Taking Care of Babies in the Middle Ages

Taking Care of Babies in the Middle Ages

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By Danièle Cybulskie

One of the areas in which the Middle Ages seems to be vilified most in the modern world is in medieval people’s decisions about parenting; for example, fostering their children with other families at a young age. While it’s true that often some of the decisions about child-rearing in different periods and cultures seem bizarre to us now, it’s just as often (if not more) that their behaviour is actually familiar to us. When it comes to taking care of babies in the Middle Ages, this meant swaddling them and rocking them in cradles.

Babies then, as babies now, were susceptible to cold, so it was of the utmost importance that they were kept as snug and warm as possible. In the medieval world, this meant swaddling. Infants were wrapped in cloth and then swaddled with bands around their bodies to keep their limbs close and to keep their blankets secured. In Childhood in the Middle Ages, Shulamith Shahar writes that this may also have been an effort to keep an infant’s limbs growing straight. In medieval manuscript images, babies are often shown swaddled and very straight – almost like Egyptian mummies. This may suggest that babies were swaddled tightly enough that they weren’t able to bend their legs like little inchworms, but there may be a simpler explanation: it might just have been much easier to draw them this way.

Swaddled babies were put to sleep in cradles in both rich and poor households, although the nature of the cradle would be very different in each. Royalty would have richly carved and gilded cradles, while the poorer folk might have had to do with a box or basket. In Medieval Children, Nicholas Orme gives an example of this difference when he describes Henry VII’s household’s immense cradle for state occasions. Decorated with the arms of his house and filled with plush fabrics, at seven-and-a-half feet long and two-and-a-half feet wide, this monstrosity would have dwarfed a little princeling and kept his admirers well back. As newborns are not very mobile, the more humble baskets of the poor would have functioned perfectly well, as the boxes currently supplied to Scotland’s new mothers bear out.

Cradles in the Middle Ages were often more sophisticated than this, however, with the means to rock the baby without having to take him or her out of it. Some were suspended from the ceiling like hammocks to make rocking easy with a gentle push or a pull from a rope. The cradles which sat on the floor were often equipped with rockers, something which Shahar suggests were perhaps a medieval invention. As anyone who’s rocked back too far in a chair will know, rockers make it easier for a piece of furniture to tip, which meant that it was important to find ways to prevent this when it came to these tiny, precious members of the household. To solve this problem, medieval people fixed straps and buckles to their cradles to keep babies from falling out if they were knocked by animals or siblings.

A baby in a cradle was still not completely out of danger, however. Cradles were often placed close to the hearth in order to keep children warm, but this brought about accidents, too. As Shahar says, an accident common to babies was scalding, as hot pots and kettles might have splashed as they were carried to and from the fire. Babies who were left unattended (very likely more out of necessity than callous neglect, I would argue) were in danger of being mauled by animals like pigs, as in the coroners’ reports Orme cites.

Tragic though these accidents are, they were accidents, and the intention of medieval parents was always to keep their babies safe. To this end, Shahar notes that doctors and preachers advised against babies being taken to bed with their parents because of the danger of suffocation (co-sleeping continues to be hotly debated today). It’s understandable that a parent would want to take a baby to bed in order to facilitate both breastfeeding and warmth, despite these warnings, so it’s noteworthy that, as Shahar points out, Peter Abelard chose accidental suffocation as an example when he wanted to show the difference between outcome and intent: though the outcome might be tragic, the parent’s intent to care for the child was clearly good. Beyond the potential for accident, Shahar also notes that one fourteenth-century writer (Bernard Gordon) advises against co-sleeping because children will like it too much, and won’t want to sleep in their own beds (as many a modern parent has discovered). Cradles were therefore seen to be the better option to medieval minds.

Having a cradle isn’t sufficient to get a baby to sleep (unfortunately). Usually, for this miracle to occur, someone has to rock it. Royals, again, could use their money to solve this problem, hiring people whose principal work was to rock the royal cradle. These people were titled “rockers” or (even better) “rocksters”. As Orme notes, the Percy family was having none of their own sleep interrupted: they hired two rockers. For the poor, as ever, rocking the cradle was just one more thing to add to their list of chores. Orme points out that Piers Plowman contains a mention of this specifically among the unpleasant things a medieval peasant had to deal with. In a moment many modern parents can relate to, William Langland describes the experience of bleary-eyed parents everywhere:

And woe in winter-time with waking at nights,
To rise to the ruelle [bedside] to rock the cradle.

For more on taking care of babies in the Middle Ages, see Childhood in the Middle Ages by Shulamith Shahar, and Medieval Children by Nicholas Orme.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Top Image: Mother and baby in a cradle from a 14th-century manuscript. British Library MS Royal 2 B VII fol. 290r

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