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Monday, February 20, 2012


This is an ancient Greek word for doll, first mentioned in a play by Menander. Thanks to an Australian doll collecting couple who sent me the source for the word. Another ancient Greek word associated with dolls is Eidolon, for idol. More to follow, soon. Here are some images to enjoy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

More Renaissance and 17th Century Dolls

Here are a photo of Bartholmew Fair, a Baby, and a page from a cookbook about the Fair. Also, some contemporary images, and the Bart. Family, which I am researching for connections with fair origins.

Bartholomew Babies and the 17th Century

Here are a few photos, with content to follow. These are dolls from 1491 and other Renaissance eras, and the 17th century. The Bartholmew Fair was a huge event for decades in Europe, and elaborate dolls, ancestors of our carnival dolls, were famous. Some of these survive today. This is the era of The Old Pretender, Letitia Penn, and Lord and Lady Clapham, early dolls that survive and which were cherished as "collectors items" and as toys. It is the era of the Dutch and German baby houses or doll houses, and of toy villages like Mon Plaisir, which I will write aobut. These were the treaures of adult collectors, though at least one, Ann Sharp's Baby House, belonged to a child who catalogued her items of delight. For more, read Flora Gill Jacobs' books on doll houses. They are in my bibliography, A Bibliography of Toys and Dolls, available from me or on Amazon.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Dolls and Doll Makers

I want to thank the author of my first comment; it was very encouraging. A great source for graphics and information about Medieval dolls is my friend's book Dolls and Doll Makers, Crown, 1969. Mary Hillier also wrote excellent books on Automata and Wax Dolls, and she often wrote for doll magazines. She was a wonderful friend and penpal to me, and she proofed my books and my dissertation for me. She was great at helping with research, and I remember her once more on the eve of her death, Valentine's Day 1999. The last thing she sent me was a magazine with her article on antique valentines, which she loved. She was in good spirits, and had just finished a book no Chloe Preston. Mary wrote to me twice a month, and I two her, for almost 14 years. Her last gift to me was a British travel guide; I was going to visit her.

As a scholar, she was in a league of her own. I often did little projects for her, and sent the information. She could uncover anything, and wrote very, very well. She was also an editor for Pollack's Toy Dictionary, and worked for them in various capacities. Dolls and Dollmakers has also been translated into German. I got my first copy when I was none. I met Mary when I was 25.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dr. E's Doll Museum Blog: Gingerbread of the Middle Ages

Dr. E's Doll Museum Blog: Gingerbread of the Middle Ages: A Link with medieval recipes>. Early dolls were often edible, and gingerbread dolls and hous...

Medieval Miniature Dolls; Modern Interpretations.


See also my Friend, Deb Ritter, of Uneek Designs on Etsy.

Medieval Toys you can Make

Here is a link for a class on making medieval toy

From Stefan's Floregium:

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.


Medieval Dolls, Part III

From the Blog, Mis Munecas, Medieval Children:

You will enjoy this link.

Medieval Dolls, Part II

Here is an article I found, which can be freely circulated for nonprofits, of which we are one:

Medieval Dolls
Aelflaed of the Weald (India Ollerenshaw), 2002

Fig 1: German clay doll, circa 1450.
There is no doubt that medieval children played with dolls. I offer here the details of my research into these timeless playthings, examining to the best of my ability the many types of dolls which were bought and sold, given and cherished by our forbears. Much of the information comes from the wealthy strata of society, chiefly because their toys were perhaps more durable and certainly more lavish, and therefore the more likely to be recorded and preserved, but there is ample evidence that paupers and princes alike found joy in dolls of very similar types.

The term 'doll' is not period. In medieval times, these ubiquitous toys were known as poppets or puppets, from the Latin pupa/pupus meaning 'new-born child' (Tuttle). They were also commonly called babies, often distinguished from live human babies by their place of manufacture - Bartholomew babies were purchased at Bartholomew Fair, and Flanders babies came from the Dutch lowlands. 'Mawmets' (or 'mammettes') (Orme, p. 52) is another English term, while in medieval Germany, dolls were called Docke or Tocke, after the blocks of wood from which the simplest figures were carved (Fritsch). The modern word, 'doll', a diminutive of the name Dorothy, came into use after the medieval period.

There are some difficulties in researching dolls which may not be immediately apparent. Chief among these is the use, throughout history and the world, of miniature human figures as idols for religious purposes. This is as true for Christian as for other religions. As late as 1414 Margery Kempe is recorded as meeting, in Italy, a woman who travelled about with an image of the infant Christ which was reverentially dressed in clothes (Orme, pp. 56 - 57). On the other side of the coin, ritual items can become toys - in the time of Henry VIII, some English children were allowed to play with images that had been taken from the newly-dissolved religious houses, and which presumably were originally intended as items of reverence rather than toys.

Another source of confusion arises from the popular conception of witchcraft, wherein images are used as a means of access to a person, whether for beneficial or harmful purposes - mostly recorded as the latter, due to the proceedings of witchcraft trials and the like. Voodoo culture has similar uses for dolls. Between the recreational, the religious and the magical, it can be very difficult to assign a particular surviving miniature with certainty to any one category. However, there remains plenty of evidence from portraiture and written sources to prove that children certainly played with human figures.

Fig 2: 11th C. doll from Russia. Actual size 13x3 cm.

Dolls in the medieval period came from various sources. They might be home-made by adults with time on their hands, fashioned by the children themselves, or bought from wandering peddlers or merchants at fairs - even ordered specially from the most prestigious makers. Some of these last appear to have been given to children once their usefulness as fashion models was past. Naturally, the types and magnificence of the toys varied with the status of the recipient. Many of the dolls sold in England came from abroad, chiefly from Germany and Holland, although very fancy dolls were sold in the Palais du Justice, alongside other expensive luxuries. However, the industry was slow to develop into a guild, hampered partly by its own rules - toys had to be finished by the appropriate masters, and thus could not be made all in one workshop, for instance. There was also the hindrance that toymaking was for a long time considered an addition to a 'real' trade, and to a great extent left to the local craftsmen in their spare time, rather than quickly becoming an industry of its own, as was the case in many other fields. However, dolls among other toys appear to have been traded on a small but constant - and gradually increasing - level throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Dockenmacher ('doll-makers') are recorded in Nuremberg from 1413 (Fraser, p. 66), and their very existence indicates the rising importance of the toy trade on both the local and the international scene.

Written sources for the existence of dolls, and to some extent of their type and manufacture, are fairly plentiful, from legal records, to poetry describing the age of innocence, and sermons on the immature behaviour of the socialites of the day. Luther spoke scornfully of women as pretty Tocke (Fraser, p. 67), while an English source of 1413 compared idle knights and squires to "legges of clowtes, as children maken popetis for to pleyen with while they ben yonge", and not long afterwards, in the Scottish text Ratis Raving, there is a description of children making "a cumly lady of a clout" (Orme, pp. 51 - 52). On a less literary note, records of St Bartholomew's Fair, established in 1133, mention stalls containing sweets and dolls. A book of customs rates for 1550 quotes a set rate for the importation of "babies and puppets for children" and "babies' heads of earth". None of these earthenware heads has survived, although presumably they were common enough to require a standard import duty (King, p. 56). Likewise, the trade was prevalent enough to allow William Turner to write in his Herbal (1562) of the "little puppets and mammettes which come to be sold in England in boxes" (Orme, p. 52). In the same year, a girl or woman at Elizabeth's court was given a "baby of pewter". On the Continent, Schultz has collected Middle High German sources which mention dolls as a specifically childish plaything in the early thirteenth century (Schultz, p. 51). A fifteenth-century observer in Paris described the dolls for sale in the markets there as "charming and attractively dressed" (Fraser, p. 67). Written records certainly imply that dolls were a standard, if only minor, item of trade and a common possession of the young.

Most pictorial sources are generally later, but one drawing survives from around 1200, which shows two youths playing with a pair of foot soldiers. The warriors appear to be on strings, enabling them to be pulled back and forth in semblance of battle. Boys are often shown in illustrations playing with such warrior dolls, and various jousting figures survive which show the perfection of articulated armour and fine horse-trappings which could be achieved in a boy's plaything. In portraiture of the sixteenth century, noble girls are often pictured holding exquisitely dressed dolls, possibly bought new for the sitting as they seem fresh from the box and neither grubby nor worn down with use. These dolls are likely to be accurately painted rather than idealised, as the sitters themselves often were, so it must be assumed that such dolls were indeed artistically finished, beautifully attired and painted with the most delicate of features. In contrast, the seventeenth-century painting of a peasant family, by Adriaen van Ostade, offers proof that children of more humble origins also played with dolls (Fraser, p. 88).

Fig 3: 12th C. doll from Russia. Actual size 11.8x4 cm.
Archaeological evidence is more widely available than might at first be thought. Naturally, more survives the closer we get to modern times, and the material of which dolls were made doubtless influences our picture of their history. From Viking settlements in the far north a few dolls have been separated from the multitude of figures identified by the experts as idols and funerary figures. Some heads and limbs have been found, which may once have had cloth bodies, although it is uncertain whether these were designed as toys or votive offerings (Levick and Beadle). Although no surviving pieces have thus far been uncovered, King states that wealthy Anglo-Saxon children in England may have entertained themselves with carved alabaster dolls, a substance which had been used for doll-making since the Roman occupation, while poorer children of this age would have owned wooden or cloth dolls (King, p. 40). A rag doll is in fact mentioned as early as the ninth century, in the Indiculus Superstitionum. The eleventh-thirteenth centuries give us a few very simple wooden figures, carved from flat pieces of wood so that they appear two-dimensional. They tend to have facial features, and sometimes clothing, incised into the wood (Kolchin, p. 201). Kolchin only identifies five dolls over the whole period of the excavation, in comparison to 400 spinning-tops. Perhaps the majority of dolls were made of rag or other more perishable (possibly edible) substances.

Wooden dolls throughout the medieval period were often carved from a single block, as these Russian ones are, but were also made jointed from fairly early times. The Hortus Sanitatis of 1491 shows Nuremberg doll-makers at work on jointed dolls (Fraser, p. 62). Marionettes, once too worn to be used in plays, would likely have ended up as children's toys. However, 'stump' dolls were still common playthings in the sixteenth century. A surviving example held by the London Museum dates from around 1600, is shaped like a skittle (with a more detailed torso section), wears a small ruff and has incised grooves to indicate the folds of the skirt (King, p. 55). Perhaps the dressing of wooden pegs to make dolls derives also from the stump doll. Traditional wooden pegs, strikingly human-shaped, were known from at least the sixteenth century, as a surviving example found in London shows (Egan, p. 256), so it is quite possible that they were used as dolls as early as this.

Fig 4: German clay dolls dating from the 13th or 14th century.

French and German dolls which survive from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries are mostly made of white pipe-clay, formed in moulds. Some have a depression in the chest, which it is postulated may be meant to hold a coin and thus indicates that the doll may have been a gift, perhaps a christening present. Figures of people on horseback are common, whether knights or ladies, reflecting the pastimes of the wealthy of the period. (After all, who wants to play with a pauper 'Barbie' doll?) Chivalric images of this type are found in England from the fourteenth century, usually cast in lead-tin alloy - the English seem to have favoured metal where continental custom tended rather to use ceramic for otherwise similar products. Silver was also a favoured medium for the toys of the rich throughout Europe, although the silver figures seem to have been very miniature and perhaps more intended for looking at than for playing with.

The sixteenth century offers various cast basemetal dolls, hollow at the rear and dressed in current fashions. They tend to have arms held at hip level, and hands formed into loops, possibly so they could be dandled on strings like puppets. These dolls are quite small, ranging from 5 cm to 7.5 cm tall, made of a lead/tin alloy like most of the English survivals (Orme, p. 54). To date these have been found only in London, although there is some suggestion, based on the Southern German style of some of the garments, that these dolls may first have been imported to England and later copied - like many a good idea! - by local manufacturers. Less well-formed metal figures of women with their hands on their hips have been found mostly in rural areas of England. They are flat rather than moulded, and simplistically decorated (making them difficult to date precisely), but overall very similar in style to the more sophisticated London dolls. These may be a cheaper version of the loop-handed figures, intended perhaps for peasant children (Egan). Cast metal knights-on-horseback are also found from the 14th to the 16th centuries, with clay equivalents from across the Channel, and wooden versions throughout Europe.

Fig 5: Late-period lead/tin doll from England. This Tudor man is hollow at the back, and the missing bottom half has been added from similar figures.
Aside from these durable creatures of wood, clay and metal, many dolls must have been manufactured of cloth. Unfortunately, no 'rag-dolls' of earlier medieval times have survived, although a doll dating from the Roman period in Egypt is pictured in Fraser (Fraser, p. 50), which may give some hint as to the construction of early medieval cloth dolls, as does this mention, from 1583, of 'mawmets' being made "of rags and cloutes compact together" (Orme, p. 52). The heavy, stiff dolls of clay and wood may perhaps have been more decorative and therefore less handled than the more cuddly fabric versions, although some of the magnificent dolls which are extant from the very end of the sixteenth century are made of cloth. One of these, now in the Stockholm Royal Armoury Collection, dates from 1590 and puts the notion of a 'rag' doll into new perspective - she is built upon a wire armature swathed in unspun silk threads, with real hair and embroidered features. This magnificent doll is dressed in perfect replica of the fashion of the period, sewn from the finest of silks and velvets and decorated with pearls (King, p. 54). From these heights of childhood glory, the leap to lowly peasant dolls of real rags seems very great.

Wax, wood and composition dolls were all offered for sale at the fairs of Venice and Florence at the end of the fourteenth century, and the wax and composition versions seem to have become more widely available from this time (King, p. 46). None of these early composition dolls have survived, but they were probably formed of waste substances. Sixteenth-century composition dolls were made of paper paste pressed into moulds, according to Philibert Delorme in his Traite d'Architecture of 1567, but materials such as bran, vegetable matter, sawdust and even arsenic (to discourage rats from eating the mixture) were added. The Nuremberg dollmakers were particularly well-placed to produce composition figures as they had the waste-products of the paper-mills to draw upon (King, p. 56). Christoff Weigel's Standebuch (1698) shows a workshop where pulp heads are being made, either for dolls or perhaps as masks for use in festivals (Fritsch and Bachmann, p. 23).

Waxen images were used extensively for ritual purposes, both for the approved rites of churchmen and the foul play of witches, contributing to the confusion regarding which figures are truly dolls and which belong to some other category. The wax dolls marketed in the fourteenth century were most likely made of solid wax, carved and pressed into shape, just as cheap seventeenth-century dollhouse figures were made (King, p. 46). The features of these later examples are minimal and it is the costume which gives each doll its interest. Endrei, focusing on northern European information, reports that wax-headed dolls spread from Italy at the end of the fourteenth century, which fits well with other sources, including Orme who mentions wax images found in Exeter Cathedral where they would have been offered at the shrine (Orme, p. 52).

Fig 6: Lead/tin doll from England (17th C.). This flat figure may be a cheaper version for peasant children.

Edible dolls were commonplace, especially at the large fairs and markets which came into their own in the twelfth century. These dolls were designed to be bought as a child's gift, played with for a short time, and eventually consumed - presumably by rats if not by the child! They were made of bread, of gingerbread, and more esoteric substances such as a mixture of sugar, flour and gum tragacanth. Tragacanth dolls, a few inches tall, are shown being moulded and decorated in a copperplate illustration of 1698 (Fritsch and Bachmann, p. 22). These dolls were painted, decorated with gilt, stamped with moulded designs, and formed into the semblance of saints in the hope of conferring some of that sanctity upon the eater. Both male and female dolls were made, and King postulates that the simplest wooden Docken were probably cut in similar shapes to the stamped-out gingerbread dolls they both emulated and made more permanent. Bread dolls were made in the appropriate form on Saints' Days, and gingerbread figures were popular both on the Continent and in England. German cooks made 'spice dolls' in two halves, so that a small gift could be sealed inside the doll before the decorations were added to the outside (King, p. 42).

Fashion dolls, while not intended as playthings, were probably given to children once their time in the sewing-room was past. Some of the gorgeous creatures pictured in sixteenth-century portraits of children may have begun life modelling the latest foreign fashions for the courts of Europe. In particular, the painting, by an unknown artist, of little Arabella Stuart (1577) depicts a doll dressed in the fashions of a decade earlier. As early as 1396, French court records show that a tailor was paid to make up a doll's wardrobe, and fashion dolls are mentioned in the proceedings of a witchcraft trial in 1615, where the "pictures, puppets and magic spells were no other but several French babies, some naked, some clothed, which were usual then, and so are nowadays, to teach us the fashions for dress of ladies' tiring and apparel" (Ashelford, p. 75). It is probable that some at least of these 'dolls' were very large - such great sums of money were spent upon their apparel that the clothes may well have been life-size and meant to be worn (King, p. 47). In contrast, many surviving dolls are only an inch or two tall, while one of the largest is a 30-inch Spanish doll pictured by Gröber (Gröber, pl. 31).

Towards the close of the Renaissance, doll's accessories become more prevalent. Occasional documentation can be found for babies with cradles, special feeding dishes or removable clothing (King, p. 58).

Dolls of many substances and every grade of beauty were made and used during the medieval period. Wood and cloth dolls seem to have been the most enduringly popular versions, although composition, wax and ceramic were all common materials. Dolls were traded extensively across Europe, but also frequently fashioned by doting relatives or by the children themselves. Despite the confusion afforded by the use of human images also for ritual purposes, it is clear that rich and poor children alike both owned and enjoyed dolls for their simple amusement.


Ashelford, Jane, Dress in the Age of Elizabeth I, London, Batsford LTD, 1988.

Egan, Geoff, The Medieval Household: Daily Living c. 1150 - 1450, Medieval Finds From Excavations in London Series, No. 6, Museum of London, 1998.
Pages 281 - 283 have some information on toys and a few diagrams. The cover shows a mechanical bird. A wooden peg appears as item 787 (p. 256).

Egan, Geoff, Playthings From the Past: Lead Alloy Miniature Artefacts c. 1300 - 1800, Exhibition Catalogue, London, Jonathan Horne Publications, 1996.
Colour photographs of some items, extensive bibliography. Divided by type of object, so requires some searching to find the medieval things. Plenty of information.

Endrei, Walter and Zolnay, Laszlo, Fun and Games in Old Europe, Karoly Ravasz (trans.), Budapest, Corvina, 1986.
Somewhat odd at times, presumably a result of translation, but good information and various illustrations of objects and pictures dealing with the medieval period. Much information about the seventeenth century and later, also. Useful for northern European toys and games particularly.

Fraser, Antonia, A History of Toys, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966.
An excellent source, with illustrations and photographs of a wide variety of toys. Mentions the earliest doll's house, although without any precise description.

Fritsch, K. E. and Bachmann, M., An Illustrated History of Toys, London, Abbey Library, 1966.
Mostly 18th and 19th century information, however it contains some useful illustrations.

Gröber, Karl, Children's Toys of Bygone Days: A History of Playthings of all Peoples From Prehistoric Times to the Nineteenth Century, (trans. P. Hereford) London, Batsford, 1928.
This is the source for a good proportion of Fraser's information. The book contains a very good collection of photographs of extant toys not seen elsewhere.

King, C. E., A Collector's History of Dolls, New York, Bonanza Books, 1977.
An excellent study of historical dolls, with a decent amount of information on medieval types.

Kolchin, B. A., Wooden Artefacts from Medieval Novgorod, (trans.) BAR International Series 495, Parts 1 (text) and 2 (illustrations), 1989.
Shows a good selection of wooden toys in photographs and drawings, with some information.

Levick, Ben and Beadle, Mark, Games of the Viking and Anglo-Saxon Age, January 1992, Regia Anglorum Webpage. (, also…/pastimes.htm)
Not much on toys as opposed to dice and board games, and no references given, although they make some interesting statements about skittles. There is also mention of felt animals apparently found at various Viking sites in northern Europe. I have found information offered by this group to be very reliable and well-researched in the past.

Tuttle, Kinberly (Margritte of Ravenscroft), Toys in the Middle Ages, published on Stefan's Florilegium, 1999. Available on the Internet at
A worthwhile overview on the subject. No illustrations.

Orme, Nicholas, 'The Culture of Children in Medieval England', in Past and Present No. 148, August 1995, pp. 48 - 88.
Very scholarly work centred on medieval childhood from 1300 - 1550. Information on English toys, mainly from written sources, plus more on childish occupations such as schoolbooks and exploring.

Schultz, James, The Knowledge of Childhood in the German Middle Ages, 1100 - 1350, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Middle High German literary sources, 13th-century mentions of dolls, marbles, rings, drawing straws.


Copyright India Ollerenshaw 2002. Free use for non-profit.

This article was published in issue 16 of Cockatrice.

Joan & Crispin's Homepage:

Dolls of the Middle Ages Part I

Here is a link from the Benaki Museum in Greece. There is a large toy collection there, and a large collection of Coptic art. Marai Argyriades, curator, is a friend of my late friend, Mary Hillier. She has written an outstanding book on Greek Dolls and another on Greek Christmas toys, as well as numerous publications.

Here is another link to a blog you may enjoy, Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture:

Here is a listo of links from this blog which give an idea of the types of toys medieval children had, as well as some pictures. Games were plentiful, and some of the games children played, as shown in the painting of Lucas Cranach and others, portray children with toys and with all kinds of games and dolls of their own. A few dolls and toys have been found in plague pits, tossed in with their hapless owners, and one is described in the novel Missing Melinda, by Jackson.

manfred Bachman shows medeival Leonard's Louts, soldiers on horseback of pewter and other materials, and discusses soldiers and effigies made for funerals and in remembrance which date from the Medieval period. His book is Dolls The Wide World Over


Here is a bibliography of Medieval toys I found, but see also my book, A Bibliography of Toys and Dolls.

J. A. Elders, Farmers, Friars, Millers, Tanners; a study of the development of a medieval suburb bases on recent excavations on the site of a Carmelite friary inthe Obertorvorstadt,Esslingen am Neckar, Germany. Unpublished Ph. D. Thesis University of Nottingham 1996 [British Library].

H. Schäfer, Das Karmeliterkloster in der Obertorvorstadt in Esslingen, in: Archäologische Ausgrabungen in Baden-Württemberg 1991, Stuttgart 1992.

H. Schäfer, Befunde "Auf dem Kies". Grabungen südlich des Karmeliterklosters in Esslingen, in: Archäologische Ausgrabungen in Baden-Württemberg 1992, Stuttgart 1993.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

More History

We have just about finished with Ancient dolls, and I am ready to enter the Dark Ages. We don't know much about toy dolls from the 1000+ year era that covers the Dark Ages/ Middle Ages, but we do know about religious art and figures, Santos, some grave figures, doll shaped utensils and jewels, other toys and games, and of course, puppets and clock figures.

As my Medieval Lit prof said, we call them The Dark Ages because we know so little about them. What we uncover in literature and history is something completely different from our sterotypes and suspicions. Art flourished, so did commerce. Pilgrims and others travelled, hence, The Canterbury Tales, and women wrote, including Margery Kemp and Christine de Pisan. Children surely had dolls, especially in the upper classes, and Charlemagne is said to have had amazing automato, including a brazen head that talked. Fourtheenth century fashion dolls, some life sized, were used and sent among queens as gifts and to show the latest fashions. Many wooden statutes, covered with gesso or enamel and painted, exist, and all over the as yet undiscovered New World and on other continents, people had dolls, idols, and religious statues. I again point you towards Dolls by Max von Boehn. More photos and stories to follow.

Dr. E's Doll Museum Blog: Fond Websites and Favorite Collectors Gone By

Dr. E's Doll Museum Blog: Fond Websites and Favorite Collectors Gone By: When things are bad, as they have been, I turn to the dolls. Another way to put it is, when the going gets tough, the tough "play" with dol...