Fosterage: Child-Rearing in Medieval Ireland
Bronagh Ní Chonaill
History Ireland Vol. 5 (1997)
This is a good article to read over if you're looking for a decent overview of how fosterage typically worked in early medieval Ireland and (arguably) before then as well, as it gives a good run down of how it worked under a variety of different circumstances – i.e. depending on your social status. There are also some incidental tidbits about how children were brought up during this time, the kinds of games they played, and so on, which offer some interesting points to ponder too.
Fosterage generally started at around the age of seven, though evidence of wet-nursing being commonplace suggests that it could start much earlier. Legally, seven was the age at which a child was determined to be capable of "learning and reason," and the foster-family would be in charge of the child's education and training for their future livelihood. Higher status children would learn things befitting someone of their rank, with girls learning fine embroidery skills and needlework, while boys learned about which way pointy end of a sword should go, and games of intellect like those "resembling draughts and chess." Horse riding could be taught if the child's family provided a horse but it wasn't necessary otherwise. Lower status boys would learn various aspects of manual labour and farming skills necessary to run their own households, while girls would learn cooking, grinding corn with a quern, weaving and herding.
The status of the child determined the kind of foods they were entitled to eat, and the colours of clothing they should wear. All children ate porridge, for example, but the flavours they were entitled to have added to it depended on their rank. Royal children could have honey with a porridge made of milk with wheat added; high ranking non-royals could have butter with a milk porridge, and everyone else could have salted porridge made with water. Meanwhile, only royal children could wear blue or purple, while aristocratic children could wear red, green and brown, and silver or gold brooches as befitted their status. Free-born children could wear black, yellow, white and "blay-coloured" clothes.
The foster-family was paid for their troubles, and the amount due to them depended again on the status of the child. Payment was usually in the form of cattle and clothing, and higher status children came with a higher fosterage fee than those of a lower status, reflecting the fact that they had greater entitlements. Because girls tended to come with a larger retinue in tow than boys did (probably because they needed more protection – protecting their reputation more than anything), the price for girls was always higher than that of a boy of the same status.
Pet dogs or cats are mentioned in legal texts, and games mentioned include hurley, wrestling, field games, piggy back games, and balls and hoops. One of the more interesting references, from a reminiscing poet, is to children imitating inauguration rites:
"...They would play at an imitation of an inauguration or homage ceremony, where a child was placed on a height with those remaining marching around him three times."The laws deal with who has rights and responsibilities when a child in fosterage either commits or is subject to a crime. The foster-father was usually responsible for a foster-child's crimes, unless he went to the child's natural father and proclaimed the child's criminal tendencies. If the foster-father was deemed to not be at fault for the child's behaviour, then the natural father would take on the responsibilities for the crimes and any necessary reparations (which were usually financial). If the father refused to pay for the crimes then the foster-family could simply return the child to the natural family and so protect themselves from further hassles. Otherwise, the foster-father could be held responsible for the child's future crimes, even for serious crimes like homicide. The foster-father could discipline the foster-child, but in no circumstances could they leave a blemish so there were tough limits to what they could do and the extremes they could go to. However, if a child was injured and received compensation for it, the foster-father was entitled to one-third of it unless the injury was caused by the foster-family's own negligence; then they had to compensate the child's natural family.(p30)
Some children were fostered out to several different families, especially children of higher status who were considered to be "desirable" in some way. Since fosterage was a good way of maintaining or creating social and political ties between families or even countries, children who were from politically important or influential families might be fostered out to several different families over the years for the benefit of the child's family as well as the foster-families. The foster-relationship would last as long as both sides had agreed, unless there were certain circumstances that meant it was necessary to cut the arrangement short – if the child was diseased or uncontrollable, say. Girls usually left fosterage at an earlier age than boys – at around fourteen. At that point they might return to their families, or more likely they were married off. Boys could remain in fosterage up until seventeen years of age, and at that point were legally responsible for their own crimes.
In addition to receiving a foster-fee, fosterage had lasting advantages to the foster-families. It created lasting ties between the two families, and in their later years the foster-parents were entitled to claim aid or maintenance from their foster-children, providing a kind of pension plan. It was these kind of advantages that saw the institution last for so long in Ireland – into the seventeenth century, certainly. On top of all that, in an often violent society, fosterage and the ties that bound certain families together helped to foster at least some sense of social and political stability. It might not have guaranteed it, but it certainly encouraged it.