Toys-in-th-MA-art - 8/30/99
"Toys in the Middle Ages" By Lady Margritte of Ravenscroft.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
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Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Toys in the Middle Ages
by Lady Margritte of Ravenscroft
When we study people from other times and cultures, we are most
often struck by the differences between their lives and our own. The foods
they eat, the way they travel, the clothes they wear: all are unfamiliar and
somewhat exotic to our modern American perspective. There is at least one
exception to this rule. children's toys seem remarkably universal across
times and cultures. In some cases, this can be explained by contact between
the cultures in question. Yet in many more instances, similar toys seem to
arise spontaneously at different times and in different parts of the globe.
This paper will focus on toys in pre-1600 western Europe. At times,
it will touch on pre-cursors from Greece, Rome, and even Egypt, or toys from
non-western cultures of the medieval time period. In order to keep the
subject to a manageable size, only children's toys will be discussed. Card
games, board games, dice, and other such items, although normally used for
recreation, will be mentioned only briefly, as these require specific rules
for play, whereas toys require only a bit of imagination.
Unfortunately, few actual toys have survived from the medieval
period. Most were made of perishable substances, and were "well-loved" by
their owners. Nonetheless, there are written accounts to draw from, such as
letters, guild records, wills, and laws. Illuminations and portraits also
provide important evidence. Playthings even worked their way into the
legends of the saints. One story tells of how St. Elizabeth was carrying
some glass toys back with her on her journeys. When their spilled from their
packing, they were not broken because of the owner's sanctity. From all of
this, we can piece together a picture of the playthings used in the Middle
Ages, which were remarkably similar to our own.
Children love to make noise, and musical toys such as rattles,
drums, and whistles have always been popular. They can be found in cultures
as diverse as early Egyptian, South Sea Islanders, Eskimos, and modern
American. These probably originally had a religious significance. In fact,
one of the problems in studying toys is the difficulty in determining just
what was used as a plaything, and what was not. This is especially difficult
in cultures where the item in question does double duty. The priests of
Dionysus, for instance, used rattles in their ceremonies. Children of the
same time period frequently played with rattles as well (Fraser, p. 49).
Rattles were probably originally made from dried gourds, and this
was still common in the medieval period, especially among the lower classes.
Those who could afford better materials used ivory, precious metals, coral,
shell, or horn. Rattles were sometimes molded into simple shapes for the
amusement of the child. For the superstitious, rattles made in the shape of
a wolf's tooth, or having a wolf's tooth attached, would ward off evil
spirits and illnesses. Rattles for high-born infants could be quite ornate
In the Middle Ages, the distinction between religious items and toys
was minimal at times. Pilgrims often bought cheap whistles, bells, and
rattles as a memento of their journeys, and many of these trinkets naturally
ended up in the hands of children. Not only would these items serve to
entertain, they were also thought to provide protection for the wearer. For
instance, bells dipped in the water of the River Jordan were supposed to
protect the wearer from storms. Rattles were sometimes made of pewter
tracery containing a few cockleshells, the universal symbol for pilgrims.
Whistles, often worn on a chain around the neck, were sold at pilgrimage
shrine, and decorated with inscription as diverse as a devout "Ave Maria" to
an exuberant "Bla me" ("blow me") (Spencer, pp. 62-64).
Not all toys were fun and games. Sons of nobles were expected to
become knights, and their toys reflected this. Blunted wooden swords and
shields, and swinging quintains were not so much toys as training devices.
Even games like Chess were played as much for education as for
When the lessons in warfare were over, young lordlings often spent
their leisure time with toys soldiers, planning out the strategies that
might someday save their lives. There is some evidence that William the
Conqueror introduced toy soldiers to England, just as he introduced chivalry
and feudalism to the area. On the Continent, they had been known since Greek
and Roman times.
For the lower classes, figures were made from molded from clay or
crudely carved out of wood. Figures of St. Martin, the soldier saint, were
often made of fired clay and sold at fairs (Fraser, p. 60). Those who could
afford them had toy soldiers made of gold, silver, or lead. Some mounted
figures were made with wheels to be used as pull-toys. Many of these
fighting figures were jointed-- early action figures! A French woodcut from
1587 shows a jointed knight which has been placed astride a dog by some
children (King, p. 55). There were some made whose sword-wielding arms could
be manipulated by long sticks or strings, like puppets. No actual examples
of this type have survived, but they are shown in the "Hortus Deliciarum" of
Abbess Herrad (12th cent), in the midst of a mock tournament (King, p. 41).
There were even some with separate armor. In 1383, the child who would later
become Charles VI was given a wooden toy cannon as a gift.
Hobby horses, too, were popular with those dreaming of knighthood.
With a stick and a little imagination, even a peasant child could ride off
to conquer the world. Hobby horses appear frequently in illuminations.
Usually they take the familiar form of a horse's head on a stick, although
there are some examples from the Renaissance which show an entire miniature
horse on the end of the stick. Chinese hobby horses had wheels on the back
to facilitate movement. A peace penny minted at the end of the Thirty Years
War had a hobby horse pictured on one side (Fraser, p. 62).
Just as boys had military toys to prepare them for their roles later
in life, so to girls were encouraged to learn womanly skills by tending to
their dolls. The Latin word for doll, "pupus" or "pupa", meant "new-born
child". This became "Puppe" in German, and "poupˇe" in French. The word doll
was not in common use until after the Middle Ages. It was a diminutive of
the name Dorothy. In period, dolls were referred to simply as babies. The
cheaply painted wooden dolls from northwestern Europe were called "Flanders
babies". Those sold at Bartholomew day fairs in England were know as
"Bartholomew babies" to distinguish them from live human babies.
Looking at artifacts from primitive cultures, it can be difficult to
determine whether a particular figure was meant to be a toy or a religious
image. In general, the religious figures, such as funerary images or
fertility idols, are more finely made and better preserved than dolls. The
Egyptian "Ushabti" figures which were buried in place of slaves were well
equipped to care for their masters in the netherworld. Finely crafted and
provided with tools and clothing for the after-life, there can be no mistake
that these are religious items, and not toys. There are many cases, however,
where small human-shaped figures serve a dual purpose. Among the Hopi
Indians, for instance, kachina dolls representing the spirits of earth and
sky are given to children to play with after the religious ceremonies are
over. Similarly, if a barren woman of the Atutu tribe of Africa goes to a
magician for help in conceiving a child, she is given a doll, which she
treats just as she would a human child. If the magic doesn't work and the
woman loses hope, she often passes on the now non-magical doll to a child of
her tribe (King, p. 30).
The materials used to make dolls varied widely, and depended largely
on economic circumstances. Rag, clay, and wood were the most common, and
date back at least as far as Greek and Roman times. Unfortunately, these
materials seldom withstand the test of time. Other substances which were
employed include: bone, ivory, composition, wax, lead, corn or wheat,
gingerbread, and even paper dolls.
Rag dolls were probably quite numerous in the Middle Ages, but few
examples have survived. They were, after all, made to be played with. Also,
they do not stand up well to damp weather. Some ancient Egyptian rag dolls
have been found, preserved by the dry climates in that country, but European
dolls have not fared as well. In the absence of actual physical specimens,
we must look for other evidence. There is a rag doll ("simulacra de pannis")
mentioned in the "Indiculus Superstitiorum", a book written in the 8th or
9th century. Rag dolls have several advantages over dolls of other
materials, being cheap, cuddly, and easily made.
Although we think of rag dolls as being crudely made, there were
exceptions to this rule. A "rag" doll belonging to a daughter of Charles IX
is now on display at the Royal Armory Collection in Stockholm. This doll,
dating from about 1590, is made of silk threads wrapped around a wire
framework. She has an embroidered face, and real hair, which has been
braided. She wears a simple linen chemise beneath a skirt, bodice, and 2
petticoats (one of cut and uncut velvet, the other of silk taffeta). Her
sleeves have been decorated with tiny pearls, and she carries an embroidered
muff (King, p. 52-53).
Wooden dolls were frequently exported from northern Europe to
England. The Middle German word for doll was "Tocke", meaning a little block
of wood. Dolls for infants were more crudely made than those for older
children. "Stump" dolls were carved out of a single piece of wood, and were
shaped like a large skittle. Other wooden dolls were more elaborate, with
intricately carved hair and clothing, beautifully painted, and often with
articulated joints. Woodcuts from the "Hortus Sanitatis", written in 1491,
show doll makers working on figures with movable joints.
Dolls made of clay generally had the best odds of surviving the
centuries. Dolls made from white pipe clay were found under a pavement in
Nurnberg in 1859. They are believed to date from the 15th cent. Others have
been found in French and German graves of the period. There was great
variety in the molds used. Some dolls depicted fancy Court ladies in all
their finery. Others were knights on horseback, mythical beasts, ladies with
falcons perched on their wrists, and many others. Although many of the
surviving examples are quite plain, contemporary accounts indicate that such
dolls were often finely molded and brightly painted. While rag dolls often
had their own sets of clothes, early examples of wooden and clay dolls had
their clothing carved or sculpted in one piece with the doll. Later in the
Middle Ages, by the 15th century at least, the clothing was made to be
Some of the clay dolls were formed with a round indentation in the
chest. Apparently this was used to hold a florin (coin), and the dolls were
given to children as baptismal gifts. In this case, the dolls were more
ornamental than functional. Measuring three to six inches tall, these dolls
were fairly fragile.
In a grotesque sidenote, some dolls were made in such a way that
small birds or animals could be placed in a cavity inside the doll. The
panicked movements of the creatures made the dolls seem to move of their own
Dolls of wax and composition did not become widely available until
the 14th century, with the rise of the middle class. By the later Middle
Ages, composition dolls were made from a number of different materials.
Philibert Delorme, in "Traite d'Architecture" (1567), mentions dolls made of
paper paste. This was pressed into molds and then removed after it was dry
and the material had contracted slightly. Other waste materials were also
used: bran, vegetable matter, and sawdust. Some even included arsenic to
help fend off the rats (King, p.56). Many composition dolls were made in and
around Nuremberg, making use of the waste material from the paper mills in
that area. Unfortunately, composition materials tend to distort in heat and
moisture, and none have survived to the present day.
Edible dolls formed a class all their own. In classical times, small
figures were made of corn to symbolized the goddess Ceres. Later in England,
similar figures were made of wheat. Oftentimes, such "mother earth" figures
were made from the last grain after the harvest. It is difficult to say,
however, if they were strictly ceremonial or if they were sometimes made to
be played with.
There is no doubt that the gingerbread dolls sold at fairs were a
favorite of children everywhere. These were often decorated with gilt or
stamped with special molds. German cooks made their spice dolls in two
pieces so that a small gift could be concealed inside. Dolls were also made
of bread, to be eaten on feast days by both adults and children. It was
thought that a doll in the shape of a saint would confer some of the
sanctity of the saint upon the eater.
While there is no evidence that a doll-makers guild existed in
England, German toymakers were well-organized and prosperous. The German
cities of Nuremberg (Nurnberg), Sonneberg, and to a lesser extent Augsberg
and Judenberg, led the way in the manufacture of toys, especially dolls. In
Nuremberg alone there were 17 workshops devoted to toy-making (King, p. 56).
Part of the reason for their prominence was their location- most were
located near large forests which provided the raw materials for the toys.
Also, they were major trade centers, and travelling merchants would sell
German toys at fairs all over Europe.
The toy-making guild fought a constant battle with other guilds, who
treated toy making as a minor industry. Potters seeking new markets would
make dolls out of clay. Joiners made wooden dolls, and metalworkers made
dolls of tin. Competition in this lucrative market was stiff. A book of
rates written in 1550 had the following to say about prices: "Babies and
puppets for children, the groce containing twelve dozen, thirteen shillings
and fourpence and babies heads of earth the dozen ten shillings (King, p.
Puppet shows are often illustrated in the borders of illuminated
manuscripts. The shows were performed on small portable stages by
entertainers who traveled from town to town. As such, puppets cannot really
be considered children's toys, as the children themselves were merely
spectators (along with many adults). However, there is some evidence that as
the puppets wore out, the strings were removed and they were sold as toys to
bring in some extra cash. Some dolls had a similar construction, being made
of wood or composition, and jointed with bits of string. Puppet shows were a
far cry from other medieval drama, which usually featured religious themes.
The puppet shows of this time were purely secular, resembling modern-day
Punch and Judy shows. A law from 1451 forbade puppet shows from being
performed during the Easter season.
Fashion dolls also deserve mention here although they were
originally for adult use. They were often passed on to children after their
original purpose had been served. Fashion was a slow-moving beast in the
Middle Ages, and then, as now, the leaders were to be found on the
Continent, usually France. In order to keep abreast of the current styles,
nobles in England would order fashion dolls-- mannequins wearing the latest
styles-- to give to their tailors.
One of the first mentions of such dolls is found in an account of
Queen Isabella of Bavaria's marriage to Charles VI. For the great occasion,
she ordered a mannequin from Paris, dressed in the contemporary fashions of
the French Court. The doll's clothes were sewn by the valet to the King, and
cost so much that there is some speculation that the mannequin was actually
life-size, with clothes that were meant to be worn by humans after the
styles had been copied (King, p. 47). Exquisitely dressed dolls can also be
seen in many children's portraits from this era.
During the early part of the Middle Ages, there was not much
interest in doll houses, even though the much earlier Greek dolls had had
clothing, tableware, and model rooms. Not until the Renaissance were dolls
given elaborate furnishings. Holland was the leader in the export of doll
houses, also called "cabinets", and also made expensive silver goblets and
plates for the miniature tables. Some simple doll furniture is shown in
Pieter Brueghel's painting "Children's Games" (1560). In 1558, Albrecht V,
Duke of Bavaria, had a doll house made for his daughter. Among other things,
it included a chapel with priests and musicians, and a sewing room for the
ladies of the house to work in. The house was destroyed by fire, but
fortunately an inventory had been made of its contents.
As the urge to explore drove the boundaries of European culture ever
farther afield, dolls were introduced to the New World. Sir Walter Raleigh
used inexpensive dolls, beads, and knives as trade goods when dealing with
the Indians of Virginia. Dolls were also given to the Roanoke Island Indians
of North Carolina.
Kites and windsocks as we know them today were used primarily as
tools, not as toys. The Chinese were among the first to make kites, using
silk and bamboo. According to a story from the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD
200), kites equipped with noisemakers were used by one general to frighten
away his enemies. Another Chinese Emperor tried to used a kite to send a
message to his troops when he was besieged. He was unsuccessful in his
attempt, as the kite was shot down before it reached his allies, and his
enemies discovered how vulnerable his position was (Hosking, p. 14). Once
paper was invented, kite flying became a popular pastime for all walks of
In medieval warfare, kites could be used to measure wind strength
and direction (important for archers), and to signal the troops. Attempts
were even made to make kites which could carry fireballs to drop on the
enemie's fortifications (du Soleil, p. 9). Often, these devices were made to
look like fierce dragons. The German word for kite, "drache", is derived
from the word for dragon.
In spite of their hostile origins, there is evidence that kites were
used for play as well. A German illumination from 1405 shows a young boy
riding on horseback while flying a kite. The manuscript itself describes how
a kite should be flown, how the strings should be attached, and what it
should look like.
Paper windmills date from the 14th century. Along with hobby horses,
they are the most frequently found toys in illuminations of the period
(Fraser p. 62). Made simply of two bits of paper which could rotate freely
on a stick, these toys enjoyed tremendous popularity. Although they are not
as sophisticated as today's pinwheels, they undoubtedly share a common
Balls have always been popular, either for informal play or games
with well-defined rules. Early Greeks and Romans made theirs from an
envelope of skin stuffed with wool (Fraser, p. 53). Early Celts used
inflated bladders from sheep and goats (Fraser, p. 24).
The game of nine-pins was known in the Middle Ages in a form similar
to today's bowling. There was also a game called "bowls". It was played on a
level field. The object of the game was to hit a smaller target ball with
the larger balls that were being tossed. The large balls were slightly
flattened on one side to keep them from rolling in a perfectly straight
line. According to one story, Sir Francis Drake was in the middle of a game
of bowls when word reached him of the approach of the Spanish Armada. Rather
than interrupting his game, he finished it out before preparing for the
battle (Price, Made in the Renaissance, p. 96).Tennis was played with
somewhat different rules than today. More a game for adults than children,
it found favor among many Kings of the period.
And finally, the game of marbles was a favorite game in the medieval
period. This probably does not actually belong under the heading of "ball
games", but there was no better category for it. Marbles originated in the
Low Countries, in a game called "basses" or "bonces". In spite of what the
name suggests, the small balls used for this game were often made of stone,
clay, or agate.
There are many other toys from the Middle Ages which are still
familiar to us today. Hoops can be traced back to Roman times, when they
were recommended as exercise for both adults and children. In Norman times,
the hoops off of beer barrels were used, rolled along the ground with a
stick. Hula hoops can be considered the modern incarnation of this toy.
Pull toys were made in various animal shapes. Horses were especially
popular, but others have been found as well. Toy wagons were also known. Toy
boats were popular in sea-faring cultures, especially among the Norse, where
tiny replicas of dragon-prowed ships have been found.
Spinning tops are often found in the borders of illuminated
manuscripts. Tops may have developed from spindles used for spinning yarn.
By the 16th century in England, six different types of tops were being made.
Fads in the Middle Ages were just as common as they are today. In
the latter part of the 16th century in France, there was a craze for playing
cup-and-ball games. Skipping ropes were also well-known.
In spite of the introduction of video games and other electronic
gadgets, certain toys have an appeal that transcends the passage of the
centuries. Today's children still play with toys that were common place in
the Middle Ages: balls, dolls, hobby horses, pull toys and more. Few toys
survived from the medieval period but those that did, in addition to other
evidence from this period and from other cultures, indicate that children's
toys are remarkably universal.
du Soleil, Ella, "Knights and Kites"; published in "The Phoenix", May 1997.
Fraser, Antonia, A History of Toys, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Hosking, Wayne, Kites, Mallard Press, New York, 1992.
King, Constance Eileen, The Collector's History of Dolls, St. Martin's
Press, New York, 1978.
Price, Christine, Made in the Middle Ages, E.P. Dutton and Company, Inc.,
New York, 1961.
Price, Christine, Made in the Renaissance, E.P. Dutton and Company, Inc.,
New York, 1963.
Spencer, Brian, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges (Salisbury Museum
Medieval Catalog, part 2), Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.
Copyright 1999 by Kimberly Tuttle, 3557 Tanners Mill Road, Gainesville, GA
30507-8828. <margritt at mindspring.com>. Permission is granted for republication
in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan