family life

Work, Religion, and the Threat of Abandonment: Family Life in the Middle Ages

“We are certainly influenced by role models, and if we are surrounded by images of beautiful rich people, we will start to think that to be beautiful and rich is very important – just as in the Middle Ages, people were surrounded by images of religious piety.”

said, Alain de Botton

Child mortality

While birth and childhood is a necessary part of growing up, our views of what childhood and family life should be, has changed throughout recorded history. In the twenty-first century, children are the most treasured people in a household and beacons of hope for the future. The family life of a young child during the Middle Ages, would, on the surface, look similar to what a twenty-first century child would experience. Yet, on a deeper look, most children would have far more knowledge of death than current day children do. Death was omni-present in family life at the time.

During the Middle Ages, a time of economic growth, warfare, and feudalism, childhood was much shorter and far more focused on work than it is today.  It is estimated that nearly one-fourth of children died in their first year of life, and about one-sixth did not live to see their fourth birthday. Generally, life expectancy was fairly dismal by today’s standards as the average life expectancy was 43 for women and 48 for men.

Women, on average, did not live as long because of routine complications during childbirth and from undiagnosed infections afterwards. It is estimated that 20% of women would die giving birth or in their immediate postpartum recovery. The likelihood, then, that a child would grow up experiencing the deaths of parents or fellow siblings was high.

Family life and the forbidden

“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”

said Sigmund Freud. The meaning of books has changed. And their influence on our lives. A major difference for children in the Middle Ages is that education during this period was not compulsory. For lower class families, their views of family life and the world were created almost exclusively by the church, which was a major economic force during this period.

There is evidence as early as the seventh century that monasteries took in boys for religious education; these children would live, work, and worship with the monks in preparation for a religious life as a monk or priest. Parents could also send their daughters to nunneries for education if they wished for her to become a nun. Family life as we know it, was here not existent. By the eleventh century, aristocratic families would send their children to established schools outside of religious organizations. Although religion was still a key component to their education, these schools also taught Latin, English, or French.

Work and play

While family life and education was limited, children were encouraged to find a trade early. Between the ages of 12 and 14, children were either put to work on the family farm or inside the house, or they were sent away to be trained for a trade elsewhere. Girls could train under a midwife and assist at births; during the Middle Ages, midwifery required skills to keep both mother and baby healthy. For some of the very poor children who were sent to be apprentices, their experiences were only slightly better than child slavery; apprentices were joined to their masters, who could work them as hard as they were able. Wealthier children (usually boys) had more options, as they could join another aristocratic household as a page, continue on their education in the hopes of joining the church or becoming a lawyer, or undergo military training.

Child slavery and abandonment

Sadly, even these educational options weren’t available to some children. During the Middle Ages, child slavery–along with adult enslavement–was somewhat common across Europe and parts of Asia. Those sold in child slavery came from two different sources: families who willingly abandoned their children and countries at war.

Unlike today, child abandonment was seen as a viable option for families who could not or did not want to keep their child. Without an adoption system in place as many countries have now, families who were overburdened with too many mouths to feed had few resources. Some families were also compelled to abandon their babies and children if they were the products of incest, had birth defects, or would cause too much tension on inheritances. In some cases, the parents would abandon their children at a church, while others (who were desperate for additional money) would sell them into child slavery. Many factors went into the final sale price of these children including if their parents were slaves or free, and the child’s health, gender, age, and size.

Child slavery was also a result of the wars, clashing political factions, and religious struggles of the Middle Ages. During their reign of power (from the 8th-12th centuries), the Vikings collected slaves from Ireland, Russia, Sweden, and beyond. They would often raid monasteries for the young men there and would sell them into child slavery in southern Europe: because they were educated, these boys brought higher prices.

While the flow of adult and child slavery was generally from northern Europe to southern Europe and the Middle East, there are records of Saracen girls being sold into French families in the 1200s. By the end of the Middle Ages, the main sources for child slavery were moving from eastern Europe and the Muslim world and over to Africa, an area that was the focus of the slave trade from the 1500s onward.

Family life and childhood was certainly more difficult and came with more risks that it does today. However, considering the death rates and brutality of the Middle Ages, such treatment of children fits into the larger cultural tone of the era.  And yet, child slavery still exists today. I have to agree with Alexis Herman who states

“If we can’t begin to agree on fundamentals, such as the elimination of the most abusive forms of child labor, then we really are not ready to march forward into the future.”

More on motherhood and childhood in Colonial Times, is be found here.

family life
Woman teaching geometry to male monks. 1309~1316. British Library from its digital collections.Catalogue entry Burney 275. Public Domain.

April 16,2015  |