Miniature toys of medieval childhood
British Archaeology, No.35 (1998)
The archaeology of medieval and post-medieval childhood has tended, in the past, to concentrate on graves – simply because children can be identified with most certainty there. The skeletons of dead children have produced a mass of evidence about causes of childhood deaths and about health and illness; but the life and culture of the living child has received much less attention.
A range of artefacts, however, are now being recognised as children’s toys, and these are producing a more rounded picture of childhood in medieval and early-modern Britain.
These artefacts are mainly miniatures, representing both human figures and household and military objects. Hundreds have been found over the past 20 years in London alone. We also know of toys such as tops, balls, hoops and kites, either from excavated or pictorial evidence, but these survive in fewer numbers.
There is an immediate appeal in these early playthings – not least because many of them are strikingly similar to the toys that anyone over the age of about 35 today used to play with in their own childhood.
A hollow-cast, mounted figure, made, like most of the surviving early toys, of pewter, and datable from the armour and the sword to within a decade either side of 1300, stands right at the start of the tradition of that enduring plaything, the toy knight. These continued, keeping up with fashions in armour, through the rest of the Middle Ages, possibly declining when chivalry itself became less prominent in the face of the use of gunpowder in battle.
A remarkable bird figure made to pivot on a horizontal bar on a separate stand has a rod that passes up through the hollow body to emerge at the mouth as the tongue. By rocking the figure to and fro the tongue would have appeared to go in and out. This ingenious 14th century plaything has a claim to be the earliest surviving post-Roman toy with moving parts – though it must be said that such toys were probably rare even in Roman times.
The most numerous survivors of early toys are pewter jugs, frequently with relief ornament that reflects slip decoration (that is, liquid clay poured into a design) on full-sized vessels. A 14th century stone mould for producing one version has been excavated at Hereford. Although the great majority of the toy finds are from towns, the rural child was not left out, as the discovery away from urban areas of a few playthings, like a miniature medieval jug from Sigglesthorne in East Yorkshire, demonstrates.