Girls Growing Up In Later Medieval England
Teenage pregnancy and street gossip – but also lessons in housekeeping and good husbandry. Jeremy Goldberg draws on contemporary documents to assess the pluses and minuses of entering adulthood as a woman in the late Middle Ages.
Children, our grandparents were told, should he seen and not heard. The historian of the later Middle Ages finds that children, and particularly younger children, are rarely either seen or heard. And if this is not so true of boys, it is rather more true of girls. Most medieval sources are concerned with householders. Householders were exclusively adults and predominantly adult males, who enter administrative, judicial or fiscal records because they tended to carry obligations of service or taxation, or because they were held responsible for their own transgressions or those of their dependants, he they wives, servants or children. We lack the diaries, letters or autobiographical materials that do so much to illuminate the childhoods of at least a literate few from the end of the sixteenth century. Those sources that do exist, be they sermons or advice manuals, tend to be prescriptive rather than simply narrative.
It is in the absence of sources that obviously reflect affective relation- ships that a particular historiography of medieval childhood has emerged. We are told that children were born into a hostile or at least uncaring world. Numbers of girl babies were disposed of at birth as a burden to their parents. There was little bond between mother and child as many children passed their infancy suckled by a wet-nurse. As an infant the child was constrained in swaddling bands and left unattended and unchanged for many hours on end. Until the child reached her fifth birthday, she was treated with indifference because high rates of infant and child morality warned parents against investing emotionally in such fragile lives. Parents regularly brutalised their children by beating them. From the age of about seven to nine a girl might be sent into hard service. There she might be ill-treated or sexually abused by masters or other males within the household. By the time she reached her twelfth birthday a girl was of age to be married. This would be a business transaction in which the girl was merely a chattel transferred from the patriarchal authority of her father to that of a husband and a father-in-law. She would pass from a childhood largely devoid of nurturing, of play, or of what we would recognise as education, to the role of wife and mother whilst still a teenager. Happily, two of the most recent monograph studies of medieval childhood reject some elements of this particular story, hut the discussion that follows is predicated against this background.
We may not be overburdened with sources, but we do have some that take us a bit further. They need to be treated with caution, however, as they may dazzle and mislead. Juries' verdicts contained in coroners' rolls, for example, concerned as they are with both homicides and accidental deaths can offer unique insight into the lives of even very young children, but only because they .have suffered some fatal misfortune. For every baby in its cradle gored by a passing pig or toddler drowned whilst exploring its environment, thousands of others probably survived or failed to survive for more mundane – hence unrecorded – reasons. Similarly, lore of child- birth or childcare would be passed down by experience and word of mouth.
Let us begin with a story derived from the consistory court of the Archbishop of York relating to the disputed marriage of one Alice, the daughter and heiress of the former Gervase de Rouclif, and lady of the manor of Rawcliffe (near York). Alice was born c. 1353 in a basement room within her parents' manor house. Her mother, Elena, was attended at the birth by one Elena Taliour, who had been hired to be the baby's wet-nurse, and another older woman whom we may presume to have been the midwife. That same day Alice was carried by her nurse the couple of miles to the parish church of St Olave in York to be baptised.
Some months later Elena was churched (the ceremony of ritual purification) in respect of Alice's birth and her husband held a. feast to celebrate the churching. Shortly before Christmas some eleven years later Alice formally exchanged words of matrimony with one John Marrays and immediately after went to live with John's married sister at Kennythorpe near Malton. During the following summer John Marrays visited his child bride and had sex with her on at least one occasion. Shortly after Alice was abducted by armed men and taken into the custody of her uncle, Brian. John Marrays, supported by Alice's mother, who seems to have arranged her daughter's marriage, then brought an action within the York consistory for restitution of conjugal rights. This was challenged by Brian de Rouclif who claimed that Alice had still not reached her twelfth birthday by the time of the abduction and was therefore not lawfully married. Alice thus became the victim of a particularly cruel tug of love between her mother and her uncle in effect for control of her marriage and the property to which she was heiress.
This-is only a story, or rather a narrative web composed of many stories, for it is made up from the depositions of some fifty-seven witnesses who appear variously to show that Alice was of age (i.e. twelve or more) and had contracted a valid marriage, or that she was not and had not. We cannot know for sure what really happened. Nor does that matter. Throughout the proceedings of the court Alice was silent. The circumstances of her birth and marriage, even her own words, were narrated at second hand in response to set questions asked of witnesses and set down in an abbreviated Latin translation. But, nevertheless, there is much that we may learn from this episode.
Alice's birth within a basement room is typical of the darkened enclosed womb-like space into which Early Modern mothers were known to have given birth. Elena was attended by two women, though rather larger numbers of attendants seem to have been common. Likewise Alice's urgent baptism was normal, as was Elena's subsequent churching, in an era when it was believed that a child unbaptised, and thus uncleansed of original sin, was condemned to eternal damnation. Indeed, in the absence of parish registers only introduced from 1538, our only record of births is from the very rare survival of clerical accounts recording payments for the churching of women. Thus we have from Hornsea in 1482-83 such laconic entries as:
Item, for the purification of Henry Schomaker's wife, 1'½d.
Item, for the purification of John Major's wife, 1½d.
Item, for the purification of six different women. 8d.
That baby Alice was provided with a wet-nurse who had been hired in anticipation of her mother giving birth is a reflection of her mother's social standing as a member of the landed gentry and for whom the physicality of feeding and of changing soiled swaddling clothes would have been demeaning. There is elsewhere evidence that some Hull merchants employed wet-nurses, but, unlike parts of Mediterranean Europe, no evidence to suggest that the practice ever extended beyond this social élite. Most mothers probably suckled their own children and for periods of eighteen months to two years, a custom documented in the Rouclif case which would have reduced the mother's fertility, but would also have increased the chances of the infant surviving the first few months of life.
The American social historian, Barbara Hanawalt, is right to argue that infanticide is hardly to be found in the records, but perhaps mistaken to conclude that it was consequently equally rare. Infanticide is by nature a secret crime committed by the desperate and we cannot expect to know about it save in rare cases. Certainly there were seduced or abused teenagers and young adults who saw little alternative. An example from an early sixteenth-century visitation is particularly revealing:
Alice Ridyng, unmarried, the daughter of John Ridyng of Eton in the diocese of Lincoln appeared in person and confessed that she conceived a boy child by one Thomas Denys, then chaplain to Master Geoffrey Wren, and gave birth to him at her father's home at Eton one Sunday last month and immediately after giving birth, that is within four hours of the birth, killed the child by putting her hand in the baby's mouth and so suffocated him. After she had killed the child she buried it in a dung heap in her father's orchard. At the time of the delivery she had no midwife and nobody was ever told as such that she was pregnant, but some women of Windsor and Eton had suspected and said that she was pregnant, but Alice always denied this saying that something else was wrong with her belly. On the Tuesday after the delivery of the child, however, the women and honest wives of Windsor and Eton took her and inspected her belly and her breasts by which they knew for certain that she had given birth.
Here is telling evidence of the do-gooding, moral supervision that a group of older women felt moved to exercise in this increasingly puritanical era over a girl who had gone astray. Alice could only attempt to minimise her crime by causing her clerical seducer maximum embarrassment:
Examined further she said by virtue of the oath she had taken on the gospels that she had never been known carnalIy by anyone other than the said Thomas and that nobody else urged or agreed to the child's death. She also said that the child had been conceived on the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary last at the time of high mass in the house of Master Geoffrey Wren at Spytell where Master Geoffrey was then infirmarer.
Coroners' rolls provide some insight into childhood accidents and hence, somewhat obliquely, aspects of child development and childcare. Barbara Hanawalt's pioneering analysis of these perhaps too readily leaves the impression that young children were often neglected by hard-pressed mothers and that children were regularly burned in cradle fires or drowned in ditches. But these are the records of the unfortunate and the atypical. There is no reason to believe that other demands on a mother's time were necessarily incompatible with childcare, nor that babies and young children were not regularly supervised, if not by the mother then by servants, older siblings or neighbours. The jury's verdict in an accidental death case from Bedfordshire in 1276, for example, records that 'Maud, daughter of Ellis Batte of Sutton was sitting in William's house keeping watch over Emma's child Rose, who was lying in a cradle' at the time that Emma herself became the victim of a work-related accident.
Hanawalt has argued that male toddlers were more adventurous than female toddlers and hence more likely to suffer accidental deaths. It may be, however, that the deaths of boys were more likely to be reported to the coroner and thus become the subject of record than those of their sisters. Most children were, in fact, much more vulnerable to a litany of childhood illnesses. Sex ratio evidence from the 1377 poll tax does not reveal the sort of imbalance in favour of males that was so conspicuous in Tuscany only half a century later, and hence there is little reason to believe that the sort of adverse welfare of girls that may underlie that imbalance operated in English society. Hanawalt's finding, supported by evidence from manor court rolls, that at about the age of seven girls as well as boys began to be engaged in household chores, fetching wood, tending livestock, or picking berries seems much more plausible.
Sadly we know all too little about play. Froissart provides a nostalgic picture of a childhood spent chasing butterflies and playing with mud cakes and we get little glimpses in Flemish marginalia or the paintings of Pieter Breughel, though again small boys tend to be more conspicuous than small girls. Of education we know still less, but mothers probably taught their daughters the Creed, Paternoster (Lord's Prayer), and Ave (Hail Mary) from a comparatively early age, and in some more well-to-do households taught them to read. Some girls, particularly in an urban environment, may have enjoyed some instruction at the local nunnery or even, when. a little older, at grammar school.
Another point that Hanawalt has effectively demonstrated is the love and concern that parents were capable of showing towards even very young children. A single example she cites from the Bedfordshire rolls dated 1270 will suffice:
Emma, daughter of Richard Toky of Southill went to 'Houleden' in Southill to gather wood. Walter Garglof of Stanford came carrying a bow and a small sheaf of arrows. He seized Emma and tried to throw her to the ground and rape her, but she immediately shouted and her father came. Walter shot: an arrow at him, striking him on the right side of the forehead and mortally wounding him. He shot him again with an arrow under the right side and so into the stomach. Seman of Southill came and asked why he wanted to kill Richard. Walter immediately shot an arrow at him and struck him in the back so that his life was despaired of Walter then fled ...
There is indeed little reason to believe that relations between daughters and parents were other than the usual mixture of affection and infuriation. Parents no doubt backed moral instruction and discipline with physical chastisement, though the frequently with which they were urged not to spare the rod may tell of parents' own reluctance to strike their off- spring too readily. That many parents sent their daughters into service once they had reached their teens, and, according to contemporary theory, were deemed capable of rational choice is not evidence of a lack of parental concern any more than is the case of the modern parent who sends their child to school. But in going on to write about servants and service, I do not wish to imply that no daughters remained with their parents into adulthood. In rural areas it was not uncommon for daughters to remain, and this may have been especially true where mothers were widowed. In such instances adolescent daughters may have been an essential part of the familial work-force and essential to the mother's survival in old age. In urban society especially, however, it would appear that very few girls in their teens remained at home, but went instead into service.
Let us consider another story. The words are those of a Venetian who spent time based in London at the very end of the fifteenth century:
The want of affection in the English, is strongly manifested towards their children, for after having kept them at home until they arrive at the age of seven or nine years at the utmost, they put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another seven or nine years. And these are called apprentices, and. during that time they perform all the most menial offices, and few are born who are exempted from this fate, for everyone,. however rich he may be, sends away his children into the houses of others, whilst he, in return, receives those of strangers into his own. And on inquiring their reason for this severity, they answered that they did it in order that their children might learn better manners. [He continues] But I, for my part, believe that they do it because they like to enjoy all their comforts themselves, and that they are better served by strangers than they would be by their own children ... If the English sent their children away from home to learn virtue and good manners, and took them back again when their apprenticeship was over, they might, perhaps, be excused. But they never return, for the girls are settled by their patrons, and the boys make the hest marriages they can and assisted by their patrons, not by their fathers, they also open a house and strive diligently by this means to make some fortune for themselves ...
How are we to read this text? The Venetian author of the so-called Italian Relation reflects the characteristic prejudices of the tourist. Those aspects of the local culture that he finds alien, he castigates in moralistic terms. In Northern Italian society servants were comparatively few in number, almost exclusively female, drawn from a variety of age groups, and exclusively low status. For the fatherless daughter or the poor widow, service was better than walking the streets, but the social gulf between servant and master, and the power the master could exercise, and all too easily abuse, was widely understood. Thus the Venetian writer found the idea of both boys and girls sent into service, and from well-to-do as well as more humble backgrounds, evidence of a lack of parental affection.
Certain important points emerge from the Venetian's narrative that may be corroborated from other sources. First, servanthood was a stage in growing up; it owed more to considerations of age than to status or gender. Second, that just as servants became, to a greater or lesser degree, dependants of their employers, so they became independent of their own parents and natal families. If we add to this the observation that girls might have entered service from as early as their thirteenth year (somewhat later than our shocked Venetian would have it) but would not have married until well into their twenties, and that rather than being tied to a single employer for several years at a time, servants would have moved freely from employer to employer every year or so, then service begins to beg all sorts of questions about the nature of later medieval English society and the experiences of young women.
We may deduce something of the structure of female service from deposition evidence from the York consistory. Numbers of deponents were either currently or formerly servants. Since deponents are often identified by age and marital status, we can know that young women alike can often be found as servants during their teens and earlier twenties, and that they were always unmarried. Depositions also reveal that servants were regularly hired at customary dates, these being Pentecost and Martinmas (November 11th) in the North, Michaelmas (September 29th) in the Midlands, and that most servants stayed with a particular employer only a year or perhaps two years at a time. They further show that servants were sometimes related by blood or marriage to their employers. Testamentary evidence extends this picture by revealing ties of trade or locality that explain how a girl in search of service came to be taken on by a particular master or mistress. Poll tax evidence from 1379 and 1379, which lists large numbers of servants of sufficient age to pay these taxes on heads, further shows that female servants were particularly in demand in towns, and probably in similar numbers to male servants, but that females were much less in demand than males in the countryside. Probably nearly a third of all women over fourteen in York in 1377 were then employed as servants whereas the equivalent proportion for rural Rutland was less than 8 per cent.
The depositions provide further insights. We glimpse female servants at work, assisting in their employers' shops, running errands, fetching water, washing cloth to be dyed, fetching food and lighted candles, or clearing and washing dishes. A celebrated case of 1429 from Norwich tells how, when sent on an errand to a neighbour, the fourteen-year-old Agnes Bethom's curiosity helped bring a heresy charge against that neighbour. Finding the neighbour not at home on entering, Agnes could not resist peeking inside the covered cooking pot simmering on the open fire. Inside she found some bacon cooking, a find she immediately reported back to her mistress for it was the first week of the Lentern fast when the eating of meat was taboo.
Poll tax evidence, supported by testamentary evidence, further suggests that mercantile, textile, and victualling traders were especially likely to employ female servants. In a rural context, women servants were more numerous in pastoral and mixed economies than in arable regions, an observation that accords with evidence from other sources that caring for livestock, dairy work, washing and shearing sheep, making hay, and managing poultry were all seen as primarily 'women's work'. We may also assume that female servants may have assisted with child care, preparing meals, purchasing goods in the market, and generally helping out.
For our Venetian tourist, service was a means by which employers got good help cheaply. In one sense he was correct. In the labour-starved decades following the Black Death of 1348-49, waged labour became very expensive, but since live-in servants were remunerated primarily in terms of board and lodging, they were in particular demand at this time. The shift towards mixed and pastoral farming, another product of demo- graphic contraction, likewise created demand for servants, employed for a year at a time, as against day labour that was better adapted to the more highly seasonalised work pattern of an arable economy. But female servants are found before the plague and continue to be found even when the real cost of hired labour had fallen with renewed demographic growth from the end of the fifteenth century. Such economic factors do little to explain this distinctive feature of late medieval English, and indeed north-western European culture. So why else did parents send their daughters and sons into service, and merchants, artisans, and substantial peasants, not to mention lords and clergy, prefer to employ other peoples' angst-ridden adolescents rather than their own? ‘To learn better manners' was the answer suggested to our Venetian.
This may not be so far off the mark if we understand manners potentially to include how to manage a household, reckon up accounts, keep shop, run a dairy, judge a good cut of meat, or know the price of a dozen tallow candles, in addition to how a young woman should conduct herself in public. It may be that people found it easier to teach such things to strangers than to their own daughters. More importantly not all parents had the knowledge or the means. Though servant girls appear to have been drawn from across the social spectrum so that the rural labourer's daughter was as likely to be found in service in town as the daughter of the merchant, only better off householders had need of the labour that servants could provide or could offer training in the work or running of such households.
Labourers, journeymen and peasant smallholders had neither need for their daughters' labour, nor the means to support a growing teenager. The mobility of servants further ensured that employers had a continual supply of youngsters of the appropriate ages for the tasks required of them. There was little purpose in employing a young woman who was a skilled goldsmith or accomplished needlewoman to run the errands that a girl half her age could just as well manage.
Youngsters themselves probably had little choice as to whether they went into service or stayed at home. Even the aristocracy commonly sent their daughters into service in households of similar, or preferably superior social rank as a sort of finishing school, trusting that they would grow up able to speak French prettily.
But being in service had certain advantages. There were, for example, lots of other young people in the same position. In York in 1377 only one servant in five worked on their own and nearly a third of all servants worked in households with at least three others. The opportunities for making friends with fellow servants or with those from neighbouring households were considerable.
Service provided a degree of security. Many youngsters might have expected to lose one or both parents between their teens and mid-twenties, i.e. precisely at the time they were most likely to have been already economically- and emotionally independent of their natal families. It is possible that some of the small proportion of female apprentices found in London records, who unlike servants were bound to their employers for a period of some seven years or more in order to learn a specific craft such as embroidery or working in silk, were in fact orphans, and that apprenticeship was seen as an appropriate way to provide for them.
Employers were obliged to feed and clothe their servants, and, we may surmise, to care for them in ill- ness, counsel them in trouble, and punish them if they went astray. There were, however, clear bounds beyond which an employer might not go with impunity as servants or their parents were quite capable of bringing charges of physical assault or neglect. Similarly, though female servants were periodically seduced or sexually abused by masters or even sons, we should not imagine that such exploitation was the norm. Mistresses, perhaps rather than masters, may have given moral and religious instruction and may sometimes even have encouraged them to read. Certainly a didactic text like How the Good Wife Taught her Daughter would have provided suitable instruction for a female servant and good reading practice. Finally, to judge from testamentary evidence, employers' interest in their women servants could sometimes extend beyond a simple money contract and that some provided for their future careers by providing them with cooking utensils, beds and bedding, and very occasionally even houses or shops.
Servants were exclusively single, but many might expect to marry when, or shortly after, they left service. Many young servant women would have conducted courtships, often with fellow servants. We can see this clearly, from disputed marriage cases in the York consistory. These suggest that young women in service enjoyed particular freedom of courtship, but since such women also enjoyed a modest degree of economic autonomy so long as they remained unmarried in service, they were able to exercise considerable choice over whom and when they married. Before the advent of effective forms of artificial contraception, women would, if given the choice, prefer to delay marriage and hence childbirth and childbearing. The wise young woman might engage in serious courtship perhaps only in her early twenties, before eventually marrying by about her mid-twenties.
The wise woman would not have engaged in sexual intercourse as such until she and her partner had agreed to marry, more cautious conduct nevertheless incurring the disapproval of the moral minority by the eve of the Reformation, as a case from a visitation of 1520 demonstrates:
Agnes Plumrige of Fingerst, the wife of John Plumrige, appeared and confessed that she had been known and made pregnant by her husband before their marriage. The bishop ordered her to go round her neighbours on the feast of the Purification of Mary openly carrying a candle costing four pence.
Having agreed between themselves that they intended marriage, the couple might then be handfast (exchange words of consent while holding hands) before witnesses. Such hand-fastings of servants were commonly witnessed by employers and friends, but not necessarily by parents or other close kin where the young people were no longer living at home. If the words used were in the present tense, e.g. 'I take you John to be my husband and to this I plight you my troth', then in canon law, and probably in the minds of those making the contract, the marriage was immediately binding. Only subsequently might banns be read and the marriage solemnised at the church door, but this seems to have been an elaboration that poorer members of society might, before perhaps the later fifteenth century, choose to forego.
Not all young women were so wise or so lucky. The popular literature of the day is full of clerical seducers, of maidens made pregnant whilst suspecting no guile, of girls abandoned by their fickle lovers. In part, no doubt, this literature served a didactic function, but it also reflects the negative aspect of a society, unlike that of Renaissance Tuscany, that allowed young women below the ranks of the aristocracy and perhaps the peasant and mercantile élites, relative freedom of courtship. Perhaps the greatest danger a young woman could run was to agree to sex before she had any openly witnessed contract of marriage. The deposition of Alice, wife of Adam de Baumburght of York, made in 1381, illustrates the point:
On Monday night before the feast of the Ascension last she came to a certain high room located inside the dwelling- house of the said witness where she found, as she says, Robert and Agnes lying alone together in one bed. The witness asked Robert, 'What are you doing here, Robert?' To this Robert replied, 'I'm already here’. The witness said to him, ‘Take Agnes by the hand in order to betroth her'. Robert said to the witness, 'I beg you wait until the morning'. The witness said to him in reply, 'By God, no. You'll do it now'. Then Robert cook Agnes by the hand and said, 'I will take you as my wife'. The witness said to him, 'You will speak in this manner: I take you Agnes to my wife and to this I plight you my troth’, and Robert, thus instructed by the witness, took Agnes by the right hand and contracted with her using the words just recited, viz. ‘Here I take you etc’. Asked how Agnes replied to Robert, she said that Agnes replied to him that she considered herself satisfied. She did not depose further save that she went away and left them alone.
The contract, of course, was subsequently a matter of litigation, hence the record, but Alice’s single testimony would have been insufficient proof for canon law required two witnesses to the same event.
Another hazard that the young unmarried woman had to cope with was that of reputation. In a culture that depended. so much on the word on the street for information, and where a woman's honour was construed in purely sexual terms, loose talk could cause cruel damage. As the Goodwife warned her daughter, 'A slander raises ill / is evil for to still'. We may cite the example of Isabel Gremmesby from a laconic visitation entry for Grainthorpe in Lincolnshire in 1519:
Thomas Dam slandered Isabel Gremmesby so that William Pennyngton will not have her for his wife.
Such slander could only be nullified by public denial, as seen for example in a similar entry from Brill in Buckinghamshire of 1494:
Joan Baron publicly defamed of the sin of fornication done, it is said, with one […] Trussell. She appeared and denied the article and purged herself with Elizabeth Forster, Elina Godynton, Alice Fuller and Alice Pym. A proclamation was made etc. and because no opposer lawfully appeared, the judge admitted her to her purgation and restored her to her good standing and she was dismissed.
Though not all young women who reached adulthood married, by the time they were of age to marry and have children, we may regard them as having grown up. Elena Couper of Welton near Hull, the heroine of our final story, illustrates this point. She was growing tired of her young man, John Wistow, putting off their marriage, even though she knew that her father disapproved of him strongly. On Sunday before Pentecost, 1491 she confronted him with these words:
John, there are two young men about me in town to have me to wife. And I have loved you these two years. And you know well that you and I are handfast between us. And because you shall not vary nor take another better than me, we will be handfast here before these folk that they may hear record thereupon.
John duly obliged, but Elena's mother was less convinced:
You filth and harlot. Why are you handfast with John Wistow? When your father knows it, he will 'dynge' you and 'myschew' you. [A translation seems superfluous].
Elena took refuge with a friend who only admitted her angry father on condition that he did her no harm. Elena threw herself on her knees, reminded her father that in law she was now married, and said that she asked no inheritance, but only a paternal blessing. This he granted and Elena. then sent for her young man, telling him that they could go ahead and set up house together, to which John replied, 'we must tarry, the house is not yet ready'. Such a strong-minded woman surely deserved better. History, however, like real life, does not always have a happy ending.
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