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.

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