Childhood: Medieval vs. Modern

The media is full of stories about the problems of youth today. It’s hard to open a newspaper or watch TV without coming across some sordid story of adults doing harm to children, in the form of child abuse or other violence, or children doing harm to themselves, in the form of gang violence, drug abuse, or other destructive behaviors. And of course, we always hear stories about deficiencies in the current educational system. We’re no strangers to stories of barely literate high school graduates.

There are serious problems that affect modern youth, but the mainstream news media often seem intent on exaggerating or sensationalizing these stories, and ignoring the positive events involving children. Bad news sells, or so the news media believe, and bad news about children seems to sell especially well. (However, we must admit that the worst purveyors of emotional scare tactics aren’t the media but non-profit groups attempting to raise money. In this regard Washington’s Anti-Hunger Coalition wins the award for the most sensationalized, misleading and outright fraudulent claims regarding hunger among children.)

When we look beyond this pointless alarmism for some historical perspective about childhood, we may learn some very interesting things. Are things worse today than in the past? What was life like for children in, say, medieval times?

The concept of childhood is often considered to be a peculiarly modern notion. Many historians believe that children, up until the 20th century, were treated as little adults. Not so, writes Barbara Hanawalt, a historian with a deep background in the study of medieval society. In her fascinating book, “Growing Up in Medieval London,” Hanawalt tries to show that the concept of childhood as a distinct phase of the life process did, in fact, exist in the Middle Ages.

So, the desire to nurture and protect children seems to be part of the human makeup, and adults of medieval times were no different from today’s adults in their desire to aid and protect children. Nonetheless, due to differences in medicine, technology, economic development, attitudes about child-rearing, and other factors, children led a very different life in medieval London than today.

First of all, the chances of physical survival were much smaller. For every ten babies born in medieval Europe, probably three to five would not live beyond infancy. Of the remaining seven, perhaps two or three would die before adulthood. All in all, a baby’s chances of surviving into adulthood was not much greater than 50-50.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child” was the prevailing disciplinary doctrine of the day, and parents who killed their child would not be punished if the death occurred in what was then considered the normal course of discipline.

But the high death rates were not usually the result of abuse, but of the sanitary conditions, diet, and medical care of the time. Very few things — people’s bodies, the streets, houses — were clean, at least in the modern sense of the word. Sewage was disposed of openly. Filth flowed in the ditches along the roads, and people occasionally relieved themselves out of windows when going to a privy was too much trouble. Thus it is not surprising that disease ran rampant, especially in overcrowded cities like London. Of all the Londoners, children were especially vulnerable to these diseases. There were also many accidental child-deaths due to house fires and drownings.

Life expectancy in general was very low (see our HP, “Life Expectancy,” for more information). If the child survived, chances were that one or more of his parents would not. Many women died in childbirth. It was a rare that a child’s parents would survive until the child reached adulthood. Unlike today, there was no legal mechanism for matching up childless parents and orphans. Godparents did often play an important role in looking after orphans, but the property of the orphans was usually controlled by the government of London.

Beyond mere survival, life was not easy for the children of medieval London. Some were not provided for at all and spent their nights sleeping in the open, and their days begging for food.

In some respects, the daily routines for children of the upper and middle classes was the same as it is now. But they did not always have an easy time of it. For example, children were expected to clean their teeth in the morning — but not with toothbrushes, with bars of ivory or wooden sticks. (Ouch!)

Children of the Middle Ages enjoyed and suffered from all the same romantic and biological urges as modern children, but there was one big difference. They were often married off at remarkably young ages, with the parents usually choosing the spouse for reasons of material gain. And as divorce was considered sacrilegious, many adults lived their entire lives with a spouse not of their choosing.

While there was some schooling for the luckier children, it didn’t last long. Most were put to work either as apprentices or servants at a very young age, often as young as six or seven, though sometimes as late as 14 or 15. Working days were extremely long, from about 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer, and from about 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the winter, due to fewer daylight hours. Female servants were often victims of sexual abuse by their employers. Young girls were particularly vulnerable, and boys were often beaten by their employers. A common complaint among apprentices and servants of the time was that they were not being fed or clothed properly.

The pastimes of modern youth — video games, the Internet, sports — truly seem like child’s play when compared to the amusements of youths in medieval London, which included drinking and prostitution from a very young age. Young men practiced for adulthood by engaging in swordplay, with real swords, or watched amusements of the time such as bear-baiting. The amount of alcohol consumed by the youth of medieval London makes today’s “drug crisis” seem tame by comparison.

All in all, today’s children are infinitely healthier, safer, better nourished, and better educated than the youth of medieval times. Today’s kids have a much longer period of time to enjoy the blessings of youth, and a far better chance of reaching adulthood. Even though child labor still exists in some parts of the modern world, its prevalence has greatly decreased from medieval times. The games and entertainments of modern youth are certainly safer and more constructive. Perhaps most importantly, even in our age of high divorce rates, the vast majority of children today have at least one loving parent.