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Some Norman children enjoyed the usual advantages of wealthy parents

Posted in Castles, Historical articles, History on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about home life first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 470 published on 16 January 1971.

Normans at home, picture, image, illustration

A Norman family at home by Peter Jackson

‘And if thy children be rebel and will not bow them low,
If any of them misdo, neither curse nor blow;
But take a smart rod and beat them in a row,
Till they cry mercy and their guilt well know.’

– Anon.

We are in England some time in the 14th century when it was considered that all children were by nature evil and chock-full of “original” sin. Mothers and fathers were bidden first to have their offspring baptised as soon as possible, and thereafter walloped as much as seemed necessary. And this, children being children, was fairly frequent. The “rod” was the readiest means of changing one kind of yelling for another, and was a part of every English home. Not only did Father wield it diligently upon his youngsters, but pretty often upon Mother as well. Nobody seems to have grumbled unduly. It was accepted as part of family life.

Like the rule of Rome; that of the Norman Conquest brought about great changes in community and family life. In the very first place William the Conqueror immediately stopped the slave trade of English children, and in the second introduced a far more decorative and amusing way of living – at least, so far as the ruling classes were concerned.

Now, whether you were the child of a well-to-do Norman family, or of an Anglo-Saxon serf you had first of all to be born. If your family were serfs, birth, like death, was a pretty down-to-earth business. The home of your parents and your older brothers and sisters was probably one large room built of wattle-and-daub around a timber frame and thatched with reed, rushes or straw. The floor was earthen, strewn with rushes and straw, and upon the floor all the family slept, covered with blankets made of coarse wool roughly woven by “Mother.” This “hodden-grey” as it was called was just about the only material available to the poor both for warmth by night, and clothing by day.

A basket of rushes would have been prepared against your arrival, and, even before your birth your sex would have been predicted according to whether your mother was accustomed to sleep upon her left, or her right side. A left-hand sleeping mother-to-be expected a daughter, and a son if she slept upon the right side. Needless to say, every effort would be made to “sleep right,” since sons, as always, were the more greatly to be desired.

Among richer families, however, daughters were more gladly suffered, not, goodness knows, for their own sakes, but because they were handy pawns in the game of the family becoming even richer. They were bargaining pieces for trading in, complete with dowry, with the sons of even better-to-do families. Betrothals often took place as soon as the baby was born, and marriage between children scarcely into double-figures was commonplace. Widows and widowers in their early ‘teens were quite unexceptional. That immensely rich Elizabethan lady, the Countess of Shrewsbury – known as “Bess of Hardwick,” after her birthplace – was widowed at the age of 13 and the inheritor of a vast fortune from her weakly boy-husband. She married three more times always to very rich men, bore many children, and, when not having these, practised her mania for building bigger and even bigger houses. The “fixed” marriages of her children read like something from the pages of that famous register of noble families Debrett.

When Bess died there was only one Englishwoman richer than she – the childless Queen Elizabeth.

But back to our earlier times where, in the humble home, the baby was born on the floor in the corner, very possibly, should it be pouring with rain or snowing, with all the family present. A female neighbour would act in the office of “midwife,” wash the child, wrap it up in “hodden grey” and lay it in its basket-cradle. And there, until it was capable of being put to work, died or married, was another little mouth to feed.

But in a wealthy Norman household the business of a new arrival in the family was very different. A special room in the castle walls would be set aside as the “birth-chamber,” complete with richly hung bed, basins and ewers of silver, serving maids rushing hither and thither at the bidding of the “Midwife.”

Down below in the Great Hall we may imagine the jolly-making, Father surrounded by close relatives and his other small children; “house-carls” rushing around with flagons of wine, wolf-hounds baying, and, without doubt, a minstrel of one kind or another ready to strike up the moment one of the birth-chamber ladies thrust her head through a Gothic archway and called: “My Lord, sire, good tidings are come to pass. Your Lady is safely delivered of a fine son.”

Rejoicing everywhere down below, but upstairs the “fine and lusty son” is having the full and serious treatment. His mouth and gums are gently rubbed with honey, his body and limbs washed with salt and honey, myrtle and “red-rose” water. Then, doubtless squeaking with the wretchedness of being alive, he is subjected to the stern business of “swaddling.” Band after band of fine linen is bound tightly about the infant until he looks like a tiny Egyptian mummy.

When properly swaddled so that he cannot move hand or foot, and laid in his cradle, he is ready to receive the adulation of Father, the relations and his brothers and sisters. Swaddling must have been very tedious to the swaddler, and most uncomfortable for the swaddled. But it was the “thing” to do because men of medicine held that swaddling was necessary, for without it a child’s limbs would never grow straight. In proof of this theory, they would point out the often puny children of the poor.

The truth was that these poor little wretches had rickets.

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