Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Anglo-Saxon Childhood

It would be no surprise that childhood in centuries past was radically different from the experience of youngsters in the 20th and 21st centuries. But with so few written sources, can we glean anything at all about childhood in pre-Conquest England?

The laws of King Æthelberht of Kent give a few clues about the value of children in the seventh century. In them, we learn that if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him, there are various penalties, and 
If she bears a living child, she is to have half the goods, if the husband dies first.
If she wishes to go away with the children, she is to have half the goods .*
It may not be much, and certainly not anything like our modern notion of 'child benefit' money, but at least there was a basic provision there.

The laws of King Ine, later on in the seventh century, at first seem to suggest that childhood was short:
A ten-year-old boy can be considered privy to a theft.
Except that even in 2018, the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is still ten, albeit that the procedure for dealing with juvenile crime differs from that for adults. Later laws, of Athelstan in the tenth and Cnut in the eleventh centuries, set the age at twelve.

Elsewhere in Ine's laws there is provision for a widow if
the husband dies, the mother is to have her child and rear it; she is to be given six shillings for its maintenance, a cow in summer, an ox in winter; the kinsmen are to take charge of the paternal home, until the child is grown up.

Alfred the Great's laws in the ninth century specified that if a girl who was not of age was the victim of rape, then the compensation would be the same as for an adult.

So we can see that there were certain rights enshrined in the laws, regarding provision for widows with children, and for crimes perpetrated by and against minors. But what of attitudes towards children?

Asser, writing the life of King Alfred, does not at any point mention the name of the king's wife. But he mentions the children:
namely  Æthelflæd the first-born, and after her Edward, then Æthelgifu followed by Ælfthryth, and finally Æthelweard, (leaving aside those who were carried off in infancy by an untimely death who numbered...)
How many? We don't know. As Simon Keynes points out in the notes to his translation, the numeral, if it was there, is unreadable. 

It has been suggested that child mortality was around thirty percent in Anglo-Saxon England (S Rubin, Medieval English Medicine.

Coupled with the information from Asser that Alfred had many more children than those who survived to adulthood, it seems to me that there is a very good reason why his eldest daughter had only one daughter, and it is not, as the chronicler William of Malmesbury suggested, that she 'chose' not to have any more and 
ever after refused the embraces of her husband.
I suspect that there were other pregnancies, maybe other births, and that her daughter Ælfwynn was the only one to survive, but that this was not seen as uncommon, and thus was hardly remarked upon. When writing Æthelflæd's story in my first novel To Be A Queen I decided to present this scenario. 

Though rare, Asser's is not the only remark on this subject, and it seems to me that even if still-births or infant deaths were common, there is no reason to think that they weren't distressing.

There is one mention in Bede, of seventh-century King Edwin of Northumbria's children by his second wife Æthelburh of Kent, two of whom
were snatched from this life while they were still wearing [their baptism gown] and are buried in the church at York. (HE ii 14)

but by and large these occurrences are left unrecorded.

It has been suggested that because of the number of adult skeletons found with evidence of cleft palate, that such people must have been exceptionally well cared for when they were children, for it would have been extremely difficult for them to feed (Victoria Thompson, Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, citing Crawford, Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England pp94-5)

A seventh-century grave in a cemetery at Barton-on-Humber, less than a metre in length, was found to contain a feeding bottle, hinting that either the baby had a cleft palate, or that the mother was unable to feed the child herself, or perhaps even that the mother had died in childbirth.

Baptism was obviously important in the Christian age, and when I was writing my second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, I was keen to find out what happened to children who died before they could be baptised. Information was scant. Compensation was due if a child died without having been baptised, but what happened to the body? 

John Blair (The Church in Anglo-Saxon England) observed that later infant burials at Raunds in Northamptonshire encroached on the reserved strip of land closest to the walls of the church, and in his note 201 p 471 he wrote:
This looks like a case of the widespread practice of burying infants under the eavesdrip.
He then refers to Stephen Wilson (in The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe) 
for the idea that water running off the church roof conveyed some kind of posthumous baptism **
There is one reference to a royal baptism, and a particular incident, which will not surprise any parent, but which was considered an evil omen. Æthelred II (the Unready), according to the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, 'made water in the font' during his immersion, causing Archbishop Dunstan to predict the slaughter of the English people that would take place during his reign. 

Of course, Henry was writing in the twelfth century with the benefit of hindsight. It cannot have been unusual for infants to urinate in the font and indeed priests were advised that they only need change the water if the child had defecated. (Hugh Cunningham, The Invention of Childhood, citing Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children)

What of the children who did survive those first few months and years? Asser tells us that Alfred's youngest surviving child was 
given over to training in reading and writing under the attentive care of teachers, in company with all the nobly born children of virtually the entire area, and a good many of lesser birth as well.
Asser's  job was to portray his patron's credentials as the promoter of learning and culture, but it is interesting to note that he saw fit to add that children of less noble birth were also given access to the rudiments of education. 

Children are rarely mentioned in the chronicles, laws, and charters of the period. Those of low rank probably worked alongside their parents from a young age, but we can see from these few examples that they were valued, cared for, and that those who survived were protected by law, and that those who did not were mourned, and that their journey into the after-world was considered to be of the utmost importance.

* All law codes quoted from EHD (English Historical Documents) Vol I Ed. Whitelock
**I am indebted to Ann Williams for locating this information for me


  1. Very interesting! I am especially intrigued by the notion of burying unbaptized infants close to the church walls under the eaves for the rain to do the office.

    1. Thanks - yes, so was I! As I said in the article, I have my erstwhile tutor Ann Williams to thank for digging that nugget up for me. As she said, it kind of makes sense - that they were outside the boundaries but still had the water from God's heavens to wash onto them.

  2. I' curious, you write, "Compensation was due if a child died without having been baptized". Why was compensation due? Who was it due to, the parents or the church? What form did the compensation take? Thanks, Annie!

    1. Hi Lily, it's number 2 in the Laws of Ine (EHD no 32) 'A child is to be baptized within 30 days; if it is not, 30 shillings compensation is to be paid. 2.1 If it then die without being baptized, he is to compensate for it with all that he possesses.' The reason must surely be the urging for all souls to be safe to enter the kingdom of Heaven, and the compensation presumably goes either to the king via the courts, or to the Church, bearing in mind that the first point of this code reads, 'First we enjoin that the servants of God rightly observe their proper rule' and 1.1 'After that, we enjoin that the law and decrees of all the people are to be observed thus.' (For compensation, in most of these laws, we should probably read 'fine')

  3. What a very interesting article! Thanks!

    1. Thanks. So sorry, Blogger no longer notifies me when comments are left, so I've only just found yours!

  4. Really interesting read, thank you Annie!

  5. Absolutely fascinating blog! Thanks, Annie!