Toys in the Middle Ages

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"Toys in the Middle Ages" By Lady Margritte of Ravenscroft.
NOTE: See also the files: toys-msg, dolls-msg, child-gam-msg, teething-toys-msg, child-wagons-msg, child-books-msg, children-msg, babies-msg.

This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.

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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.
Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at


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.

Musical Toys

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

and costly.

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).

Military Toys

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 "poupée" 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.

Wind Toys

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


Ball Games
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.

Other Toys

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. . 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

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