey was done as soon as a child was born, the honey emerges again when the child has grown more and is close to speaking age—“After the hour of speech has approached, let the child’s nurse anoint its tongue frequently with honey and butter, and this ought to be done especially when speech is delayed.”
They didn’t just count on honey to get kids to speak though. Parents then, as now, were encouraged to speak often in front of their children so that they could learn to talk sooner.
States the Trotula: “One ought to talk in the child’s presence frequently and easy words ought to be said.” In this way, the Trotula was in lock-step with modern parenting, which strongly advises parents to speak frequently in the presence of their children.
5. Kids were put to work much earlier.
In the Middle Ages, young children were faced with the harsh realities of work or intense schooling and apprenticeship, drawing a stark contrast to today, where some argue that childhood can last right up until someone’s mid-twenties.
Children were loved by their families, but were also expected to start pulling their weight as soon as they were able. Explains Lyon: “From the age of 7 … kids were definitely seen as able to contribute to the family. This is utilitarian in the sense … that every able-bodied person was needed in a peasant family or the family of an urban craftsman.” Children in the Middle Ages, says Lyon, were put to work around the same age that most children today would only be in second or third grade.
Lyon explains that despite the hard work expected of children, “That doesn’t mean … that parents only saw their children as little workers. We know from some of our sources that parents genuinely loved their children and had strong emotional attachments to them.”
Overall, despite the need for children to work, or the sad regularity of illness and loss, or the sometimes harsh discipline tactics employed, parents still loved and cherished their children as much as parents of today, despite some texts or scholars that may suggest otherwise.
Knox points to historical evidence that gives vast insight into the loving bond between mothers and their children: “We have surviving objects or manuscripts paintings of toys, cribs, walkers, etcetera, that reflect how medieval parents cared for and engaged [with] their children in ways we do.”
Toys from this time period were, at their core, very similar to toys of today, often shaped to look like people or animals. Such items help bridge the gap between today’s smartphone-carrying moms and the less technologically-aided mothers of the Medieval Age.
It’s all a reminder that though sneezing isn’t an integral part of giving birth and honey isn’t a prescription for speaking sooner, the feelings of love and protection that parents had over their children a thousand years ago were as strong then as they are today.