Questions about medieval life

I recently was lucky enough to spend a day with some professional historians at a course run at the Weald and Downland Museum on the social and economic context and early inhabitants of a few of the Museum’s houses. This was a fascinating day and I learnt a huge amount.

It also raised lots of interesting questions. (There are many!) One question I’m eager to find the answer to is the relative cost of building a brick or stone chimney against that of a smoke bay. I’d always assumed that smoke bays were much cheaper but died out quite quickly because they were dangerous. – After all a smoke bay is only a timber framed chimney with a brick fire back which may well help sparks fly up towards a roof that is often made of flammable material.

One of the things I didn’t know (and still don’t quite believe) is that the average size of medieval families was about the same as it is today. The course leader said people did have more children but as infant mortality was much higher it averaged out at about the same size as today. This person is an expert quoting other experts and I guess this does make sense as there wasn’t a huge explosion in global population, and I shouldn’t be sceptical in the face of such enormous knowledge but I think the picture was not as simple as all that.

A far larger percentage of medieval men and women entered monasteries, abbeys and nunneries than happen today. There was no effective fertility treatment for infertile couples. Women died in childbirth far more frequently than today. So I’d argue that, irrespective of the average, families with children were frequently larger than we have today, but that there were fewer of them. Whereas nowadays in the UK it seems to me that most couples have between 0 and 5 children with 2 or 3 being the most common, about 100 years ago families with 7, 10 or 15 children were fairly common, but so were families with no children. Families where the mother died in childbirth were quite common too. To back up my thinking, large families are also still quite common in those parts of the world where people still live in timber famed houses without electricity and poor access to health care.

So if you have any particular expertise or strong opinions or know anything about this at all I’d be delighted if you wrote in letting me know your thoughts.

Below are a few relevant quotes from the web.

Family planning programs and birth control in the third world

The population explosion has been abating since the 2nd half of the 1960s. The birth rate of the 3rd World dropped from 45/1000 during 1950-55 to 31/1000 during 1985-90. From the 1st half of the 1960s to the 1st half of the 1980s the total fertility of such countries dropped from 6.1 to 4.2 children/woman

A book rags snippet says

Marriage and the Family

Within the village community, the basic social and economic unit was the family. The family was nuclear, meaning it generally consisted of the two parents and their children. The size of the household tended to reflect the economic status of the household: The higher a family’s income, the more children it was likely to have. Medieval historians share the opinion based on tax and court records that the number of people living under the typical cottage roof was rarely more than five or six.

However, the nuclear family sometimes expanded to take in extended family members. Size fluctuated as children died, aging grandparents moved in and stayed until they passed away, and cousins occasionally moved in as renters. Regardless of size or composition, all family members shared in all of the family’s intimate details and participated in all ceremonies and rites of passage.

The most honored and celebrated of family traditions was marriage. More than simply an expression of love between a young man and woman, marriage represented the binding of two families, which everyone hoped would bring financial well-being to all involved. For this reason, marriages between adolescents in their late teens were not left to chance meetings.

Arranged Marriages

Most marriages during the Middle Ages were arranged by the family. This was true throughout Europe , regardless of a person’s wealth or social position, and tended to be truer among the upper class. The arranged marriage grew out of the need for families living in times of great economic uncertainty to conserve and consolidate wealth rather than to see it dissipate in a marriage to someone of a lower rank. This need motivated parents to seek spouses for their children with parents of a similar financial position and social status. Such arrangements did not mean that the two people who would marry did not know each other—they always did in a small village—it simply meant that they had little choice in the matter.

The negotiations between two families hoping to marry their children centered on the size of the dowry that the bride’s family would present to the groom. The dowry was awarded to the groom as a marriage gift, but it functioned more subtly as an inducement to the groom’s family to enter into the arrangement in the first place. Negotiations over the size and value of the dowry undermined some marriages and placed great strain on others. Yet dowries were the most important step in arranging the actual marriage.

The complexity of marriage negotiations was determined by the families’ general wealth. A simple peasant dowry might be nonexistent in cases of severe poverty, but usually a prized ceramic mixing bowl or wooden chair was considered sufficient to satisfy the custom. The dowry for a villager who owned land and livestock required a more intricate dowry, which might include both land and livestock

And there is some of my interactions about medieval life at

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