“Smalls” in period: children or underwear?

by Wenyeva atte grene

Many SCA people use the term smalls to refer to children, as in "I was busy looking after my smalls so I missed the tournament." Many other SCA people find this usage irritating, and say things such as "Smalls were, in period, underclothes -- not children."

I decided to look into the matter, and the results surprised me. Smalls as a term for "children" is not quite period, but it's similar to a period usage. As a term for "underwear," it seems not to be period at all.

When in doubt, look it up

I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and found the following under one of the listings of "small":

1. a. Persons or animals of small size or stature; little ones, children. (Now only with the.)

c1220 Bestiary 515 in O.E. Misc., Ðe smale he wile ðus biswiken, ðe grete maiȝ he noȝt bigripen. a1300 E.E. Psalter xvi. 16 Þar leuinges to þair smale left þai. 1388 WYCLIF Matt. xviii. 6 Who so sclaundrith oon of these smale, that bileuen in me. c1430 Syr Tryam. 1556 ‘A lytulle lower, Syr,’ seyde hee, ‘And let us smalle go wyth thee’.

b. A child, a little one.

1907 W. DE MORGAN Alice-for-Short xxx. 300 How much can you remember of all that time, Alice? You were only a small, you know. Ibid., I wasn't such a small as all that. (...) 1968 Guardian 1 Apr. 7/3 Leave two smalls to the tender mercies of a baby sitter?

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary,Second Edition, 1989. You have to have a membership to access this, but if you have a library card you can possibly access it through your library's web site. The green-highlighting is my addition.)

The Middle English Dictionary at http://ets.umdl.umich.edu/m/mec/ also includes several citations of smale as a plural noun referring to children. Under the heading of smāl , definition 7b is a noun meaning " little ones, children; also, fig. the unlearned."

Digging deeper

Let's look a little more closely at some of the citations in the OED and the MED.

c1220 Bestiary 515 in O.E. Misc., Ðe smale he wile ðus biswiken, ðe grete maiȝ he noȝt bigripen.

In this quotation from an early English bestiary, the smale referred to are small fish being captured by a whale, in contrast to larger fish that the whale cannot catch. This citation does not refer to children.

Who so sclaundrith oon of these smale, that bileuen in me.

This is perhaps more familiar to many as "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me" in the King James Version of the Bible.

c1390(c1350) NHom.(2) PSanct.(Vrn) 311/21: Hose sclaundreþ eny of þeose smale þat in me leuen al by tale...

This citation, listed in the MED, is of course the same quotation as above. Here's another MED citation:

a1425(c1340) Rolle Psalter (LdMisc 286) 136.12: Blisful he that shal holde and knok his smale til the stone.

This is Psalm 136:9 as seen in the Parallel Latin/English Psalter: "Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock." It's in Psalm 137 in the KJV: "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones."

For comparison's sake -- in Old English, as opposed to the Middle English seen above, it's much stranger to our eyes:

Eadig byþ se þe nimeþ          and eac seteþ
his agen bearn         on þone æþelan stan.

(As seen in the Paris Psalter.)

On to another verse:

a1500(c1340) Rolle Psalter (UC 64) 16.16: Thai ere fild of sonnes and thai left thaire leuyngis till thaire smale.

This is a version of the verse cited in the OED as "Þar leuinges to þair smale left þai." It is Psalm 16:14 as seen in the Parallel Latin/English Psalter: "They are full of children: and they have left to their little ones the rest of their substance." It is Psalm 17:14 in the King James Version: "they are full of children, and leave the rest of their substance to their babes."

In all of these citations save the first, smale seems clearly to be used as a plural noun, referring to children.

Smalls as underwear

The earliest citation given in the OED for smalls as underclothes is from Dickens in 1837. The similar term small-clothes, for breeches, is cited to 1796, and described in that citation as a then-"fashionable phrase." (Earlier usage of "small cloth" seems to refer to cloth that is very finely made, not to breeches or underwear.) So why do so many SCA members think of it as a period English term?

One possible answer comes from Eormenþryþ þe norþerne who e-mailed the following:

The reference to "smalls" as underclothes was made by Duchess Lao nearly 20 years ago at (An Tir) September Crown in Idaho. She referenced it to her persona which is/was Chinese. For her time as Queen, she asked the populace not to refer to children as smalls, because in her country (China) smalls were underclothes. Unfortunately, it's been taken out of context and taken to extremes over the years, and the original statement has been entirely lost except for those such as myself who actually heard her say it. Imagine that! 8^) The reference has nothing to do with medieval western Europe that I am aware of.

Whether a Chinese equivalent of smalls was a period term is an issue for further research.


It does seem as if something similar to smalls was used in the 1200-1450 period, and smalls itself was definitely used in the 20th century. (The OED doesn't list any citations of this usage between the 15th and 20th centuries.) However, the period usage in plural was not smalls, it was smale or smalle.

Even when the rest of the sentence is relatively modern to our ears (such as in the c1430 citation), smalls is not used. (The etymology section of the OED listing notes that "The form smale, representing OE. disyllabic forms, is common in ME. and occurs as late as the 17th cent." So smale might be appropriate even in late SCA period.)

It appears as though calling children smale -- which is a plural noun -- is perfectly period for Middle English and possibly Early Modern English. Smalls with the -s is a 20th century usage when referring to children, and most likely no earlier than 19th century when referring to underclothes.

Wenyeva atte grene, 10 September 2004

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© 2004 Wendi Dunlap