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It has been vexing me since I first saw the phrase: portable cradle.

I came across it while reading a translation of a medieval biography of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious. The Astronomer says Louis was being hauled around in a portable cradle when his dad named him king of Aquitaine in 781. In fact, he was carried in a portable cradle some more until reaching the city of Orleans, where he got a horse and weapons appropriate for his age. At 3 years old, that’s a wooden sword, just in case Louis doubted his purpose in life.

A portable cradle is lovely detail for a novelist to include, and it lends the story authenticity. But what the heck did one look like? The Astronomer doesn’t say, but most medieval writers didn’t bother with what their audience would already know.

I have flipped through countless websites and Google Books and cannot find an answer.

I’m ruling out one medieval picture someone kindly shared with me on Facebook – a woman transporting an infant in a cradle on her back. It’s a full-size cradle, not at all like the Native American invention for carrying a baby on one’s back, and she looks just miserable. I cannot believe anyone, no matter how devoted, would have enough stamina to transport an infant or toddler in that fashion 15 miles a day, especially when the family could afford the much-stronger, and more prestigious, horses.

Entrée de l'empereur Charles IV à Saint-Denis

Entrée de l’empereur Charles IV à Saint-Denis, Grandes Chroniques de France, enluminées par Jean Fouquet, Tours, vers 1455-1460 (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Did the Carolingians have a contraption to transport newborns on the pommel of a horse and then use a litter on horseback when the children were older, as a 15th century Middle Eastern tribe did? Was a portable cradle a sort of playpen on wheels? Was it a litter carried by two horses, similar to what’s depicted in this 15th century picture? A litter would have provided a more comfortable ride on rough roads.

I mentioned a portable cradle in The Cross and the Dragon, and it was worth only a mention in that book. The reason I need to know more now is that the heroine of my work-in-progress, Queen Fastrada, is responsible for schlepping around three little girls, two of them her daughters, the other her husband’s child by a concubine. That’s in addition to children from wives No. 1 and 3, but those kids are riding horses by now.

If you have any idea of what a portable cradle was like, let me know. Otherwise, I might just have to make it up.