Childhood during the medieval period was impacted by disease, poor nutrition, and social perceptions. The Late Middle Ages alleviated some of these factors.
To what extent were children of the Late Middle Ages “little adults?” Was this an inevitable transition from the medieval world, or a by-product of social changes that included growing prosperity, urban life, and religious movements like the Reformation that stressed the value and sanctity of families? Children had always been vulnerable to the forces that impacted medieval peasant life. The advent of the Late Middle Ages, however, changed social perceptions of children, although these perceptions were based on class structures. The role of children and these changing perceptions form different historical views regarding the dawning of an early modern European society.
Children During the Middle Ages and Early Pre Modern Period
Philippe Aries’ study of “a social history of family life” in the final centuries of the medieval period relies on evidence most readily found in conjunction with town life, the nobility, and the rising burgher class – a class some historians seek to identify as the coming urban “middle class.” This may reflect the lack of sources devoted to the peasant class and the poor living in towns. Documents detailing the experiences of the poor are infrequent.
Historian Jacques Le Goff, for example, writes that the “domestic family,” emerging out a world that that “barely noticed” children, was little better. During the Middle Ages, “…childhood was not treated as a matter of serious concern…” Children worked in the fields alongside their parents, were placed in military situations, or even given to the Church (oblation). The growth of town life may have offered better overall opportunities, but the expanded Guild System also took children out of family situations at early ages.
Historians note, however, that the vulnerability of children did not imply lack of parental feeling or a sense of family responsibility. William Langland (14th Century), writing about the poverty of peasants, states, “…the world has taught me what befalls another who has many children, with no claim but his craft to clothe and feed them, when the mouths are many and the money scarce…”
In the same passage, Langland details these “poor folk in hovels” that work to put food on the table and “still the sobbing of children at meal time.” Historians like Aries also note that strong parental feeling existed, despite abandonment and infanticide. The death of a child was always met with profound grief.
Expanding Educational Opportunities for Children in Northern Regions
At the dawn of the 16th Century, Europe was in transition. Martin Luther, the German Reformer, unwittingly started a movement that, at its core, valued and extolled marriage and the family. Luther, who – according to some Luther scholars, is not considered medieval or “modern,” married and raised several children. Reformers noted rapidly that the education of children would ensure the success and perseverance of the movement. Steven Ozment states that, “Lutherans steeped their children in catechetical and moral instruction…”
How Diet and the Lack of Nutrition Impacted Children
At the close of the High Middle Ages, Europe was also experiencing the first contacts with the New World. These contacts led to the “Columbian Exchange,” resulting in the introduction of new foods that dramatically impacted European diets and, consequently, infant mortality rates. Sorbonne professor Michel Mollat, describing the conditions of the medieval poor, identifies, “…an inadequate and unbalanced diet” which “left the body to vulnerable diseases.
Disease and diet was a significant factor contributing to childhood deaths. Mollat, as do other medieval historians, admit that poor or non-existent record keeping makes it impossible to determine true demographic figures. Population shifts, however, can be distinguished by ages and geographic regions. John Boswell, in his study of the abandonment of children, notes that conditions of children based on a variety of factors – including diet, were more evident in southern Europe, even in the final decades of the Late Middle Ages.
The Columbian Exchange was one of several factors that alleviated the plight of children as the Late Middle Ages ended. Anthropology professor Jack Weatherford, for example, writes that through the introduction of potatoes and new grains, “The nutrition of the people improved markedly and the population grew accordingly.” This was most true in northern Europe.
Economics and the Role of Children
Children had never been highly valued as a group during the medieval period. The laws of the Franks, emphasizing wergild – a practice that valued lives based on age and gender, for example, treated slain boys under the age of ten less than pregnant women and far less than freemen. And as Boswell demonstrated, child abandonment was frequently tied to economic factors. Even as late as the end of the Middle Ages, “The lower classes continued to abandon their children in great number to more prosperous households as servants.” Along the Mediterranean region, many children were also sold into slavery.
Historian Georges Duby corroborates this economic link with the treatment of children: “…there were cases – perhaps a good many – in which poverty, disease, and the harshness of life eclipsed the feelings of parents for scarcely formed yet already burdensome children; infanticide was sometimes the result.” Fairy tales, traced to the oral traditions of the medieval period, are full of stories detailing child abandonment; “Hansel and Gretel” is one example.
Unwanted children were often left in the care of the Church. Various medieval religious orders established primitive institutions for children, but this was usually rare. Most of the children involved in the 1212 “Children’s Crusade,” for example, ended up as slaves after being transported out of southern Europe.
Childhood in the Late Middle Ages
Childhood during the medieval period was always tenuous and impacted by social class and the status of parents. Despite brief increases in population, by the end of the 14th Century conditions in Europe, partly as a result of bubonic plague and the Hundred Years’ War, had deteriorated. Children were, as a group, highly vulnerable to these changes.
In certain parts of Europe, it would take a long time for society to overcome obstacles that influenced healthy lifestyles as they related to a more “modern” childhood. According to Pierre Goubert, as late as 1661 in France, “Out of every hundred children born, twenty-five died before they were one year old, another twenty-five never reached twenty…” Less than one-tenth ever saw old age.
Factors such as expanding educational opportunities, better diets, the rise of early medical institutions, and social morality often influenced by religious views helped the transition for children from the medieval to the early modern European experience. Breaking the old barriers, however, took time and would be based on geographic considerations, notably in states like France where agriculture defined the lifestyles of an overwhelming number of people even into the 20th Century.
- Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (Vintage Books, 1962)
- John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (Pantheon Books, 1988)
- Georges Duby, Dominique Barthelemy, and Charles de La Ronciere, “Tuscan Notables on the Eve of the Renaissance,” A History of Private Life II: Revelations of the Medieval World (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988)
- Pierre Goubert, Louis XIV And Twenty Million Frenchmen (Vintage Books, 1972)
- Jacques Le Goff, Medieval Civilization (Basil Blackwell, 1988)
- Michel Mollat, The Poor In The Middle Ages (Yale University Press, 1986)
- Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution Doubleday, 1992)
- The Portable Medieval Reader (The Viking Press, 1969)
- Brian Tierney, The Middle Ages, Volume I: Sources of Medieval History (McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992)