Babywearing in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

I originally considered that this would be a “Cultures In Focus” guest post– but it’s about an entire continent over the span of eight hundred years, not a culture. BUT a lot of people find the history of infant carriers in Europe very interesting so I will share it.

Note: “babywearing” the term is anachronistic when considering the Middle Ages. Babywearing, the term, supposedly dates from the early 1980’s, in the United States. Dr. William Sears and his wife claimed to have coined the term when their sons were young. So, technically, no one, ever, in the world was “babywearing” before 1980. “Baby Toting” perhaps, but not babywearing.

Without further ado: as originally published on the Evolution of Babywearing, by Aradia Paganus:

Infant Carriers in Medieval and Early Modern Europe:

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, ancient forests of Germany, the tundra in Finland, to the wetlands of eastern England. As we will see throughout this project, different environments produce different carriers. 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 North American First Nations cultures. Elsewhere, there are extremely simple carriers: fabric tied at the shoulder to form a sling.  Many of the differences in how infants were carried in the Middle Ages stems from the practice of swaddling.

breastfeeding on stilts ms

You too can breastfeed on stilts while balancing a pot on your head, if you learn medieval swaddling! British Library Royal 10 E iv.

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.

The earliest depiction of an 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 babywearing was a fairly egalitarian task in Medival and Early Modern Europe: men and women shared the work of carrying infants and children.

St. Christopher, Detail from Westminster Psalter, c. 1250

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 From 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, 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

“Flight into Egypt”, ca. 1620, by Giovanni Andrea Ansaldo (1584-1638)

“The Flight into Egypt” by Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642) & Abraham Govaerts, Abraham (1589-1626), at the Johnny van Haeften Gallery, London, UK

Detail from a five panel series of “Episodes of the infancy of Christ” (1378) by the Maestro di Campli

From the area we now know as France and Belgium the first image is from the Voeux Dupaon, and dates 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, and depicts 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.

(ms g.24 fol 10r)  Detail from the Voeux de Paon, Morgan Library in Northern France.

Detail from the Voeux de Paon (ms g.24 fol 10r), Morgan Library in Northern France.

Hare with Poodles

“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. One 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.

Carrying twins in the margins of the Romance of Alexander, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

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, legs together in a semi-reclined position. There 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.

“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 early 16th century, Lucas van Leyden created this 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– and as with the Hare and Poodle painting, the basket is used to carry more than one child at a time.

“Beggar with two children in a basket on his head”, (etching) by Lucas van Leyden, 16th century.

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 able to look over her shoulder. It is difficult to tell whether his legs are together and down her back (similar to the position 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.

“A Woman Carrying her Baby in Her Arms and Another Small Child on her Back Accompanied by a Young Boy”, by Stefano Della Bella

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 care-giver with a series of belt, or using a narrow band of striped material in a torso-carry. The infant’s legs are together and bent at the knees.

“Three Beggars at a Door”, Rembrandt, 1603

In the late 18th century, Cornelia Sheffer-Lammer painted a solider’s widow with a child on her back.

From Van Houten, p 64

“Solider’s Widow”, Cornelia Sheffer-Lammer, 18th Century

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 straps of the chair.

van houten pg 62001

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 children. 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, the infants are carried by and feed from 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. This painting, from the Netherlands of around the 17th century, notice that the children are all wearing red caps. There are four of them in the painting– can you find them all?


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 side-ways while the three older children entertain her with toys.  Below, an etching of a nursemaid wearing a child in a Swedish Boegfrom the 19th century. This child is older yet still sits side-ways 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.

'Wood Cutter', mid-19th century

‘Wood Cutter’s Family’, mid-19th century.

Sometimes, the infant carrier saves the day– or the kingdom: An 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.

Norway Birkebeinerne_på_Ski_over_Fjeldet_med_Kongsbarnet

“Birkebeinernes Carry Prince Haakon to Safety, 1206″ by Knud Bergslien, 1869.

'Kostüme der Männer und Frauen in Augsburg und Nürnberg, Deutschland, Europa, Orient und Afrika - BSB Cod.icon. 341' at Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek contains around three hundred h

‘Kostüme der Männer und Frauen in Augsburg und Nürnberg, Deutschland, Europa, Orient und Afrika – BSB Cod.icon. 341′ at Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek.


Lapp Mother and Baby, Kopi

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 Artic 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. We can from this survey of art history, 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, and the fact that it is easier to carry a weight on the back than on the front. 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.

Baskets were strapped to the body and were likely multi-taskers. 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.

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.

The Swedish Boeg style carrier, styled from leather, is the most reminiscent of our modern soft-structured carriers, save that it was used to accommodate the swaddled legs of the child.

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. Very few mothers in the Middle Ages or Early Modern era would have had responsibility of caring for her children alone– let alone having to carry all them. Tandem carries show the infant on the front, likely to keep them nearest the breast for feeding, with 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.

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 was used for infant carriers 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.


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