The Age of Morgan le Fay: Childhood in the Early Middle Ages
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between
The opening line of L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between is rarely more apt than when describing the early Middle Ages in Europe, otherwise known as the Dark Ages, an era which lasted from the late 5th to the 10th century. Although modern scholars now ascertain that this period was not as unenlightened as had been claimed by past historians and chroniclers who were strongly biased towards the ancient Greek and Roman Empires, it is still a period about which we know relatively little. Few written records survive and those that do are often negative portrayals or propaganda. It is true that when the Romans left Britain they left behind an island in chaos, vulnerable to attacks by foreign invaders and bereft of skills, industry or governance. However, the survival of Celtic culture, and its introduction of Christian monasticism and learning to Britain added to the still-remaining Roman classical form of education, at least amongst the wealthy. This was greatly to affect the children of post Roman, Dark Ages Britain, who had to contend with a new and constantly changing world.
Childhood is one of the aspects of past eras that in many ways can seem like a foreign country to us. One of the reasons for this was the much shorter life expectancy. Lack of basic medicine, public health, and adequate heating meant that the infant mortality rate was horrifyingly high. It is estimated that around 50% of infants died before their first birthday, and that one-third of all children born during the Middle Ages died before they reached the age of five. Those who survived childhood lived on average into their thirties or forties. Of course, there were some adults who lived longer into their fifties and sixties, and even to 70 or 80, though the latter was comparatively rare. This meant that life moved much more quickly in the sense that children were expected to grow up fast and, because life was relatively short, had to learn how to work and behave in a similar way to adults from an early age.
Then, as now, the lives of the children of the wealthy and the children of the poor were starkly different, but both classes of medieval childhood are shocking, brutal, and cruel to our modern morality and sensibilities. The children of royalty and nobility were taught Latin and statecraft from a very early age, as soon as they learned to read. Boys began learning swordsmanship when very young and were often sent away at the age of about seven to train as knights, using wooden swords, bows, and small horses or ponies. Girls were instructed in the ways of managing a large household and estate, which included learning about budgeting, delegating tasks, making clothes, and throwing large banquets, and they were often married as soon as they reached puberty. Peasant children had a very hard life from when they were born and were sent out to work in the fields as soon as they could walk. Some children were apprenticed when very young, at around six or seven, to learn a trade and they had to work as hard as any adult.
However, the idea that medieval children were not loved or valued by their parents because they were expected to grow up quickly and their childhood was not the cosseted existence we would expect has long been debunked. Parents of all classes loved their children as dearly as parents do today and, although medieval childhood was tough, children did still have toys and games they would play. Carefully crafted toy knights on horses and tiny pots and pans have been discovered by archaeologists, and it is known that among the games children of that era played were hide-and-seek, blind-man’s-buff, conkers, marbles, tag, hoops, and ball games. In the summer, they would fly kites, go swimming, and walk on stilts; in the winter, they would go skating on lakes and ponds with skates made of old bones, and go sledging down hills. Because death was so much a part of their lives and of the adults’ world they inhabited, one rather macabre game girls would play would be the ceremonial burial of their dolls, while boys would play war games and act out battles.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Many of our ideas nowadays about childhood date from the eighteenth century Enlightenment, nineteenth century Romanticism, and the later Victorian and Edwardian eras. These new ideas and attitudes came about as a result of social changes during the industrial revolution, progress in education, and the emergence of the middle class. Though medieval children had their games, as previously indicated, children’s literature as we know it today did not exist in the early Middle Ages. Traditional rhymes, fables, and folk tales would be taught to children early on, and they later learned their lessons from the Bible, the ancient Greek and Roman classics, and morality tales which were sometimes performed as plays. While the Romans introduced what we would recognise as schools, these were for the sons of the wealthy only, and, in the post-Roman era in Britain, most royal and noble children were educated by tutors at home, or by monks or nuns in ecclesiastical institutions. Education was part of enabling children to grow up as quickly as possible so they could fulfil their function in society.
In the Fata Morgana Series, Morgan begins her journey at the age of five. This was a deliberate and carefully thought through choice for a number of reasons. In the early Middle Ages, by the age of five, a child of the nobility, like Morgan, would have been studying from the age of about two or three, and would already be able to read the Bible and Latin. At five, a child was considered to be at the end of infancy, at the beginning of their expected participation in society, and at the start of their usefulness to their family and community. Prior to that age, she or he would be given milk to drink, but between the ages of five and twelve, a child would be weaned off milk and on to watered-down wine, a sign that they were on their way to adulthood.
In Morgan’s time, a five-year-old child of the nobility and, in her case, the heir to a dukedom, would be expected to behave accordingly, and be far more learned and mature than would be imagined in our modern society – though, as we have seen, she would not yet have put away all childish things. In 853, at the age of five, King Alfred was sent to Rome where he was made a consul by Pope Leo IV. About 250 years later, in around 1100, Saint Hildegard of Bingen started experiencing visions at the age of three, began to understand what she was experiencing at the age of five, and commenced preparing for convent life at the age of eight. These early years, from five to seven or eight, would have been seen a bridge age, the age between being treated as an infant and being treated as a mini-adult. It can seem very strange and often alien to us now; in fact, one of the themes of these early novels of the Fata Morgana Series is the importance of childhood innocence and the devastation its loss can bring in a world which forces children to grow up too soon – a theme which I believe is very relevant to what is happening in our society today.
Even though our perception of five-year-olds is very different today, it is still recognised that the age of five to six is a pivotal age in child development. We now know that by age five 90% of the adult brain is grown. At five, children can think and express themselves on higher levels; their play gets more complex and full of fantasy and drama; and they become more social and develop friendships, preferring to play with their friends rather than on their own. At this age, children can express more complicated feelings: they love independence, though they still need the love and care of their parents, and they are better at seeing the points of view of others, giving rise to empathy and compassion. Their communication and cognitive skills develop especially rapidly at this age, enabling them to use full and complex sentences, and get to grips with more complicated concepts. Physically, they are more adept and coordinated, and can learn how to ride a bike, climb trees, jump rope, and play team sports. We too see it as a bridge age, but in modern times, the difference is that it is the bridge between being a toddler and being a child.
When reading and writing about the past, in order to maintain historical accuracy and credibility, it is necessary to remember that society back then was not the same as ours, and that its people behaved and believed differently to the ways we do now. Imposing 21st century behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs onto a tale set in the Dark Ages would be singularly inappropriate, dishonest, and ultimately not believable. Even though Fata Morgana is a high fantasy series steeped in myth, legend, and folklore, it is also historical fiction and, as such, a high degree of authenticity in its details is required. I know sometimes it can be jarring for contemporary readers, but when I began writing this series, I felt I had to go with historical realism as a way of grounding the more fantastical aspects and making it believable as a story set in an age far removed from our own. I stand by that decision. We can learn so much from the foreign country that is our past, but only if we set aside our 21st century preconceptions, approach it with clear-eyed honesty, and speak the truth.
- Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood, London: Pimlico, 1996 (originally published in French in 1960)
- Jeffrey Carpendale, Charlie Lewis, Ulrich Miller, The Development of Children’s Thinking: Its Social and Communicative Foundations, UK and Canada: Sage Publishing, 2017
- Roberta Gilchrist, Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012
- Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003
- Robert Siegler, Jenny Saffan, Elizabeth Gershoff, Nancy Eisenberg, Judy DeLoache, How Children Develop, 6th edition: Macmillan Learning, 2020