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What medieval Europe did with its teenagers
By William Kremer
BBC World Service (2014)
Introduction: Today, there’s often a perception that Asian children are given a hard time by their parents. But a few hundred years ago northern Europe took a particularly harsh line, sending children away to live and work in someone else’s home. Not surprisingly, the children didn’t always like it.
Around the year 1500, an assistant to the Venetian ambassador to England was struck by the strange attitude to parenting that he had encountered on his travels.
He wrote to his masters in Venice that the English kept their children at home “till the age of seven or nine at the utmost” but then “put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another seven or nine years”. The unfortunate children were sent away regardless of their class, “for everyone, however rich he may be, sends away his children into the houses of others, whilst he, in return, receives those of strangers into his own”.
It was for the children’s own good, he was told – but he suspected the English preferred having other people’s children in the household because they could feed them less and work them harder.
His remarks shine a light on a system of child-rearing that operated across northern Europe in the medieval and early modern period. Many parents of all classes sent their children away from home to work as servants or apprentices – only a small minority went into the church or to university. They were not quite so young as the Venetian author suggests, though. According to Barbara Hanawalt at Ohio State University, the aristocracy did occasionally dispatch their offspring at the age of seven, but most parents waved goodbye to them at about 14.