Medieval Monday: Work and Adolescence


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.


Service Work

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.

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Medieval Monday: Markets

I didn’t have much free time over the last week–my business has kept me overly busy. But I didn’t want to miss my Medieval Monday post either, so I thought maybe this would be a good week for a video. I found this short but informative presentation on what medieval markets would have been like. I might re-visit this topic in the future, but for now, enjoy this visual glimpse into the past. It is very well done.

Medieval Monday: The Medieval Mill


Some of my recent posts have talked about the harvesting, threshing, and winnowing of grain, and how vital grains were as a food source in medieval times. But before grains could be used for baked goods and alcohol production, they had to be processed. For the most part, this happened at the local mill. There were two different types commonly used, depending on the climate and landscape; water, or wind.

watermill2It took a sizeable amount of money to build and maintain a mill. The entire building was basically a large machine, where water or wind powered a number of large gears that moved the grinding stones inside. Mill stones couldn’t be just any old stones. They had to have specific qualities, which often required that they be purchased and carted from quarries long distances away. Because the stones were so large, they might also have to be broken into pieces then reassembled at the mill using iron to hold them together. Mill stones were not completely flat. Grooves were chiseled into the stones to help with the grinding process, but also to move the ground grain outward from the center where it could be collected and bagged. Once mill stones were properly assembled and chiseled (“dressed”), they were set in place, balanced with weights, and spaced with the help of gears.

watermill-photoBuilding the mill was not the only difficulty millers faced. It was also their job to make sure it ran at the right speed. When the flow of water, or the force of wind, varied, the miller had to make adjustments. If the mill ran too fast, the friction between the stones would become too great and the resulting heat would ruin the grain. If the mill ran too slowly, or stopped completely, so did production. For water mills, ice blocking the flow of water was a constant problem in winter. Ice could also damage or destroy the water wheel, as could floods. Drought in summer was also a common problem that could stop all work at the mill. People were well advised to keep extra grain on hand for times when the mill was not running.

windmillIt is not surprising that for the most part, mills were built by wealthy lords or monasteries. In exchange for the expense and responsibility of constructing, maintaining, and running the required number of mills for each community, the people were obligated to support the mill by taking their grain to it and paying one sixteenth of their harvest in payment for its usage. Sometimes households got around this by keeping a small hand mill, but often such hand mills were forbidden.

The position of miller, especially in rural settings, was typically hereditary. He was considered a serf under the lord, and not a free man. Millers were notorious for being dishonest–sometimes stealing from the grain they were entrusted with, or collecting inflated toll payments. The lord’s grain, of course, was ground for free and took priority over that of anyone else.

Mills were used for other purposes besides grinding grain. They were also used to extract oil from things like nuts, seeds, or olives. In places where there was a large wool industry, mills were used for the fulling process. Windmills had another surprising purpose as a defensive device used against attacking armies. Their immense height allowed them to be used as a lookout tower, or even as a fort. Sometimes they were even built directly onto a castle tower.

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