Did Europeans use infant carriers? Many modern people have the assumption that infant carriers are a recent trend in Western cultures but infant carriers are a universal human technology, they’ve existed in every culture to some extent throughout history. Babies need to be transported because they can’t walk and they don’t cling. So what kind of infant carriers were used in Europe in the Middle Ages? And who was using them?
Culture & Climate
Infant carriers always reflect the resources of a culture and the requirements of the environment. Europe has a variety of geographies and climates: from the sunny warmth of the Mediterranean to the deserts of Spain, the Alpine Glaciers, the ancient forests of Germany, the tundra in Finland, to the wetlands of eastern England. Different environments produce different carriers and Europe is no exception. In the Nordic countries, we find extremely complex carriers, called Komse, which are cradle boards that would not look out of place in many North American First Nations cultures. Elsewhere, there are extremely simple carriers: fabric tied at the shoulder to form a sling. The most striking differences in how infants were carried in the Middle Ages versus today stems from the widespread practice of swaddling and swaddling boards.
Swaddling forced the limbs to be rigid and straight by the use of linen bands wound around individual limbs, and then around the entire body. Due to this, the majority of infants would not have been able to separate their legs or bend their knees. Therefore, we find that the majority of depictions of Medieval infant carriers show them being used with the infant’s legs together and straight– even when, for artistic license, the infant is shown nude. Swaddling was believed to help straighten an infant’s limbs as well as their morals. Newborns were considered tainted by original sin from the moment of birth and in need of correction. In addition, the use of swaddling bands helped infants to retain heat and moisture, which promoted health and vitality based on humoral medicine.
You too can breastfeed on stilts while balancing a pot on your head, if you learn medieval swaddling! Source: British Library Royal 10 E iv.
The earliest depiction of a European infant carrier that I have found is from the Westminster Psalter, which was made in the year 1200 in England, with additional images added around 1250. The image features St. Christopher carrying the infant Jesus in a simple cloth sling. The first image is indeed of a man carrying a child in a carrier. Based on the selection of art I have found, it seems that carrying infants was a fairly egalitarian task in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: men and women shared the work of carrying infants and children.
St. Christopher, Detail from Westminster Psalter, c. 1250
Religious iconography is riddled with images of the infant Jesus being transported in a sling, often tightly swaddled, one of the most common scenes was the Flight into Egypt. In Giotto di Bondone’s painting we can see that when an infant was fully swaddled their bodies were rigid so that only a small band of material near the butt was required to support the infant.
“The Flight into Egypt”, c.1305 (fresco), by Giotto di Bondone (c.1266-1337) at Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy
Detail from a five panel series of “Episodes of the infancy of Christ” (1378) by the Maestro di Campli
Work to Do
From the area we now know as France and Belgium the first image is from the Voeux De Paon dating from around 1350. It shows a woman carrying a swaddled infant bound to a cradle, on her neck and shoulder. The second image is from the Pontifical of Guillaume Durand, depicting a playful image of a hare playing golf while carrying a bunch of poodles in a basket, which dates from before 1390. These are both examples of the kinds of hard-carriers that were used in Medieval Europe. Further down, there is another depiction of children in a basket that is worn on the back.
Detail from the Voeux de Paon (ms g.24 fol 10r), Morgan Library in Northern France.
“Hare with Poodles”, detail from the Pontifical of Guillaume Durand, c. 1390.
In the MS Romance of Alexander, the artist Jehan de Grise of Flanders depicts twin-infant-carriers. The first carrier appears to be a kind of narrow leather or cloth bag suspended from a wooden pole, both infants swaddled and set in feet to feet. Behind them, a man walks with two children in a basket on his back. These carrying objects were not specifically infant carriers, they would have been general carrying tools for transporting items, including firewood or food.
Carrying twins in the margins of the Romance of Alexander, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.
From the Speculum Historiale, entitled the Torture of Jewish Mothers, featuring mothers nursing their babies in simple cloth slings as they are tied to stakes, this dates from the 15th century. The infants are supported by the cloth under their butt, with legs together in a semi-reclined position. The infants’ heads and shoulders are not supported– and their mothers cannot support them because their arms are bound behind their backs. Obviously, some of this may be artistic license designed to show as much of the infant as possible. However, it may have been the way infants were supported, especially if they were typically swaddled. Just as nude women’s bodies are painted in the shape their clothing gave them, rather than the shape their bodies actually took when undressed, so too the infants may be painted in the shape swaddling bands or boards would have given them.
“The torture of the Jewish mothers”, Billedet Hedder, from the Speculum historiale (BNF Fr. 50, fol. 158v). 15th century.
Detail from “The torture of the Jewish mothers”, Billedet Hedder, from the Speculum historiale (BNF Fr. 50, fol. 158v). 15th century.
The First Arrival of the Gypsies to the City of Berne, from the Amtliche Spiezer Chronicle, (1485) is contemporary to the Torture of Jewish Mothers. In Gypsies, we can see a member of the crowd is seen using a simple cloth sling, tied at the neck, but the infant is upright, and the sling supports them from the neck down. Perhaps the sling-use seen in Jewish Mothers above demonstrates the typical use of the sling to aid in hands-free breastfeeding, whereas the sling-use depicted by the Gypsies is more in line with how slings were used for travel.
Detail of “First Arrival of Gypsies Outside the City of Berne”, Amtliche Spiezer Chronicle, 1485
“First Arrival of Gypsies Outside the City of Berne”, Amtliche Spiezer Chronicle, 1485
Beggars are frequently portrayed using infant carriers in European art. In the 14th century Book of Hours belonging to Queen Jeanne of Navarre, there is a beggar portrayed in rags, begging for food with three children, one at his feet, a toddler on his shoulders with its own little begging bowl, and an infant secured in a sling under his chin, seemingly secured to his head. The man has his arm under the infant, almost as though he’s lifted the bundle to draw attention to the baby (perhaps the sling would hang lower on his chest, rather than under his chin, without the support of his arm, but plenty of cultures carry loads suspended from their heads, so?)
In the early 16th century, Lucas van Leyden created the etching entitled, Beggar with two children in a basket on his head. Again we see a form of hard-carrier, the basket, carried on the back via shoulder straps to carry young children– and as with the Hare and Poodle painting, and the Romance of Alexander, the basket is used to carry more than one child at a time.
Queen Jeanne of Navarre is seen offering to the beggar at the encouragement of an angel. This image is from her Book of Hours, a personalized prayer book common in medieval Europe.
The Hours of Jeanne Navarre. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms n.a. lat. 3145, folio 123v
Detail from The Hours of Jeanne Navarre. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms n.a. lat. 3145, folio 123v
“Beggar with two children in a basket on his head”, (etching) by Lucas van Leyden, 16th century.
Types of Carriers
This is of course, not an extensive inventory of Medieval European infant carriers, I hope to add to it as I continue my research. From this survey of art history, we can get an idea of the basic types of carriers and how they were used. Simple pieces of cloth, tied at the shoulder or back could be used to support the weight of the infant or toddler, generally in a side sitting position on the wearer’s hip or front– and frequently on horseback. The sling was frequently seen only supporting the butt of the infant or child in Medieval art, likely due to the influence of swaddling on the practice of infant carrying.
Aside from the portrayals of simple slings, back carries appear to be the most common form of carrying– which likely has a lot to do with the need for people to use their hands and arms for other tasks, the fact that it is easier to carry a weight on the back than on the front, and that carrying on the front obscures the wearer’s field of vision. There is a possibility that people used simple slings for back carries in the middle ages, but artists chose to portray the child on the front. This may be a situation of showing status: wealthy women may have, should they choose to carry their own children, only have worn them in the front. Whereas the poor, unlikely to have someone to pass the baby onto, and requiring the use of their hands for manual labor would be more comfortable getting the baby out of the way, onto their back. Which brings me back to the portrayal of infants worn on the front, by finely dressed women (depicted as Mary) while on horseback: there were myriad rules for how to ride a horse, perhaps there was some understanding about how to carrying an infant while on horseback. This is another topic I intend to look into more thoroughly (huge nerd).
Baskets were strapped to the body and were likely multitaskers. They could be used for harvest or transporting heavy loads– including children. Baskets seem to have been used for carrying older children, and usually multiple children in the same basket. Children were not secured in the baskets, and there does not appear to be cushioning provided. There may have been straw placed in the bottom of a basket to absorb spills or waste, for easy cleaning.
Structured carriers, such as cradleboards seem to be more popular in colder climates. They take the form of an insulated frame that the baby is lashed into after swaddling, with a hood projected away from the baby’s face. Alternatively, there are simpler boards, uninsulated, simply providing a structure for the swaddled infant to be strapped to, for easier transport. Wood would have been less costly and easier to maintain than fabric so it may represent a kind of carry anyone with access to a coppice could afford.
Very few mothers in the Middle Ages would have had the responsibility of caring for her children alone– let alone having to carry all of them. If there were a home, women and children were expected to be there, save in exceptional situations (such as a market day). If there was work to be done at home, infants weren’t carried, though they might be hung up using the swaddling bands or board to support them, or set outside in a cradle.
At all levels of society, infant carriers were used in Medieval Europe. They were likely most associated with the lower orders because the wealthy did not need to take their children away from the home as often, or as publicly, and would have had servants to care for the infant (i.e. the servants would be the ones primarily using infant carriers). A variety of materials were used for infant carriers and swaddling bands depending on the wealth of the infant’s family and/or the environment.
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Van Hout, I. C., Beloved Burden: Baby Carriers in Different Countries. Amsterdam: KIT, 2005. Print.