Princess Paragons: Enlightening Pretend Play
Based on many current depictions, in books and on screen, princesses seem to have it all. Money, jewels, good looks, and a staff of people dedicated to protecting and seeing to their every need. Some may encounter difficulties. Think of Elsa in the film Frozen and the spell descending her kingdom into perpetual winter. But with cleverness and a witty companion, a happy ending is not out of reach for a beautiful princess.
Is it true that a princess’s life was posh? Well, maybe in a rare case, but most princesses, at least in Medieval times, were well-educated, involved in politics, ready to assume responsibility for an armed force, able hunters, and in charge of a large household, ensuring their subjects were fed and remained healthy. These daughters of kings and queens were hardly idly dancing their days away but fulfilled important functions in the castle.
One part of the job description that was definitely not glamorous was the fact that often a princess was married off to a stranger to form political alliances. For some, when they were very young, marriage contracts were drawn up. Girls, the same age as your princess, could be sent to the households of their future husbands. And yes, while they had other responsibilities, perhaps their most important was producing heirs. If the Queen’s husband died, she was unable to produce an heir, or a princess was “inconvenient” to the next in line, these women would then “take the veil,” or enter a convent.
Yes their lives could be tough, and they may not have had a lot of control over their future fortunes, but many were powerful, energetic, and made a difference. In this activity, we discuss some things that are fun and exciting about their lives, and worth sharing with your pretend princess. There are even nuggets of information for your pretend knight, prince, or king.
If she lived with her mother the Queen or a future mother-in-law, a princess’s education included an emphasis on singing, drawing, embroidery, and dancing. Many were taught multiple languages, including Greek and Latin, history, politics, and tactics of warfare.
A princess would have to know something about growing, harvesting and preparing foods. Many trained in the basics of medicine or at least tending to minor illnesses and ailments. Some skills in accounting would have come in handy for managing incomes from their lands and keeping track of charitable giving (or the alms they were expected to disperse).
Finally, a princess would need to know, manage and stay on good terms with a succession of noble men and women with multiple titles such as barons, marquises, dukes, counts, and of course her knights, not to mention all those gentlemen of the Church, or the Pope, Bishops, Arch-Deacons, etc. So many social responsibilities!
Some of these women may have been left for years as the head of a castle or regent as their fathers and husbands participated in Crusades to the Holy Land, were off to war, or had passed away. Thus, their educations would have come in handy.
So let’s look beyond the tiaras and explore the lives of princesses in Western Europe during Medieval Period (5th Century – 15th Century). How did they live day to day? The iconic princess that children have in mind from film and books tend to be from Europe and Britain thus the focus on this geographic area. Hopefully, in future posts, we can examine what life was like for a princess from other parts of the globe.
Is she pretending to be a princess? Here are some ideas for topics of discussion you might introduce to enhance that play and stimulate her curiosity.
What were a princess’s clothes made from? Where did those fabrics come from?
Did they have jewels or precious metals for their crowns, which ones and what did they look like?
What did they eat and how was food prepared in the castle?
How were princesses trained in keeping their subjects healthy?
Clothing for royalty and wealthy members of society in the Medieval Period was made from silk, velvets, linen, cotton, and wool. Does your child have clothes in her (or your) closet that are made from these materials? Take a close look at and touch these fabrics, finding language to label and describe them. Silk should have a sheen (shiny). Velvet is luxurious and soft. Wool can be itchy, but necessary during what time of the year, or why make clothing out of wool?
Where did these textiles for a princess’s gown come from? Wool is from sheep; linen from flax and both sheep and flax could have been grown near her castle. Cotton was imported, perhaps from India. Velvet can be made from many different fibers.
What about silk? Where does it come from? Silk is from silkworms that feed on mulberry leaves. In Europe during the Middle Ages, silk was coming from China, India, and the Byzantine Empire. Look up these places on a map to determine how far cotton and silk would have traveled from their origins to Europe (on the silk road).
Do you have any embroidery you can share with your child? Explain the process of sewing those barely visible stitches with different shades of threads to create images.
What would a princess use to dye the threads various colors? Natural dyes of that period were from plants, minerals, and even some animals. The sources of plant dyes included roots, berries, bark, leaves and even the occasional flower such as a rose or parsley flower. Body parts of a particular snail or the dried bodies of a certain species of insect were the main ingredient. Iron shavings and clays also provided dyes for, as you can imagine, reddish and yellowish browns.
Historically lead and iron were made into clasps to hold clothing together or were used for decoration and accessories. During the Medieval Ages, royal households would have incorporated gold, silver and pearls into their outfits. Precious and semi-precious jewels were also added as embellishments, certainly in crowns, but in clothing and jewelry as well.
Do you have any gold, silver, pearls or precious stones to examine? Use a magnifying glass. Find pictures of crowns and jewelry belonging to a royal family. Can you identify the gemstones? Their color should be a clue as emeralds are green, rubies are red, diamonds are predominantly white, and sapphires are predominantly blue. Can you see pearls, opals, and amethyst? Assist your child in labeling these gems and finding the language to describe them. If she is going to wear a crown, why not be an expert in what they are made of? (I had trouble finding images of real crowns for medieval princesses. Instead, there seems to be a thriving market for crowns for modern day adult princesses! Multiple sites sell Renaissance/Medieval costumes and crowns. Not the real things, but still could be fun to examine).
Knights traveling to the Middle East for the Crusades often returned with exotic spices. See maps of the different routes the Crusaders traveled:
With a parent’s permission, princesses can take a look in their own spice cabinets for those spices a knight may have gifted to them. Are there bottles of cardamom, cumin, coriander, turmeric, mace, cloves, ginger, saffron and mustard? Examine the colors of these spices and take a whiff. Can your child describe the smell? Is “strong” a word that comes to mind? Remember that sometimes because of a lack of refrigeration, meats tended to go rancid. What purpose might these strong smelling spices have served?
Compare and Contrast
In Medieval Europe, the most common furs would have been sheepskin (shearling), fox, ermine (stoat), martens, sable. Even coats made from camel skin have been reported. Find pictures of these animals and compare the nature of the fur. Ermine is especially attractive as the white fur was often decorated with black patterns or symbols.
We noted that princesses would have learned to sing or play a musical instrument. Compare those instruments available during Medieval times with modern instruments.
Here is something that looks kind of like a cello called a gamba.
Or compare a lute to a guitar. https://www.music.iastate.edu/antiqua/lute.htm
A princess’s instrument of choice may have been a harp. These were a little smaller than the harps we think of in our orchestras today. https://www.music.iastate.edu/antiqua/harp.htm
Share some Medieval music with your child. The Gregorian chants are quite famous and fun listening. But the dance music was lively and fun to listen and move to, but distinct from music today.
Meals during this period would have included bread, meats, and vegetables, or familiar items. Or are they familiar? Pheasant, cranes, and swans were roasted and served as poultry. Wild boar and venison (deer) were conventional meats. Beef was a larger investment and not consumed frequently. Pork and chicken are probably the more familiar foods. Meat would have been roasted, smoked, or dried. Can you prepare your own menu for a banquet? What would your princess serve to her guests?
Bread was from wheat, but in Northern Europe, it was expensive. Therefore, alternative grains were used such as barley, oats, and rye. Next time you are in a grocery store or bakery with a good selection of loaves of bread examine the varying colors or bread made from rye or oats.
Kingdoms in areas closer to what is no Spain and Italy would have had access to citrus, olives, and grapes. In the north dried figs and dates were available, and then whatever orchards produced during the summer months (apples, pears, and plums). Most of the vegetables would have been familiar to us today, or parsnips, cabbage, onion, lettuce, carrots, and turnips. Remember that tomatoes and potatoes would NOT have been available, as these arrive in the 16C from the new world.
Here are some easy recipes from the Medieval period that you and your princess can prepare for an authentic meal or snack. http://www.medievalcookery.com/recipes/indexesy.html
Honey as a common sweetener as sugar was expensive and had to be transported. Originally sugar came from Morocco. Eventually, the Caribbean was the source of sugar cane and sugar, but it first had to be discovered.
Remember that a princess would not have had a fork until around the 13th Century! She would have eaten broth with a spoon, but everything else was eaten with a knife.
A princess may have overseen etiquette in the castle or promoted good manners. Can you imagine what behaviors would have been acceptable or not? Turns out there may have been some similarities with manners today as it was rude to fart at the table, scratch flea bites, belch or spit, wipe your mouth on your sleeve, and stuff your mouth. Can your princess make up some more rules for proper behavior?
If examining precious or semi-precious gems, today’s versions tend to be cut or faceted. This enhances the ability to catch and reflect light adding bling. The gems used in Medieval times were used in polished (cabochon) but not cut forms, so they tend not to glitter.
Doctors and clergy, who were always men, were thought to have the most authority when it came time to treat the sick (although the occasional abbess might have more). Often monasteries, with monks or nuns, served as hospitals. Medieval medicine was dominated by ideas that today we would consider spiritual and mystical, but Folk medicine and particularly the use of herbs or medicinal plants was common and could be effective. These plant materials would have been made into salves or drinks. Princesses and their mothers the Queen would likely have been involved in overseeing the planting of herbs and medicinal plants in the castle garden and would have known how to produce ointments and salves for common problems such as headaches, minor wounds, stomach aches.
Consider some of the following recommendations for treatment (these from a site called Mostly Medieval).
For augue (fever and chills) consume a spider wrapped in a raisin.
For a toothache, touch the tooth of a dead man
For baldness, rub goose droppings on the affected area.
Make up some of your own treatments for illnesses.
Herbal medicine solutions included: Chamomile for earaches and thyme for intestinal worms.
And what about those fire breathing dragons? Literature, poems, and songs were filled with references to dragons, demons, griffins, werewolves, and evil beings intending to do harm. Other mythical creatures were kind or good, such as unicorns. Some of these monsters still appear in our stories. Can you think which ones? Can you make up your own mythical creatures, good or bad, and draw, write or sing about them?
Create a historical timeline of the Middle Ages, which lasted approximately one thousand years, or from 500 to 1500 in Europe. No, you do not have to depict all 1000 years, but maybe 10 Centuries. You could work on graph paper or regular paper with approximately equal intervals. This was a long period with lots of interesting things happening. Maybe add in the years that Elizabeth I of England lived, or other events you think your child may have heard of. If you add in the time frame from 1500 to 2016, your child can see how many years ago the Middle Ages were. For younger children the emphasis is on the literal see, as they are not likely to comprehend a large number of years.
How many people might have lived in a castle during a siege? That is, often an enemy would lay siege to a castle, keeping all of the inhabitants inside until they gave up or negotiated a resolution. That meant that hundreds of people might have been in a castle for months. How much food would they have needed to survive?
The kitchen staff alone could have consisted of over a 100 people, including bakers, butchers, the head of the pantry, scullery maids, milk maids, and page boys. These folks would have to prepare two meals a day for all of the residents of the castle. What a busy place! Think of the number of other jobs and people in a castle, or knights and guards, ladies in waiting, stable boys, clerks, minstrels, jesters and the princess’ tutor.
Explore how fibers were created. As discussed above, clothing for a princess would have been woven from a number of different materials, or cotton, wool, flax, and velvet. Before the weaving could start, those materials would have to be combed and then spun into threads or yarns.
Make your own fibers. You can find raw wool at some farmers’ markets or seasonal fairs. It could be fun to try and spin it, but even if you don’t go that far, it has a great feel, and it can be twisted into something resembling yarn. Here is website for building a hand spinner that closely resembles one a princess might have used:
Try making your own natural dyes! Here is another site with easy and fun activities: http://playfullearning.net/2013/06/all-natural-tie-dye-diy/
Stoves were not invented until the 18th Century, so most cooking was done over an open fire in a hearth. Try it, or cook a hot dog or a marshmallow on a stick. (Castles did have ovens).
Build your own castle or draw a design of a castle you think would: 1) hold a great number of people, 2) be safe from your enemies, as well as raiders and pirates, and 3) represent your power and have room for all of the business of ruling people. The definition of a castle is a fortified building. During the Medieval period, the castles were large stone structures that were more bulky than architecturally interesting. Those massive castles, such as Versailles outside of Paris where Marie Antoinette lived, would be designed and built later for royalty.
Think of castles with a moat, baily (the open area inside the wall), solar (the sleeping chambers for the lord and lady), a chapel, a great hall, tower keep, murder holes, and slits from which to shot arrows from. Windows were small and covered with wooden shutters until glass was introduced in the 13th century.
How would you get water into the castle? Keep it warm? Where could folks relieve themselves (latrines)? Where would animals live? How would you store grain? Where would you put arms and armor, the treasury, and store wine and ale? Engineering a space for lots of people is a real challenge.
Build a trebuchet! It is unlikely that a princess would have been directly involved in building this machine to break castle walls during a siege, but someone may have consulted with her about how to proceed, thus she would have had to have some knowledge.
Princesses and royalty had their own coat of arms or symbols to represent where they came from geographically and their family history. These often depicted lions, eagles or griffons (griffons are mythical creatures with the body, tail and back legs of a lion, and the head and wings or an eagle). After examining these examples of coats of arms, design your own coat of arms or crest.
Long flowing tresses? Try out these princess hairstyles… http://rosaliegilbert.com/hairstyles.html.
Wearing a crown on a daily basis was probably not feasible. How about creating your own version of a headdress? Alternatively, make your own wimple.
As you may already be aware, there are a ton of craft projects with princess themes. I had trouble seeing science or history learning opportunities in any of these activities, but I don’t want to discourage anyone from having fun with them.
Not really a fan of the whole princess thing, but have a daughter who is obsessed? Here are some suggestions for books whose authors may share your skepticism but who found ways to add depth to your child’s fascination.
For older children the Alana series by Tamara Pierce is addicting. Alanna is not a princess, but still an enjoyable heroine who lives in a fantasy kingdom and trains as a knight.
Dress up and visit a Renaissance Festival in your area!
Dress up for Halloween and impress with your knowledge of the Medieval Ages.