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When we think about daily life in the Middle Ages, we cannot ignore the death rate that, compared to that of modern times, was horrendously high. This was particularly true for children, who have always been more susceptible to disease than adults. Some might be tempted to see this high rate of mortality as indicative of either an inability of parents to provide proper care for their children or a lack of interest in their welfare. As we shall see, neither supposition is supported by the facts.
Life for the Infant
Folklore has it that the medieval child spent his first year or so wrapped in swaddling, stuck in a cradle, and virtually ignored. This raises the question of how thick-skinned the average medieval parent had to be in order to disregard the persistent cries of hungry, wet and lonely babies. The reality of medieval infant care is a trifle more complex.
In cultures such as England in the High Middle Ages, babies were often swaddled, theoretically to help their arms and legs grow straight. Swaddling involved wrapping the infant in linen strips with his legs together and his arms close to his body. This, of course, immobilized him and made him much easier to keep out of trouble.
But infants were not swaddled continuously. They were changed regularly and released from their bonds to crawl around. The swaddling might come off altogether when the child was old enough to sit up on his own. Furthermore, swaddling was not necessarily the norm in all medieval cultures. Gerald of Wales remarked that Irish children were never swaddled, and seemed to grow strong and handsome just the same.
Whether swaddled or not, the infant probably spent much of its time in the cradle when it was home. Busy peasant mothers might tie unswaddled babies into the cradle, allowing them to move within it but keeping them from crawling into trouble. But mothers often carried their babies about in their arms on their errands outside the home. Infants were even to be found near their parents as they labored in the fields at the busiest harvest times, on the ground or secured in a tree.
Babies who were not swaddled were very often simply naked or wrapped in blankets against the cold. They may have been clad in simple gowns. There is little evidence for any other clothing, and since the child would quickly outgrow anything sewn especially for it, a variety of baby clothing was not an economic feasibility in poorer homes.
An infant's mother was ordinarily its primary caregiver, particularly in poorer families. Other family members might assist, but the mother usually fed the child since she was physically equipped for it. Peasants didn't often have the luxury of hiring a full-time nurse, although if the mother died or was too ill to nurse the baby herself, a wet nurse could often be found. Even in households that could afford to hire a wet nurse, it was not unknown for mothers to nurse their children themselves, which was a practice encouraged by the Church.
Medieval parents sometimes found alternatives to breastfeeding their children, but there is no evidence that this was a common occurrence. Rather, families resorted to such ingenuity when the mother was dead or too ill to breastfeed, and when no wet nurse could be found. Alternate methods of feeding the child included soaking bread in milk for the child to ingest, soaking a rag in milk for the child to suckle, or pouring milk into his mouth from a horn. All were more difficult for a mother than simply putting a child to her breast, and it would appear that-in less affluent homes-if a mother could nurse her child, she did.
However, among the nobility and wealthier town folk, wet nurses were quite common and frequently stayed on once the infant was weaned to care for him through his early childhood years. This presents the picture of a medieval "yuppie syndrome," where parents lose touch with their offspring in favor of banquets, tourneys, and court intrigue, and someone else raises their child. This may indeed have been the case in some families, but parents could and did take an active interest in the welfare and daily activities of their children. They were also known to take great care in choosing the nurse and treated her well for the ultimate benefit of the child.
Whether a child received its food and care from its own mother or a nurse, it is difficult to make a case for a lack of tenderness between the two. Today, mothers report that nursing their children is a highly satisfying emotional experience. It seems unreasonable to assume that only modern mothers feel a biological bond that in more likelihood has occurred for thousands of years.
It was observed that a nurse took the place of the mother in many respects, and this included providing affection to the baby in her charge. Bartholomaeus Anglicus described the activities nurses commonly performed: consoling children when they fell or were sick, bathing and anointing them, singing them to sleep, even chewing meat for them.
Evidently, there is no reason to assume the average medieval child suffered for lack of affection, even if there was a reason to believe his fragile life would not last a year.
Death came in many guises for the littlest members of medieval society. With the invention of the microscope centuries in the future, there was no understanding of germs as the cause of disease. There were also no antibiotics or vaccines. Diseases that a shot or a tablet can eradicate today claimed all too many young lives in the Middle Ages. If for whatever reason a baby could not be nursed, his chances of contracting illness increased; this was due to the unsanitary methods devised for getting food into him and the lack of beneficial breast milk to help him fight disease.
Children succumbed to other dangers. In cultures that practiced swaddling infants or tying them into a cradle to keep them out of trouble, babies were known to die in fires when they were so confined. Parents were warned not to sleep with their infant children for fear of overlaying and smothering them.
Once a child attained mobility, danger from accidents increased. Adventurous toddlers fell down wells and into ponds and streams, tumbled down stairs or into fires, and even crawled out into the street to be crushed by a passing cart. Unexpected accidents could befall even the most carefully watched toddler if the mother or nurse was distracted for only a few minutes; it was impossible, after all, to baby-proof the medieval household.
Peasant mothers who had their hands full with myriad daily chores were sometimes unable to keep a constant watch on their offspring, and it was not unknown for them to leave their infants or toddlers unattended. Court records illustrate that this practice was not very common and met with disapproval in the community at large, but negligence was not a crime with which distraught parents were charged when they had lost a child.
Faced with a lack of accurate statistics, any figures representing mortality rates can only be estimates. It is true that for some medieval villages, surviving court records provide data concerning the number of children who died in accidents or under suspicious circumstances in a given time. However, since birth records were private, the number of children who survived is unavailable, and without a total, an accurate percentage cannot be determined.
The highest estimated percentage I have encountered is a 50% death rate, although 30% is the more common figure. These figures include the high number of infants who died within days after birth from little-understood and wholly unpreventable illnesses that modern science has thankfully overcome.
It has been proposed that in a society with a high child mortality rate, parents made no emotional investment in their children. This assumption is belied by the accounts of devastated mothers being counseled by priests to have courage and faith upon losing a child. One mother is said to have gone insane when her child died. Affection and attachment were obviously present, at least among some members of medieval society.
Furthermore, it strikes a false note to imbue the medieval parent with a deliberate calculation of his child's chances of survival. How much did a farmer and his wife think about survival rates when they held their gurgling baby in their arms? A hopeful mother and father can pray that, with luck or fate or the favor of God, their child would be one of at least half of the children born that year who would grow and thrive.
There is also an assumption that the high death rate is due in part to infanticide. This is another misconception that should be addressed.
The notion that infanticide was "rampant" in the Middle Ages has been used to bolster the equally erroneous concept that medieval families had no affection for their children. A dark and dreadful picture has been painted of thousands of unwanted babies suffering horrible fates at the hands of remorseless and cold-hearted parents.
There is absolutely no evidence to support such carnage.
That infanticide did exist is true; alas, it still takes place today. But the attitudes toward its practice are really the question, as is its frequency. To understand infanticide in the Middle Ages, it is important to examine its history in European society.
In the Roman Empire and among some Barbarian tribes, infanticide was an accepted practice. A newborn would be placed before its father; if he picked the child up, it would be considered a member of the family and its life would begin. However, if the family was on the edge of starvation, if the child was deformed, or if the father had any other reasons not to accept it, the infant would be abandoned to die of exposure, with rescue a real, if not always likely, possibility.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this procedure is that life for the child began once it was accepted. If the child was not accepted, it was essentially treated as if it had never been born. In non-Judeo-Christian societies, the immortal soul (if individuals were considered to possess one) was not necessarily considered to reside in a child from the moment of its conception. Therefore, infanticide was not regarded as murder.
Whatever we might think today of this custom, the people of these ancient societies had what they considered to be sound reasons for performing infanticide. The fact that infants were occasionally abandoned or killed at birth apparently did not interfere with the ability of parents and siblings to love and cherish a newborn once it had been accepted as part of the family.
In the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, and many Barbarian tribes had begun to convert, as well. Under the influence of the Christian Church, which saw the practice as a sin, Western European attitudes towards infanticide began to change. More and more children were baptized shortly after birth, giving the child an identity and a place in the community, and making the prospect of deliberately killing him an altogether different matter. This does not mean that infanticide was eradicated overnight throughout Europe. But, as was often the case with Christian influence, over time ethical outlooks altered, and the idea of killing an unwanted infant was more commonly viewed as horrific.
As with most aspects of western culture, the Middle Ages served as a transition period between ancient societies and that of the modern world. Without hard data, it is difficult to say just how quickly society and family attitudes towards infanticide changed in any given geographical area or among any particular cultural group. But change they did, as can be seen from the fact that infanticide was against the law in Christian European communities. Furthermore, by the late Middle Ages, the concept of infanticide was distasteful enough that the false accusation of the act was regarded as a salacious slander.
While infanticide did persist, there is no evidence to support widespread, let alone "rampant," practice. In Barbara Hanawalt's examination of more than 4,000 homicide cases from medieval English court records, she found only three cases of infanticide. While there may have been (and probably were) secret pregnancies and clandestine infant deaths, we have no evidence available to judge their frequency. We cannot assume they never happened, but we also cannot assume they happened on a regular basis. What is known is that no folkloric rationalization exists to justify the practice and that folk tales dealing with the subject were cautionary in nature, with tragic consequences befalling characters that killed their babies.
It seems fairly reasonable to conclude that medieval society, on the whole, regarded infanticide as a horrible act. The killing of unwanted infants was, therefore, the exception, not the rule, and cannot be regarded as evidence of widespread indifference towards children from their parents.
Gies, Frances, and Gies, Joseph, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (Harper & Row, 1987).
Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986).
Hanawalt, Barbara, Growing Up in Medieval London (Oxford University Press, 1993).