Monday 19 March 2012


Though St. Patrick's Day has passed, I'd like to share this information with you because fostering was a very common practice  in medieval Ireland. In Ireland today, as elsewhere, fostering finds its place in society as a much altered carry-over from the past. Nowadays, it arises for a negative reason: the inability of biological parents to cope, for whatever reason.

Fostering in the past was the antithesis of this. It was a form of child-rearing chosen and upheld for positive reasons, moulded by culture. Fostering was the acceptance of the responsibilities of rearing and educating a child in accordance with certain regulations. The child was indeed the focus in this process, but the realm of fostering expanded beyond that of childhood. It was a lifelong contract. Intimate bonds created through fostering carried immediate and long term consequences. Fostering helped to mould the medieval child, and its enduring character long out-lived the medieval period.

It has been suggested that fostering in Roman times was the result of a taboo which forbade the father from seeing his children until they had reached a certain age. What is known for certain is that when Ireland emerges in the historic period (fifth century), fostering is a well established tradition in society.

Appraising the child

In early medieval Ireland the maternal and paternal kin had a say in where the child was placed, thus the kin group as a whole took an active interest in the future of the child. The valued position of children—as heir, succour in life, support in old age—is why the death of a child was particularly tragic.

Seven years was traditionally regarded as the suitable age for the commencement of fostering. A child of that age was generally regarded as having reached the age of learning and reason. There is evidence, however, for fostering commencing at a much earlier stage, through the practice of wet-nursing.

In legal material of the eighth century, reference is made to nursing clothes (‘cradle clothes’) given with the child when proceeding into fostering. There were two sets of clothing given to the nursing-mother, a black tunic and a black mantle, returned on the completion of fostering. The common practice was the giving of the child to a wet-nurse in her own home, who was then nursing two babies simultaneously, if her own child survived.

The clothes worn by children of the free class (both noble and commoner) while in fostering were of specific colours. The children of the free-man grade wore yellow, black and white and clay-coloured. Red, green and brown were the colours of the noble grade. Purple and blue were reserved for royalty. The colour of clothes and the trimmings (brooches and gold and silver ornamentation) were outward marks of distinction.

Types of food were also distinguished according to rank. Porridge was given to all children, but the different flavourings reflected status: salt for the sons of the commoners, butter for the noble grades, and honey for royal children. The ingredients of the porridge itself differed, with a water-based porridge for the commoners, porridge made with new milk for the aristocratic grade, the same for the children of kings, but with extra wheat in it.

The basis for the type of fostering and education a child received was the size of foster-fee (iarrath) paid. A legal maxim of the eighth century reads: ‘the fostering of each son according to his foster-fee’, implying that rank was all-important. The foster-fee was graded, from three cows for the son of a bóaire (strong farmer) to eighteen cows for the son of a king. Fostering of a daughter was a sét (a fixed unit of value) more expensive in each grade.

At the core of fostering was education to prepare the child for his position later in life. A fine of two-thirds of the foster-fee was incurred if the quality of fostering was deficient in any manner, say, through the negligent provision of instruction in a given area. Differences are evident in the type of education provided. There was a strong pastoral flavour to the education of the free-man grade.
Daughters were taught how to use the quern, the kneading trough, the sieve, and the herding of lambs, kids, pigs and calves. Women were in charge of domestic matters, and therefore needed the skills of cookery, tending sheep (which would provide fleece for weaving), and tending animals.

Boys were taught kiln-drying, wood-cutting and also the herding of various animals—all practical skills for the future farmer. We might have expected to find the boys receiving instruction solely from the foster-father, but this was not the case in areas where the woman held sway.

The children of the higher grades, in addition to receiving instruction in agricultural matters, were taught more noble pursuits: board games resembling draughts and chess for foster-sons; sewing, cutting and embroidery for foster-daughters. Skill in handicraft was a mark of distinction in a woman. If there were appropriate facilities, swimming was supposed to be taught. The sons of noble grades were taught horse riding, if the father supplied a horse. There were many practical reasons for learning how to ride.

A number of items are mentioned in legal material as being in the noble child’s possession, including a hurley and a scabbard, reflecting a mixture of play and military training common for most boys. We should not be surprised to find boys playing games of skill and agility of a competitive nature. Games were also important trials of strength. Play things are explained as ‘goodly things which remove the dullness from little boys, that is, hurleys, balls, hoops’.

Cats and dogs are also mentioned as children’s pets. Older children participated in field games and wrestling. In a thirteenth-century poem lamenting the death of several members of his foster-family, the poet fondly remembers games from his childhood, which he played with his foster-brothers. 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. Piggy-back games were also played.

Parental guidance and responsibility
A peculiarity of fostering was the extra sét it cost for a female child. Commentaries on legal tracts speculate as to why it cost more. Reasons ranged from uncleanliness to the fact that her handiwork was of lesser value than the chores performed by a boy. The most plausible reason given was that her attendants were more numerous. One piece of advice in the early medieval period reads: ‘three darknesses into which women should not go: the darkness of mist, the darkness of night and the darkness of wood’.

Women in saga literature are reproached for wandering alone—a woman on her own was suspected of keeping a tryst. Accompaniment was a precaution against abduction, rape, or attempts to lure into sexual union. The protective role of foster-sisters was important. The hazards which could befall a female fosterling would also have placed the foster-father open to the charge of neglect. General ills which could befall foster-children of both sexes, and which foster-parents were warned against, included the safety of the child in the presence of animals, the danger of cliffs, precipices, and lakes, and injuries caused by spikes, spears, sticks and stones.

If the fostering undertaken was one of affection (i.e. where no fee was levied), the foster-father or foster-mother was not liable for crimes committed by the child. The age of the child, the nature of the crime, and the number of offences previously committed, were all taken into consideration when the punishment for a crime was decided. The age of the child in relation to crime is divided in three: to the age of seven, from seven to twelve, and from twelve to seventeen. Punishment took the form of chastisement, fasting, and/or the restitution of goods.

The most common crimes committed by children were assault and theft. In the late medieval Life of Brendan an episode from his youth relates an incident where he beat a girl who wished to play with him. He is severely reproached by his tutor. Excessive violence while playing games involving physical contact was also punishable. The only specifics of a crime committed by a foster-child in legal material is the theft by a child under twelve years of age of a hoop or hurley, resulting in restitution in kind.

The foster-father paid the fines for the crimes committed, until he ‘proclaimed’ his foster-son to his natural father by formally declaring his foster-son’s criminal tendencies, thereby legally shifting the responsibility for certain crimes to the natural father, if the foster-father was not at fault. If a child was habitually criminal and subsequently proclaimed, the means of discipline available to the foster-parents was obviously limited.

According to Brehon law, if a child was blemished in any way while in fostering the foster-father forfeited the fee. If there was a justifiable reason, two-thirds of the fee was forfeited. For noble grades there could not be ‘a blemish if struck, or the shedding of blood, or one that is a bandage wound’. The overall impression is that disciplining a child was extremely difficult, and the best path a foster-parent could take was to proclaim the child.
Children Playing a Variety of Games

This would have been a wise financial step, as the foster-parent was held responsible for paying all the fines incurred by an unproclaimed child. As it stood the foster-father was responsible for the first deliberate offence committed by the child, which could involve a serious crime such as bodily injury or homicide. On a more positive note, the foster-father received one-third of the díre (fine) of the foster-son if he was injured in any way.

There were three times of fostering completion: death, crime and choice.Negligence carried far-reaching consequences if the foster-father did not compensate the family of the child adequately and swiftly for their loss. The ‘vengeance for the foster-child of the family’ was permitted by law.

If the father refused to pay for his son’s crimes once proclaimed, the foster-father kept the unspent part of the foster-fee and returned the child. A fostering contract could be terminated by choice, for example, when a girl married or took the veil. Seventeen was the age of fostering completion for boys and fourteen for girls, if special circumstances had not forced an earlier termination. At seventeen the male foster-child was held totally responsible for his own crimes and had to pay full fine accordingly.

Significance of foster-ties

Through participation in fostering, one not only secured maintenance in later life and the possibility of creating friendly or non-belligerent relations between families, but the child also secured support for itself and its siblings in the future. The medieval world was violent. Recurrent references to killings and to incidents of blindings, drownings, and seizings and many other violent acts, illustrate the need for support in everyday life. Foster-links did not guarantee support or loyalty, but they were one, if not the most binding, of ties, which society had to offer. Fostering, as it functioned in medieval Ireland, was advantageous for the child, the kin and society.


  1. This is fascinating! I always like to learn more about fostering. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Vonda. It's rather a long piece, but I agree it's informative stuff.

  2. Very interesting. I knew that sons trained with other families, but didn't know that girls were sent out to other homes as well.

    Thanks for the information.

    1. That was a surprise to me too. I recently read a novel about a boy and girl from different families who were sent to foster together. Can't remember the title. Will try to find it. It was a good book.

  3. Fosterage was also practiced in the Highlands of Scotland where many customs were similar because Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland shared the same language and culture. During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms
    (aka English Civil Wars) 8 foster brothers of the chief of the MacLeans
    is supposed to have died one after the other trying to protect their chief.
    As they died they are supposed to have cried 'fear eile airson Eachainn'.

    1. I knew about Scotland, and was surprised to learn it was so prevalent in Ireland too. Good story-thanks for the tidbit.

  4. Oops. Forgot the translation of 'fear eile airson Eachainn' which is
    'another one for Hector' (the chief's name).