By Nicholas Orme
Published online as part of the Representing Childhood project (2005)
Introduction: This toy knight comes from a rich harvest of archaeological finds, made in the mudbanks of the River Thames in London during the last 30 years. It was manufactured in about 1300, and illustrates several facets of medieval childhood. Then as now, children liked playing with toys. Then as now, they had a culture of their own, encompassing slang, toys, and games. Then as now, adults cared for children and encouraged their play. An adult made this toy and another adult bought it for a child, or gave a child money to buy it. The toy knight was made from a mould, and produced in large numbers. It probably circulated among the families of merchants, shopkeepers, and craft workers, as well as those of the nobility and gentry. The finds also include toys that girls might have liked: little cups, plates, and jugs, some sturdy enough to heat up water by a fireside. There is even a self-assembly kit: a cupboard cut out of a sheet of soft metal, instead of the plastic that would be used today.
Toys give us a positive view of medieval childhood. Demography, the study of births and deaths, shows more of its darker side. The death rate among medieval children was high by modern standards. It has been suggested that 25% of them may have died in their first year, half as many (12.5%) between one and four, and a quarter as many (6%) between five and nine. There is no evidence that these deaths lessened parental affection and care for children, however, and the interest of adults in children can be traced throughout the middle ages. Medieval people inherited ideas about human life from the classical world. They thought they knew how infants grew in the womb and developed and matured after they were born. Life was viewed as a sequence of stages—“the ages of man.” Infancy up to the age of 7 was viewed as a time of growth, childhood from 7 to 14 as one of play, and adolescence from 14 onwards as one of physical, intellectual, and sexual development.