Military and kitchen toys from the past show some aspects of childhood never change, wrote Geoff Egan

The archaeology of medieval and post-medieval childhood has tended, in the past, to concentrate on graves – simply because children can be identified with most certainty there. The skeletons of dead children have produced a mass of evidence about causes of childhood deaths and about health and illness; but the life and culture of the living child has received much less attention.

A range of artefacts, however, are now being recognised as children’s toys, and these are producing a more rounded picture of childhood in medieval and early-modern Britain.

These artefacts are mainly miniatures, representing both human figures and household and military objects. Hundreds have been found over the past 20 years in London alone. We also know of toys such as tops, balls, hoops and kites, either from excavated or pictorial evidence, but these survive in fewer numbers.

There is an immediate appeal in these early playthings – not least because many of them are strikingly similar to the toys that anyone over the age of about 35 today used to play with in their own childhood.

A hollow-cast, mounted figure, made, like most of the surviving early toys, of pewter, and datable from the armour and the sword to within a decade either side of 1300, stands right at the start of the tradition of that enduring plaything, the toy knight. These continued, keeping up with fashions in armour, through the rest of the Middle Ages, possibly declining when chivalry itself became less prominent in the face of the use of gunpowder in battle.

A remarkable bird figure made to pivot on a horizontal bar on a separate stand has a rod that passes up through the hollow body to emerge at the mouth as the tongue. By rocking the figure to and fro the tongue would have appeared to go in and out. This ingenious 14th century plaything has a claim to be the earliest surviving post-Roman toy with moving parts – though it must be said that such toys were probably rare even in Roman times.

The most numerous survivors of early toys are pewter jugs, frequently with relief ornament that reflects slip decoration (that is, liquid clay poured into a design) on full-sized vessels. A 14th century stone mould for producing one version has been excavated at Hereford. Although the great majority of the toy finds are from towns, the rural child was not left out, as the discovery away from urban areas of a few playthings, like a miniature medieval jug from Sigglesthorne in East Yorkshire, demonstrates.

This particular jug seems to be paralleled by a London find, hinting at a wide marketing network for these items as early as the 14th century. Possible parallels between 15th century toy tableware in England and some on the Continent may give the trade an international dimension, although the full extent of any international trade is unclear at present.

When, in the adult world, jugs lost their pre-eminance to metal ewers in the late 15th/early 16th centuries, toy jugs were replaced by toy ewers, and sometimes including openable lids.

Miniature tripod cauldrons – the classic late medieval cooking vessel – and footed drinking bowls were also in the medieval toy repertoire, with kitchen equipment, like griddles with fish on, coming in towards the end of the period, to be replaced by frying pans with fish in the 17th or 18th century.

Plates, of which over 200 have been found in London from the late 15th to the 18th centuries, are the most frequently encountered category. The majority feature a rose in the centre, though this is a very rare decoration in contemporary full-sized tableware. These toys typically represented the more expensive and important household items – we only find toy plates, for example, at a time when full-size plates had begun to be made for display. Previously, when the jug was the most important item on the table, bowls and plates were usually wooden and seem to have been deemed unworthy of being turned into a toy.

By the 17th century, war toys had seemingly shifted away from knights to small copies in bone of swords and in copper alloy of firearms, wielded by the child. Hand guns and (possibly a little later) cannon are found very widely. These were made as fully-working miniatures of adult weapons – gunpowder, firing mechanisms and all – and could actually fire a projectile such as a miniature cannonball. A few have split barrels from explosions when the missiles got jammed, suggesting that this was regularly done. Health and safety in play-things were clearly not the issues they are now.

We have a few contemporary Continental representations of miniature items in use, and it seems quite clear that the household items were the playthings of girls, the war toys of boys, as one would expect. Interestingly, miniatures nearly always represented contemporary full-sized items: toy soldiers and weapons, for example, never represented warriors from a romanticised past or from a significant past war, as was more common in recent times. Toy watches followed the development of adult watches, as they changed shape in the 17th century from oval to round. Only miniature display cupboards sometimes represented furniture made half a century or so earlier, perhaps reflecting the presence of `antiques’ in the home. Another stock toy, the human figure, turns up in a series of very detailed late Tudor hollow pewter men and women. Some of these seem to have been intended to walk, aided by strings. There is also a series of cruder, two-dimensional flat figures, probably cheaper versions of the same basic plaything. The latter have usually been found, significantly for the picture of the early toy market being built up, in rural areas, whereas the three-dimensional figures are currently restricted to the capital.

It is reasonable to expect that the more expensive the toy, the more limited the distribution; and there may have been many parts of Britain where manufactured, marketed toys were never seen at all. However, even in these areas, the concept of a toy was presumably known, even if toys there were home-made and no longer survive.

Finds from Viking and Norman Dublin show that toy wooden boats must have been popular very early, as a couple of 9th century models are known. Although in the rest of Britain there seem to be no toy boat survivals from the Middle Ages, a number of tiny metal anchors found in the Thames are probably the remains of wooden boats that were lost in the river and have otherwise disappeared. Flat pewter toy ships do occasionally turn up from the 16th and 17th centuries, resplendent with detail, like the late 16th century trumpeter on the deck of an Elizabethan warship which has all guns blazing.

From at least the 1640s makers were marking these products with their initials and sometimes the year – a sure sign of a highly competitive market. Successful lines had rival makers competing for a share in the trade, sometimes with shameless imitations of original products. This comes over at its most outrageous among toy watches from the early 18th century – for which, coincidentally, details of a court case brought by one maker against another are on record. In 1714-15 a Mr Hux, whose toy timepieces had several components, including a glass, turnable hands and even a tick produced by a strut inside the case being turned against a series of ridges, took to court a Mr Beasly, whom he accused of plagiarising this presumably lucrative line. The outcome has not been traced, but several toy watches have the name HUX and one otherwise virtually identical has BEEZLEY instead – a vivid illustration of market forces in the developing toy industry. Mr Hux was in fact a mainstream London pewterer, for whom toys were a sideline, and he may have been typical of other toy-makers. One manufacturer known by his stamp as IDQ produced 20 different types of toy, but nothing further is known about him.

It has taken some time to establish that toys were a widely available, mass-produced commodity, keenly marketed from at least 1300 in this country, and with an international trade from at least the 15th century. Many surviving miniature toys have been found by metal detectorists – a striking instance of the positive contribution that this tool can make to our understanding of the past, if it is operated with appropriate questions in mind.

The range of toys that were manufactured, and in some instances their sophistication, comes as a revelation. These finds clearly contradict the traditional view that in the Middle Ages there was no childhood in the sense that we understand it today.

The late Dr Geoff Egan was a finds specialist at the Museum of London, and author of Playthings from the Past (Jonathan Horne, 1996)