Friday, September 6, 2019

Motherhood in Medieval Times

Mother and child in medieval reenactment. By Jan Tik - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,
Today we continue our series on motherhood in various eras of the past (click here to read last month’s post on being a mom in ancient times). This month we travel back to the Middle Ages—an era we often think of as the Dark Ages. However, as new mommy to a baby boy myself, I was struck by the many ways motherhood in medieval times actually hasn’t changed in the past thousand years. I hope you enjoy learning about them too!

Working Moms and Wet Nurses

We tend to consider “working moms” a modern concept, but in reality, mothers have worked in and outside the home for millennia. In medieval times, many mothers of the lower and middle classes needed to return to working on the family farm or trade in town while their babies were still small. While for moms today going back to work may mean pumping their milk and using bottles in order to continue nourishing their babies, medieval families often hired a wet nurse. These women were often paid three times the wages of a maid for the responsibility of nursing the family’s children.

Of course, many wealthy mothers used wet nurses too—for royalty, one reason was so a woman’s fertility would return sooner due to not breastfeeding, enabling her to more quickly produce another potential heir. But the use of wet nurses by lower-class families surprised me more. Just goes to show that balancing work and motherhood has never been simple…

Fears and Faith

Medieval Amulet to protect mother and child in childbirth.
By Sefer Raziel -,
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
…Or easy. While as mothers today we fear things like SIDS and school shootings, medieval mothers had even more reason to worry about their children. Even if mother and baby survived childbirth just fine—and about one in three women died during their childbearing years in the Middle Ages—pretty much every medieval family could expect to lose at least one child, usually before age five.

Much like today, mothers turned to faith to comfort their fears. During the trials of childbirth, many medieval women clutched religious objects or repeated prayers. Babies were baptized soon after birth—a midwife was even allowed to baptize a baby if it seemed he or she hadn’t long to live—in order to proactively save, in the Roman Catholic mindset, the child’s soul, however short the little life might be.

Toys, Tots, and Honey Speech Therapy

Medieval children grew up in a very different world from ours, yet many things remained the same. They played with toys not unlike those of today, such as dolls, animal puppets, rattles, even walkers, as well as engaging in imaginative play outside. Gerard of Wales, of the 12th century, even records a favorite pastime of building sand castles—which, when you think about it, actually makes more sense in that day than in ours!
Medieval Toy Dog, By The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum,
CC BY-SA 2.0,

And just like mothers of the 21st century, medieval mothers watched eagerly to see that their children reached certain developmental milestones. Speech received special attention—parents were encouraged to speak frequently around their children, and use simple words, just as mothers and fathers do today. Honey was thought to have special speech-promoting properties, and honey and butter were frequently applied to young children’s mouths, especially if their speech seemed delayed. Not so unlike our speech therapy and proactive “educational” techniques today, even if the methods are very different.

So while our world has changed greatly since the Middle Ages, the heart of being a mother, of loving one’s children and struggling to achieve the safest and best life for them, really hasn’t changed that much at all.

So what strikes you about medieval motherhood? What else has and hasn’t changed about raising children over the generations? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazine and won the 2013 and 2018 Genesis Awards – Historical for her novels Beneath a Turquoise Sky and Fire in My Heart. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her husband, Anthony, their two kitties, and their new baby boy.


  1. Thanks for the post! I guess the REAL things in life like moms' feelings for their children, parents always wanting their children to excel, and child's play don't change through the ages. That's comforting to me.

  2. I was surprised that one in three pregnant mothers died in childbirth, but I probably shouldn't have been, given the lack of good medical care and knowledge. My dad's mom had her kids in the early 1900's, and she lost two of her ten children when they were little. I've read that some mothers in early times would not name a baby until it was a year old. I guess that thought was if the child didn't have a name, you wouldn't grow as close to it. I doubt that worked though.

  3. So true...our human hearts aren't that different, even if the outward circumstances have changed so much. Thanks for reading and sharing, Connie!

  4. It is interesting to note the use of wet nurses among the lower classes. I wonder how common that was? Though I haven't come across anything addressing it in my own research (focusing on 10th century Ireland), I would think wet nurses were only sought out in the instances of a mother's death, or her inability to produce milk for her own child.