Tag Archives: middle ages

Fosterage—‘Twas All About Family

This weekend I finally met my nephew’s new son.  Surrounded by aunts, great-aunts, cousins, etc., there was no dirth of arms willing to hold him.

The Family Photo

Family is important.  Regardless of era, family is the center, the hub, of a young person’s understanding of the world.  Not always a good thing, I know, but that’s how it is and has always been.  Whether it will remain that way has yet to be seen; so much outside interference, courtesy of the electronic age, is bound to exact a toll on the dynamic—as improved travel and the advent of advanced communications did and continued to do.  Government intrusion has threatened in the past (Hitler Youth and the Red Brigade come immediately to mind) and will rear its ugly head again, I’m sure–there is always someone with a personal agenda wanting to dismantle the family, aware the seeds planted in youth tend to have deep roots–but good, bad, or indifferent, for the time being, family remains a basic societal foundation.

As in every age, medieval families faced circumstances particular to their era.

Fostering is something that many modern readers don’t understand.  The idea of sending a child, often as young as five or six, to another family for training, seems heartless to a modern parent, but it served several purposes—some practical, some emotional—within the family structure.

On a practical level, it strengthened alliances.  After all, sending your heir to a vassal or peer required a great deal of trust and shouted the depth of the commitment.  If a possible betrothal was on the table, it enabled the two young people to meet and interact while parents observed, debated, and decided.  We won’t go into the occasional “little pitcher with big ears” scenerio, but any parent will quickly grasp the the inherent possibilities there.  It also kept coddling at a distance when sons faced the dangers of weapons training.  Remember, in this age, even when not at war, feuds and personal battles were always part of the equation.  Survival of the fittest reigned.

On an emotional level, parental concern could stand in the way of proper training.  Ask any coach why he prefers parents—especially mothers—not attend practices; it’s difficult to tell a young man to suck-it-up when Mom’s hovering or Dad’s bellowing disapproval. 

This is not to say young women weren’t fostered as well.  They were, and for similar reasons, but this is not something most people realize so is rarely debated.

When young women married, as stated in a previous post, they knew they might never see their birth families again.  Having been fostered and away from their homes early helped mitigate the emotional turmoil that might have, otherwise, thrown a young woman into despair.  Also, the possibility of wedding into or being near her foster-family went a long way to ease fears and loneliness.

Even so, it appears the medieval family remained a strong, cohesive unit.  Good foster-parents didn’t try to replace birth-parents, they just became an extension of the family.  Pushed to choose—as some were by changing monarchs and other circumstance—I found no instance where the fostered son or daughter chose the foster-family over his or her birth-family.  Understand, this doesn’t mean it never happened, only that I found no evidence it did; until the advent of the printing press, it was, while not unheard of, uncommon for those outside the clergy, even among the nobility, to read and write, so historical records in this time are incomplete.

Fosterage had a place in history.  As a parent, my heart aches to think of those babies being torn from their homes and the arms of their families.  As a person who enjoys understanding history, however, I, now, better understand the nobility’s propensity for nursemaids—even if some of them would be prison-fodder in this day and age–and can appreciate that fosterage served a purpose unique to its time.


Filed under blog