Did Europeans historically use infant carriers? Many modern people have the assumption that infant carriers are a recent trend in Western culture but infant carriers are a universal human technology, they’ve existed in every culture to some extent throughout history, for the simple reason that babies need to be transported because they can’t walk and they don’t cling (at least not very well).
So what kind of infant carriers were used in Europe in the Middle Ages (500-1500 ce)? And who was using them?
Types of Carriers
All over the world there are two main forms of infant carriers, hard carriers and soft carriers. Hard carriers are made of harder materials and usually can contain the infant whether or not a caregiver is carrying it. Today, portable car seats are a kind of hard carrier; in the medieval era we see babies strapped into wooden cradles like the image above or piled into wicker baskets. There are also soft carriers are usually made of fabric (leather or textiles) which require the support of the caregiver’s body to contain the infant, in the middle ages a common soft carrier was fabric wrapped around the body and tied at the shoulder to form a sling.
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.
The most striking differences in how infants were carried in the Middle Ages versus today stems from the widespread practice of swaddling and the use of swaddling boards. Swaddling was believed to help the limbs grow straight and helped infants to retain heat and moisture, which promoted health and vitality based on humoral medicine. Swaddling forced the limbs to be rigid and straight by the use of linen bands wound around individual limbs, before more linen or other fabric was wrapped around the entire body.
When swaddled, infants would not have been able to separate their legs or bend their knees, or move their arms. Therefore, 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. The sling is often seen only supporting the butt of the infant or child in Medieval art, made possible by the structure provided by swaddling and swaddling boards.
Western Perception of Infant Carriers
Very few mothers in the Middle Ages would have had the responsibility of caring for their children alone, let alone having to carry all of them. Medieval Europe was an feudal agrarian economy, large households could be made up of many unrelated individuals, and smaller establishments may have multiple generations and extended kin, servants or older children around to help care for infants. Survival took a lot of work and a lot of cooperation. While much of infant care arrangments depended on family status and wealth, if there were a home, women and infants were expected to be there, except for exceptional situations (such as a market day, or fleeing Egypt with an infant demi-god). While they didn’t understand the mechanism of transmission, they would have recognized that keeping infants out of public spaces also protected them from disease. Therefore, an infant in a carrier in a public place (which demonstrated that their caregiver had work to do beyond holding the baby) was associated with desperate itinerant people who had nowhere safe to keep their baby, let alone themselves.
Beggars are frequently portrayed using infant carriers in European art. In the 14th century Book of Hours belonging to Queen Jeanne of Navarre (1312-1349), 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 who knows.)
In some jurisdictions, beggars needed licenses which could take the form of badges or metals attached to their clothing. In this image, it’s almost as though this man’s license to beg is the baby, therefore a front carry is preferable to a back carry, as back carries obscure the infant from approaching people. However, since this beggar has a toddler and another young child to carry, it is wise to save the back carry position for the heaviest child, so this could have been a how real people were seen carrying babies in 14th century France.
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. As with the Hare and Poodle painting in the Romance of Alexander (below), the basket is used to carry more than one child at a time.
From the Speculum Historiale, entitled the Torture of Jewish Mothers, dating to the 15th century (see note in caption), featuring mothers nursing their babies in simple cloth slings as they are tied to stakes, their hands behind their backs. The infants are supported by the cloth under their butt, with legs together in a semi-reclined position, and their arms and shoulder out. The infants’ heads and shoulders are not supported by the sling, and their mothers cannot support them because their arms are bound behind their backs, so how are they not falling out? Obviously, the way the babies and their carriers were painted may be artistic license designed to show as much of the infant as possible or to evoke even more of an emotional response to the atrocity of killing women and actively nursing infants.
However, it may have been the way infants were actually supported in the era, especially if they were typically swaddled. Just as nude women’s bodies were painted in the shape their clothing gave them, rather than the shape their bodies actually took when undressed, so too the infants may have been painted in the shape swaddling bands or boards gave them.
The First Arrival of the Gypsies to the City of Berne, from the Spiezer Chronicle (Swiss Chronicle) from 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 daily 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.
Legitimate Use of Carriers
Though infant carriers were associated with beggars and marginalized communities in Europe, caregivers from all levels of society would have needed to use them at some point. When infants needed to be transported outside of a carriage (which in the middle ages was a rarity and could be a very uncomfortable ride), an infant carrier of some type was necessary.
One of the reasons for the popular appeal of Christianity in Europe was its promotion of the poor as holier than the rich, and this could be seen in the artwork of the infant Jesus being transported by a saint as though they were beggars. 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 across a river, who is himself carrying the world (that ball in his hand), a sling certainly would have been a great help in distributing the weight.
The earliest image of infant carriers in Europe 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, among the kind of people (the poor) seen using infant carriers, men and women shared the work of carrying infants and children.
Religious iconography is riddled with images of the newborn Jesus being transported in a sling, often tightly swaddled. One of the most common scenes was the Flight into Egypt, a scene in which transporting an infant was unavoidable and the infant was the center of attention. 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.
However, in Maestro di Campli’s painting, the infant isn’t fully swaddled, its arms are out, the sling is wider and Mary is supporting the neck and butt of the baby. The secret of the narrow sling is the swaddling hardware. Artists showing these differences likely witnessed the different ways infants were transported on horse/donkey dependent on the level of swaddling and age of the infant.
The flight from Egypt paintings try to mix poverty and high status together, Mary and Joseph are effectively homeless refugees with a humble donkey for the mother and infant, while Joseph carries their belongings on their backs. Yet Mary and the infant are shown as royalty are shown travelling in art: her clothes, the swaddle, riding as opposed to walking, and most importantly, the positioning.
For wealthy or rich infants, in order to show them (and their status) off, one would naturally choose a more visible front carry. Especially when the mother derives their power and status through their male infant, for example, a queen by marriage carrying the male heir to the throne on a procession through a city.
Work to Do
The use of infant carriers in medieval society was better respected when used by people who had to travel for work. The carriers used in art depicting people who travelled for work are more complex hard carriers.
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.
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.
Baskets were strapped to the body and were likely multitaskers. They could be used for harvesting or transporting heavy loads of anything, 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.
How Carriers Were Used
This is not an extensive inventory of medieval European infant carriers, but 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 used in combination with a swaddling board, especially if the infant is being transported on horseback… or stilts.
Second to simple hip slings, back carries appear to be the most common form of carrying, usually with hard carriers like wooden cradles or wicker baskets. Back carries are very practical, then as now, for when people need to use their hands and arms for other tasks. It is more ergonomic to carry weight on the back than on the front or side, and back carries are safer because front carries obscure the wearer’s field of vision.
Back and hip carries would be more practical for working folks, whereas for wealthy people, who only needed to handle their infants when they wanted to, a front carry would be ideal and easy to get into and out of. The fact that not many back carries are seen in medieval depictions of infant carriers, may come from low-status infants being ignored by both artists and those commissioning them. If the baby doesn’t have a point (emotional appeal, plight of the poor, the burden of motherhood, divinity) it’s not recorded.
At all levels of society, infant carriers were used in Medieval Europe but only for the practical purpose of transporting infants, rather than bonding or enrichment. A variety of materials were used for infant carriers and swaddling bands depending on the wealth of the infant’s family and the environment.
Infant carriers were associated with the lower orders because the wealthy did not need to take their children out of the home as often, or as publicly, and would have had servants to care for the infant (i.e. in wealthy households, servants would be the ones primarily using infant carriers, if at all). Due to humoral theory, handling infants was risky due to their malleability, and because older individuals may siphon away baby’s vitality, and for those infants cared for by servants there was a fear that the traits associated with lower status people could wear off on the baby (which is why wealthy birth mothers were encouraged to breastfeed their own babies). For this reason medieval infants spent a lot of their time swaddled in cradles. Though it was long before germ theory, people would have been aware that babies seen in crowded places were more likely to die of disease, thus the taboo on taking babies out into public places if the caregivers had any other options available to them.
Influence of History
This ideas and associations have influence the way infants in western nations are thought of and cared for to this day. There are still many places where infants aren’t expected to be or aren’t welcome because there is an expectation that infants should be at home or in a childcare setting, when this rule is broken it’s assumed the parent can’t afford childcare (to do it themselves or to pay someone else) or that they lack social support (family or friends who will help care for the baby). It’s a desperate situation when the working parent brings the baby to work with them, especially when the baby is highly visible in a carrier.
Even where it isn’t taboo for infants to be seen in public, for example at the park or an outdoor cafe, the perception of an infant in a high-end stroller/pram is higher than that of an infant in a sling. Just like with royal mothers on procession with their infant sons, or Mary on her flight from Egypt, holding the baby at a distance, showing the nice garments on both mother and baby– demonstrating wealth not just in the sticker price but in the inconvenience and inefficiency of their transport tools– the sleek baby buggy requiring the other diners to move so it can get through and then taking up space when stationary gives the caregiver an air of higher status. While a baby in the simple sling causes almost no inconvenience and draws almost no attention, when it does there is a question of why it’s being used instead of a stroller: can they not afford a stroller? do they have an alternative lifestyle? Is that even safe? Isn’t it uncomfortable? Fortunately, public attitudes are slowly changing to “I wish those things were around when my kids were little.”
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Bibliothèque nationale de France
Bodleian Library (Oxford University) Digital Collections
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
E-codices, Bern Burgerbibliothek
Morgan Library Digital Collections
Pontifical of Guillaume Durand via Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Ms. 143
Van Hout, I. C., Beloved Burden: Baby Carriers in Different Countries. Amsterdam: KIT, 2005.
Last revision Jan 2022
One response to “Medieval Babywearing | European Infant Carriers”
[…] carriers was still associated with poverty and itinerancy in the 18th century, as I discussed in Medieval Babywearing and 20th Century Babywearing. The ideal of the time was that an infant would be at home, preferably […]