WORK AND ADOLESCENCE IN THE MIDDLE AGES (BY MELISSA SNELL)
Few medieval teenagers enjoyed a formal education as it was rare in the Middle Ages. As a result, not all adolescents went to school, and even those who did were not wholly consumed by learning. Many teens worked, and just about all of them played.
Working at Home
Teens in peasant families were most likely to work instead of attending school. Offspring could be an integral part of a peasant family’s income as productive workers contributing to the farming operation. As a paid servant in another household, frequently in another town, an adolescent could either contribute to the total income or simply cease using the family resources, thereby increasing the overall economic standing of those he left behind.
In the peasant household, children provided valuable assistance to the family as early as age five or six. This assistance took the form of simple chores and did not take up a great deal of the child’s time. Such chores included fetching water, herding geese, sheep or goats, gathering fruit, nuts, or firewood, walking and watering horses, and fishing. Older children were often enlisted to care for or at least watch over their younger siblings.
At the house, girls would help their mothers with tending a vegetable or herb garden, making or mending clothes, churning butter, brewing beer and performing simple tasks to help with the cooking. In the fields, a boy no younger than 9-years-old and usually 12 years or older, might assist his father by goading the ox while his father handled the plow.
As children reached their teens, they might continue to perform these chores unless younger siblings were there to do them, and they would most definitely increase their workloads with more demanding tasks. Yet the most difficult of tasks were reserved for those with the most experience; handling a scythe, for example, was something that took great skill and care, and it was unlikely for an adolescent to be given the responsibility of using it during the most pressing times of harvest.
Work for teenagers was not limited to within the family; rather, it was fairly common for a teen to find work as a servant in another household.
In all but the poorest medieval households, it would not be surprising to find a servant of one variety or another. Service could mean part-time work, day labor, or working and living under the roof of an employer. The type of work that occupied a servant’s time was no less variable: there were shop servants, craft assistants, laborers in agriculture and manufacturing, and, of course, household servants of every stripe.
Although some individuals took on the role of servant for life, service was frequently a temporary stage in the life of an adolescent. These years of labor—often spent in another family’s home—gave teenagers the chance to save up some money, acquire skills, make social and business connections, and absorb a general understanding of the way society conducted itself, all in preparation for entry into that society as an adult.
A child might possibly enter service as young as age seven, but most employers sought older children to hire for their advanced skills and responsibility. It was far more common for children to take up positions as servants at age ten or twelve. The amount of work carried out by younger servants was necessarily limited; pre-adolescents are rarely if ever suited to heavy lifting or to tasks that require fine manual dexterity. An employer who took on a seven-year-old servant would expect the child to take some time learning his tasks, and he would probably start with very simple chores.