Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Did Medieval Parents Love Their Children?

by | January 2, 2013 | 9 comments

A couple of weeks ago I ended up in an interesting conversation after a meeting.  As per usual, I’d been talking about history to random people, and one of the guys in the meeting made the statement that before the modern era, child abuse was rampant.  He stated that it was everywhere and that the plight of children was a horrible one.  This struck me wrong.  But I like and admire this guy so I didn’t say anything.  But I walked away from the meeting agitated and disturbed and thinking “that can’t be right”.  So of course I went home and started pouring through my history books to see what they had to say.

575px-David_with_musicians_and_dancing_childrenThe notion that the lives of children were fraught with abuse and neglect most likely comes from two sources.  First, child labor was commonplace until the 20th century.  And of course we’ve all seen those fascinating old photographs of children in deplorable conditions in factories.  We’ve all read Dickens and seen the horrors of early industrialization.  But the Industrial Revolution is a relatively recent thing, only a couple of centuries old.  What about before that?  What were the lives of children like before industrialization?

The second argument is that in a world with such high infant mortality, of course parents wouldn’t get too attached to their offspring.  It’s a losing proposition, so the best thing to do is to distance yourself emotionally from day one.  This theory was championed by historians Philippe Ariès and Edward Shorter, but it reached its peak with the publication of Lloyd DeMause’s work The History of Childhood, published in 1976.  DeMause states that the further back in history you go, the more likely it is for children to experience a nightmarish childhood of neglect and abuse, both physical and sexual.

The thing is, as more recent and more female historians, like Linda Pollack, have begun to discover as they dig deeper is that every single one of these doom and gloom historians, no matter what small chunk of time they are studying, universally say that things got better for children by the end of the time period in question.  So where one historian may have started their study in the Dark Ages and finished it in the High Middle Ages, things got better.  And where another started their study in the “horrible, horrible” High Middle Ages and finished it in the Renaissance, things got better.  And where another started it in the “dark and gloomy” Renaissance and finished it at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, things got better.  See where we’re going here?

The fact is, there is very little evidence of what family life was like … ever.  And I’m including the modern era here.  People don’t talk about what goes on within the confines of their families, especially when it’s bad.  How many times have you heard a personal story of some shocking abuse within the family of someone you know and thought to yourself “I had no idea that was going on”.  So determining what childhood was like in the past presents a sticky wicket.

But here’s my stab at it, aided by Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, by Frances and Joseph Gies as well as a couple other tidbits in a few other books.

Yes, life for a child in the Middle Ages was different than life now.  Not only that, the life of a medieval aristocrat’s child was vastly different than the life of a peasant’s child.  For one, there was more responsibility all around.

Mark_and_MarcellianChildren of the aristocracy were expected to bring honor to their family, either by marrying well, becoming a great warrior, or entering the life of the church.  Training for all of these possibilities began early.  Both girls and boys often left their own houses at an early age to live, in the case of boys, with a knight – often a friend of their father – who could teach them the skills of knighthood, or in the case of girls with the family of their betrothed.  Nobly-born girls were often promised in marriage at an early age, but those marriages didn’t actually take place until they were past puberty.  If they took place at all.  There are plenty of famous cases of royal parents changing their mind and abducting their daughters home so they could marry them off to someone else.

Lower class children also began learning and practicing the skills of their future career, the career of their parents, at an early age.  But not as early as you might think.  Historian Barbara Hanawalt has observed in her research that up until the age of eight peasant children were as likely to be running around playing ball with their friends as not, and it was only after age eight that they were given light responsibilities, like tending sheep or fetching water or picking fruit.  In fact, court records give us a glimpse into the medieval belief that small children should not be given large responsibility, such as a case where a baby left in the care of a five year old was killed in a fire while both parents were away.  The judge ruled the parents at fault for the children being left with inadequate supervision.

So yes, children in the Middle Ages worked.  They were given responsibility.  Personally, that sounds like a good idea to me.  I don’t equate chores with abuse, not historically and not in the modern world.  In fact, teaching young children that it is their job to help the family, both in terms of labor and duty, sounds like a pretty good idea.

Ah, but back to the original question.  Did parents love their children or did they just see them as extra hands?

Sorry Ariès, Shorter, and DeMause, but primary source material seems to indicate that children were loved and cherished just as much in the Middle Ages as they are today.  I’m particularly fond of this passage from Gregory of Tours in the 7th century:

“[an epidemic of dysentery] attacked young children first of all and to them it was fatal: and so we lost our little ones, who were so dear to us and sweet, whom we had cherished in our bosoms and dandled in our arms, whom we had fed and nurtured with such loving care.  As I write I wipe away my tears and I repeat once more the words of Job the blessed: ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’.”

medieval children gamesMore than that, all throughout the court records, penitentials, and monuments of the Middle Ages there are references to children who were beloved, parents who were thrown into sharp grief at their loss, and extraordinary measures that parents employed to protect and save their children.  There are stories of mothers who died attempting to save their children in house fires and a tragic story of a father who lost his life attempting to save his daughter from rape.  And many of the great churchmen of the Middle Ages, like Guibert, abbot of Noyon in Picardy, go on at great lengths about the bond of love they shared with their mothers, who shaped them into the men they became.

So yes, the evidence is definitely there that parents in the Middle Ages loved their children just as much as any parent loves their children today, regardless of the fact that they were so much more likely to lose them.  To me that makes perfect sense.  You don’t love someone less because they could die, otherwise we would all distance ourselves from our parents and grandparents as they got older.  I firmly believe that it is human nature to love, no matter what the circumstances of the world may be.

The one thing that struck me in my friend’s statement that childhood before the modern era was so much worse and filled with so much more abuse was his assumption that there is less abuse now than there has been.  Frankly, I don’t believe that.  Sadly, I think children are neglected and abused right now, today, as much as they ever have been.  Whether it’s the horrific kind of abuse that makes the news or favoritism of siblings or difficulty in living up to our parent’s expectations, childhood is tough even now.  But just like in the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance or Ancient Rome or the Regency, people don’t write long chronicles of the abuse they suffered as a child for historians to see later.  Instead, abuse is apparent in the way each person lets it affect them and carry through to the way they treat others.

So treat your children well.  Love them with all your heart.  Don’t let historians a thousand years from now look back and say that we abused or neglected (or overindulged) our children.


  1. Teresa Reasor

    I love this blog. And the book you referenced is an excellent resource. I’ve read it often. And I heartily concur with your call on things. Being an artist and having studied art history for numerous years and taught it, the art work of some of these periods shows the relationship between parent and child. Mary’s grief over her son’s death depicted over and over again during the Medieval period (since religious art dominated this period) should be enough of a clue for them to realize that our ability to love and care for each other is the only thing that separates us from becoming beasts. Not animals but beasts. Since religion dominated the medieval eras and the teachings of Jesus were pushed in order for the church to maintain control over people’s behavior that too would have played a part in how they felt about their children.
    And as for the peasants, just something that occurred to me. My great grandparents were still alive when I was younger. They raised 12 children in a 3 room house. They still lived there when I was growing up. And in rural Kentucky, their lives weren’t much different than peasants. They grew their own garden, they butchered and smoked their own meat, made their own soap, canned and dried their vegetables. My great grandfather and grandfather labored in the coal mines before labor unions came in to see they were paid a fair wage instead of the script they were given to use at the company store. So truly they did live much as these Medieval peasants would have.
    They had a little boy who died at age 5 of diphtheria His name was Delbert. When my great grandmother died we cleaned out her house and found in her cedar chest the clothing he had worn on the day he died and a lock of his hair. She had kept them wrapped in paper all those years. My grandmother told me that my great-grandfather built Delbert’s coffin himself, and carried it on his shoulder to the grave site, because it was the last thing he could do for him.
    Neither of those things suggests that they kept their hearts locked away for fear of losing their children. I don’t think the human heart can do that.
    Teresa R.

  2. derekd

    I remember going back East on a family vacation a few years ago. We wound up stumbling across an old cemetery. As we walked through it, we were profoundly struck by the number of children who died from childbirth through age 8 or so. It seemed half the occupants were children.

    We forget about the horrific child mortality rates while living in a time and country where ambulances, emergency rooms and advanced medicine keep a huge percentage alive who would have otherwise died a century or more years ago.

    In light of the large number of children lost during medieval times, wouldn’t parents treasure their surviving children all the more? I think about my 4 daughters, and if 2 of them never made it to adulthood, and was only left with 2, how much more precious would they be?

    Life on a farm requires all hands pitch in. The popular show, The Waltons, showed rural life during the Great Depression, less than 100 years ago. All had responsibilities. Such chores and contributions bonded families, communities and instilled a sense of responsibility and a work ethic. I think we have lost some of that today. Particularly the sense of community and family.

    Most suburbanites hit the remote on the garage door pull in and never interact their neighbors, who move frequently anyway. Children are no longer safe to play in their neighborhoods like I did as a child. Each era seems to have its impact on children. Some good, some not. One thing remains constant in my mind and that is a parent’s love for their children.

    Good blog, Merry. Thanks

  3. Ella Quinn

    I don’t understand how anyone could believe that child are loved more today. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many cases where children today are not made to behave, or taught life skills, or giving too much stuff all in the name of parental love.

  4. callie hutton

    Loved the post. Very informative. Just yesterday I was viewing pictures on FB my niece posted of her two year old twins’ Christmas. I thought of how fortunate they are to have all the love and attention of devoted parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents, and how unfortunate that there are so many little ones without that love and support. It’s a hard world for children who don’t get what they need from their parents, no matter what the time in history.

  5. Susan Macatee

    Wonderful post! With all the care of a young child needs just to survive, how could anyone think a parent would do all that if they didn’t love the child?

  6. morgan k wyatt

    Nice blog. We used a book called 1000 AD for the high school students to prep them for studying the Middle Ages. Since people often used family names for their children, they waited until they were two to name them. A child who made it to two would probably live. It’s a fun paperback to read with cures for baldness to impotency included.

  7. Ally Broadfield

    Wonder, insightful post, Merry. As usual.

  8. Lana Williams

    Great post, Merry! People moved around less than they do now, so children might’ve had the chance to be surrounded by family with everyone helping in their upbringing. Nice job, as always!

  9. Angelyn

    That confirms what I’ve long suspected. Thanks, Merry, for giving us much needed perspective on the past.



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