By Danièle Cybulskie
As any parent who’s ever tried to travel with a baby will know, babies require a fair bit of stuff to keep them safe, happy, and comfortable. Besides cradles, medieval babies had a few pieces of equipment that will be familiar to parents today. If you ever find yourself invited to a medieval baby shower, we’ve got you covered. Here are some useful items that made great baby gifts in the Middle Ages.
Up until very recently, baby spoons were a common gift and keepsake for newborns, often silver and engraved with the baby’s name or birth date. This was also true in the Middle Ages. Spoons were not just a gift for babies: silver spoons and dishes were often kept and gifted to other relatives in wills, especially since dishes were a good way to both display wealth and to liquidate it if necessary. Archaeological evidence suggests that spoons were a thoughtful baby gift, though, especially those given by loving godparents. As Roberta Gilchrist has noted, small spoons have been discovered with crosses and fish engraved into them, with one spoon’s handle shaped into the small figure of a baby or child. A silver spoon, engraved or not, would have been a generous and appropriate gift for a new baby.
Although they have fallen out of fashion lately due to safety concerns, walking frames were a noteworthy part of medieval childhood for families who could afford them (or build them). They are to be found in several medieval manuscripts – even in images of Jesus as an infant – and they resemble modern walkers in their design (albeit without the built-in plastic toys). For busy parents, a walking frame would have been an appealing option, as a parent wouldn’t have to have their hands tied up in the backbreaking work of holding the child up for long periods to keep them from falling. Walking frames may also have seemed the safer option since, as Shulamith Shahar notes, there was a worry that holding a baby’s arms too long or with too sharp a movement might dislocate them. A Nicholas Orme writes, parents who didn’t have the luxury of a walker could pawn off the work on an older child.
Like walking while bent over a toddler, holding a baby in your arms for extended periods can be tiring, indeed. In order to avoid this, and to free up their hands, medieval people carried their babies in carriers. The easiest carrier to fashion and to use was the sling, which was simply a long piece of cloth which bound the baby to the adult, usually (although not always) at the front of the body. Slings were useful because they could be tied high up, or low down, making it easier for the parent or nurse to use their hands. They also had the very important advantage of keeping the infant close to the adult’s body heat, which was vital, especially for newborns. Finally, slings made it possible for medieval mothers and wetnurses to breastfeed children while on the go, as many medieval manuscript images attest. For a mother who needed to be mobile in order to carry out her daily work, a sling was a simple and hugely advantageous device.
For parents who really needed the use of their arms, or who found it easier to place their babies’ weight on their backs, there were cradleboards. These allowed swaddled babies to be strapped to a frame and carried on the back, much like modern carriers do (except that modern carriers often let the legs and arms hang free). Some manuscript images show older children being carried in the type of wicker baskets that medieval people used to carry other items, like produce or firewood, which may have made life easier for parents who had to travel relatively long distances on foot. At least one medieval manuscript image of a cradleboard very closely resembles those used across the world by indigenous peoples, which goes to show that parents across cultures and historical periods share the need and the desire to keep their babies close to them for comfort and for caregiving.
For more information on spoons, check out this information from Fordham University’s site on Medieval London, and Roberta Gilchrist’s Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course. For more images of medieval baby carriers, check out this collection by The Baby Historian. For more on medieval childhood in general, see Shulamith Shahar’s Childhood in the Middle Ages and Nicholas Orme’s Medieval Children.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Oxford Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264