What kind of infant carriers were used in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern area? 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 cradleboards 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 practice of swaddling.
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 to be 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. In addition, the use of swaddling bands helped infants to retain heat and moisture, which promoted health and vitality based on humoral medicine.
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.
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 and then in Frans Francken’s Flight into Egypt, 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.
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.
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 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.
Beggars are frequently portrayed using infant carriers in European art. 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.
In 17th century Italy, Stefano Della Bella created, A Woman Carrying Her Baby in Her Arms and Another Small Child on Her Back, Accompanied by a Young Boy. Here we have an example of a tandem carry using what we would now call a wrap. Both children appear to be in a kind of rucksack carry, the older child on her back is able to look over her shoulder. It is difficult to tell whether his legs are together and down her back (similar to the position commonly used in Japan and China) or if they are spread out in a more ergonomic position. The younger child, on her front, appears to be in a semi-reclined position.
In the Netherlands, Rembrandt created this sketch, titled, Three Beggars at the Door in 1603. Here the infant appears to be swaddled, wrapped in a blanket and then lashed to the caregiver with a series of belts, or using a narrow band of striped material in a torso-carry. The infant’s legs are together and bent at the knees.
In the late 18th century, Cornelia Sheffer-Lammer painted a soldier’s widow with a child on her back. This carry would be very familiar to a modern babywearer. It appears to be a simple rucksack, high-back carry with the tails crossed over the wearer’s chest, then wrapped around the waist and tied. The mother may be patting the baby’s bottom with her hands behind her back. Most women today, especially if they are breastfeeding would find crossing the tails of a rucksack over the chest uncomfortable, however, a woman of the 18th century would have had stays (corset) to support the pressure of the wrap– and it was the style to cross a kerchief over the chest in that fashion. The widow came from some level of wealth, her child wears well-fitted, stylish clothing, her bonnet and shirt are not stained– both have shoes on their feet. Richly dyed cloth, such as the cloth holding the baby, would have been expensive. The cloth she is using would very likely be a shawl. In this scene, the use of a makeshift infant carrier, likely from a mourning shawl, is symbolic of desperation. The widow, once respectable, is now rendered a transient with the literal burden of caring for children in poverty on her shoulders.
The theme persisted through the 19th century, with G.J.Witowski’s etching of a beggar women with her children from 1898. Here we see another type of hard-carrier: literally a child’s chair, tied to the woman’s back. It looks as though straw or hay has been added, possibly for padding, but more likely for collecting waste. On the front the woman is nursing her infant, the carrier is a length of cloth secured through the chair.
Poor people were not the only ones wearing their babies, rather the artists took an everyday, ubiquitous object (the infant carrier) and obligation (childcare) and used it allegorically: the subject is encumbered with the responsibility for their child(ren). Children are a burden for the poor, they weigh heavily upon their parents. The younger the child, the more dependent they are on their mothers– older children walk, toddlers must be carried but can feed themselves, infants are carried by and fed by their mother.
Infant carriers are depicted in a more neutral light when it comes to servants using them to care for the offspring of the wealthy. In the cartoon of The Woodcutter’s Family from the mid- 19th century, a woman carries an infant on her back. The infant’s legs are swaddled together so the child sits sideways while the three older children entertain her with toys. Below, an etching of a nursemaid wearing a child in a Swedish Boeg from the 19th century. This child is older yet still sits sideways with legs together. This style of carrier remained unchanged well into the 20th century (to be another post!). If you have a penchant for art history and have some leads on who the artist of the second etching is, please contact me or leave a comment.
This painting, from Sweden in the early 1900’s, notice that the children are all wearing red caps. There are four of them in the painting– can you find them all? (and special thanks to Ulrika for contacting me about the correct artist for this piece!)
Sometimes, the infant carrier saves the day– or the kingdom: the 1869 painting by Knud Bergslien depicts the Birkebeiner skiers carrying Prince Haakon to safety in 1206. The toddler is wrapped in a red cloak, which is doubly supported with a pouch made from a fine shawl tied behind the back of the Birkenbeiner. A shield is held in front of the infant as added protection.
In Northern Europe, the Sami (sometimes referred to as Lapp or Laplanders) people use cradleboards, called Komse, which look very similar to those found in North American First Nations cultures. The Sami live in far northern Europe, near the Arctic Circle. The komse are very well insulated, with a fabric or leather drape that can be unrolled over the carrier to shield the baby’s face from the elements. Kosme can be suspended from trees when not being carried (Van Hout).
This is of course, not an extensive inventory of Medieval and Early Modern 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 a topic I intend to look into more thoroughly.
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 cradle boards 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.
The Swedish Boeg style carrier, styled from leather, is the most reminiscent of our modern soft-structured carriers, save that it was used differently to accommodate the swaddled legs of the child. Infants were placed in it so that they sat with one side against the care giver, legs together.
Tandem carries were extremely common for women with no servants, with more than one young child, and no home to leave them in. For the artists who recorded their images, it evokes an over-burdened, desperate mother. The image of a mother tandem carrying was frequently used allegorically– warning young women of the perils of poverty and widowhood, or perhaps a warning against lust even within marriage. In a time before reproduction was well understood even by medical professionals, and contraception dangerous, illegal, and often ineffective– sex resulted in children. Tandem carries show the younger infant on the front, likely to keep them nearest the breast for feeding; the older child on their back. Again, the issue of cloth vs. wood comes up: one mother has tied a chair to her back for her child to sit on, the cloth for the front pouch is simply strung through the straps of the chair. Cloth was expensive, it could easily become infested with fleas or lice, when wet, it gets heavy and cold, whereas wood would last longer.
Very few mothers in the Middle Ages or Early Modern era 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 and Early Modern 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.
Van Hout, I. C., Beloved Burden: Baby Carriers in Different Countries. Amsterdam: KIT, 2005. Print.