In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Childhood

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • Historiography
  • Medieval Views of Childhood
  • Biographical Works about Children
  • Literary Works about Children
  • Infancy, Child Rearing, and Accidents
  • Religious Upbringing
  • Courtesy Literature for Boys
  • Courtesy Literature for Girls
  • Culture and Play
  • Literature for Children
  • Children and the Law
  • Work and Adolescence

Medieval Studies Childhood
Nicholas Orme
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0028


Childhood was for long a neglected aspect of social history, although there have been notable exceptions in England, such as the works of Mary Anne Everett Green (cited under Biographical Works about Children), F. J. Furnivall (cited under Literary Works about Children), and Dorothy Gardiner (cited under General Works). Most research on the subject has taken place since the 1980s, producing a rich and varied literature that ranges through birth and nursing, the archaeology and pathology of child burials, upbringing, religion, representations in art, schooling, literature for children, work, and adolescence. Of these topics, schooling is discussed in the Oxford Bibliographies article Schools in Britain. Notwithstanding this achievement, childhood has not yet gained acceptance as a natural part of historians’ work in the way that women’s history has done. Many monographs and textbooks still ignore it, even when childhood generates relevant or essential material to the task in hand.

General Works

Comprehensive accounts of medieval childhood in western Europe are provided in English by Shahar 1990 and Alexandre-Bidon and Lett 1999. In French, Riché and Alexandre-Bidon 1994, is a well-illustrated book centered on France, while Alexandre-Bidon and Lorcin 1998 is specifically concerned with education. Anglo-Saxon England to 1066 is mostly covered by Crawford 1999, and England after 1066 by Orme 2001, with a brief summary in Orme 2010. More specialized studies include those of Orme 1984 on the nobility and gentry, Gardiner 1929 on the education of girls, Hanawalt 1993 on London, and Nicholas 1985 on Ghent.

  • Alexandre-Bidon, Danièle, and Didier Lett. Children in the Middle Ages: Fifth–Fifteenth Centuries. Translated by Jody Gladding. Notre Dame,IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

    A concise survey of all major aspects of childhood in the Middle Ages, first published as Les Enfants au Moyen Age: Ve-XVe siècles (Paris: Hachette, 1997), arranged in two chronological sections divided at the 12th century. The earlier section addresses parents and procreation, baptism, disease, family life, and education, while the later deals with family life, apprenticeship, street children, noble households, and schools.

  • Alexandre-Bidon, Danièle, and M.-T. Lorcin. Système éducatif et cultures dans l’Occident medieval (XIIe-XV siècle). Paris: Editions Ophrys, 1998.

    An exploration of how education influenced culture in western Europe in the high and late Middle Ages. The authors trace the effects of literary education, religion, chivalry, and imagery on the culture of specific groups in society: nobility, clergy, townspeople, peasants, and Jews.

  • Crawford, Sally. Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1999.

    A discussion of secular aspects of childhood in England from the 5th to the 11th centuries, utilizing written and archaeological evidence, but not greatly exploring the religious dimension. Birth, family life, health, play, and education are all considered: of particular interest is the evidence from human remains in graves and from grave goods, casting light on attitudes to children, diseases, and childcare, the latter illustrated by the survival into adulthood of people born with deformities.

  • Gardiner, Dorothy. English Girlhood at School. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

    A work limited to the education of girls in England up to 1800, but a notable early attempt to reconstruct the childhood of women in the Middle Ages, to which the book gives six chapters.

  • Hanawalt, Barbara. Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    A review of the major aspects of childhood and adolescence in medieval London: birth, upbringing, accidents, orphans, apprenticeship, and work as a servant. An unusual feature is the insertion of imaginary reconstructions of lives and events of children and young people.

  • Nicholas, David. The Domestic Life of a Medieval City: Women, Children, and the Family in Fourteenth-Century Ghent. Lincoln and London: Nebraska University Press, 1985.

    A comparable study of Ghent, now in Belgium, with particular attention to notions of childhood, the custody and support of children, and child labor.

  • Orme, Nicholas. From Childhood to Chivalry: The Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066–1530. London and New York: Methuen, 1984.

    An analysis of upbringing and teaching in the upper ranks of English society, among both boys and girls. The work surveys family life, leaving home, literature prescribing how and why education should be given, and the three principal strands of education: language and literacy, artistic pursuits, and physical ones.

  • Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Children. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2001.

    A detailed survey of childhood in England, omitting the archaeological evidence but supplying the religious dimension in Crawford 1999. It encompasses birth, upbringing, illnesses and accidents, play, religion, literacy, reading, and adolescence.

  • Orme, Nicholas. “Childhood.” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert E. Bjork, 378–380. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    A brief review of the subject in its relation to medieval England.

  • Riché, Pierre, and Danièle Alexandre-Bidon. L’enfance au Moyen Age. Paris: Seuil, 1994.

    A richly illustrated survey of childhood to accompany an exhibition, especially focused on medieval France and on attitudes to children, family life, education, and children’s involvement with the church.

  • Shahar, Shulamith. Childhood in the Middle Ages. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

    A survey of western Europe giving particular attention to birth and nursing; sickness and accidents; and education in the wide sense of upbringing and the acquisition of all kinds of skills. The author allocates separate chapters to education in relation to the church, the nobility, in towns, and among the peasantry.

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