Skip to main content

Childhood and Childrearing


CHILDHOOD AND CHILDREARING. Children under sixteen constituted at least one-third and as much as half of the population of early modern Europe at any given time. Despite that prominence, their thoughts and experiences only began to receive attention from historians in the late twentieth century. Early modern publications dealing with ideals of childhood and childrearing advice, by contrast, have long been much more accessible and therefore more fully scrutinized. After a brief summary of the relevant historiography, this article discusses both prescriptive and descriptive evidence on the experience of childhood and childrearing in the early modern era.


Until the second half of the twentieth century, historians of Europe generally neglected the history of childhood, assuming that such an endeavor was either impossible (because of source limitations) or pointless (because of the constancy of childish experience). The major turning point came in 1960 with the publication of Philippe Ariès's Centuries of Childhood, which famously made the provocative assertion that "in medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist" (Ariès, 1996). The worlds of adults and children, in other words, were not nearly as distinct as in modern times, and parents did not invest the amount of sentimental affection in their offspring that is typical of modern families. Since then a number of scholarly works have definitively established that this bold generalization is false, though to be fair to Ariès, the English translation of "idea" does not fully convey the sense of the original French "sentiment. "

More important, Ariès's controversial work triggered a flood of publications over the next four decades that took on the history of childhood as a subject worthy of scholarly scrutiny. Initially historians accepted Ariès's thesis with minor modifications, focusing on the causes of what were generally considered progressive changes. By the end of the 1980s, though, scholarly consensus had shifted toward continuity from medieval to modern times, much of it biologically predetermined. During the last decade or so of the twentieth century emphasis shifted back toward the importance of different cultural contexts in the ideals and experiences of childhood. Consequently the current points of contention among early modern historians involve which aspects of either the concept or experience of European childhood did in fact change by the beginning of the nineteenth century as well as where, when, and why.


All debates about childhood during the early modern period revolved around two issues, namely the inherent nature of the child and the subsequent malleability of that nature. Roughly speaking, three approaches emerged in the prescriptive literature. One considered all children evil by nature and therefore in need of strong discipline; a second viewed children as essentially good but still in need of guidance; and a third conceived of children as largely blank slates, neither inherently good nor inherently evil and thus likewise requiring instruction. At the beginning of the early modern era, the first view dominated, but by the eighteenth century it had been mostly supplanted, at least among intellectuals and government leaders, by the second and third ways of thinking. A fourth, more radical, approach argued that education itself was the problem, but this theory had more of an immediate literary and philosophical than practical effect on childrearing.

The common emphasis of all but the most radical approach on the value and necessity of education was in fact a hallmark of the early modern period. Medieval authors, like their classical predecessors, tended to see an individual's childhood merely as indicative of his or her particular character and potential as an adult. This character was for the most part inherited and fixed, usually by social status. Talented individuals could further develop their talents through education, but no amount of training could overcome baseness of birth.

Christianity added an egalitarian aspect to the questions of universal human nature and the power of education, but the implications for childhood were ambivalent. On the one hand, Christian leaders since the time of Jesus had recognized the privileged place of childlike faith and innocence, evident in such Gospel passages as Mark 10:1415: "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." Some ancient authors believed that children had their own guardian angels, and in 374 the Christian emperors Valentinian, Valens, and Gratian made the common Roman practice of infanticide a capital offense. On the other hand, many of the church fathers, particularly in the West, stressed the immediate effects of original sin in all children. Saint Augustine (354430) in particular refuted all notions of childish innocence, arguing that even the newborn infant possessed all of the selfish and lustful appetites that resulted from Adam and Eve's Fall. Augustine's influence was considerable, subsequently giving support to both theological arguments about limbo (a special part of hell reserved for unbaptized infants) and the case for infant baptism itself, a common practice by the early Middle Ages.

By the beginning of the early modern era, the tensions within this dualistic concept of childhood had led to two distinct ways of thinking about child-rearing and therefore education. The Augustinian emphasis on the effects of original sin lay at the heart of the salvation process described by Martin Luther (14831546) and most other sixteenth-century Protestants. Luther often spoke affectionately about his own children and was devastated at two deaths among them, yet he also acknowledged their inherently sinful nature, a universal theme in evangelical and Reformed publications. One German Protestant tract of the 1520s argued at length that all infant hearts craved "adultery, fornication, impure desires, lewdness, idol worship, belief in magic, hostility, quarrelling, passion, anger, strife, dissension, factiousness, hatred, murder, drunkenness, gluttony," and so on. Many Catholics shared this dark view of childhood. A century later the superior of the Oration Order in France agreed that "childhood is the vilest and most abject of human nature, after that of death."

Because all children were naturally inclined toward sin, such authors favored strict and constant discipline, usually including corporal punishment when necessary. Most of this training was to take place within the household, but clerical leaders often feared that fathers and mothers had not the time, inclination, or ability for proper religious instruction. In fact religious reformers frequently accused parents of spoiling and indulging their children rather than breaking their stubborn and selfish wills. Universal education consequently became a high priority for Protestant and Catholic leaders alike. Following Luther's example in 1529, each of the major denominations issued its own catechism for the instruction of the young and others in matters of faith. Many secular authorities made catechism classes or Sunday school mandatory; some governments attempted the same for basic grammar school.

The results were mixed. On the one hand, the number of both Latin and vernacular schools went up dramatically during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In Lutheran Electoral Saxony, for instance, only 50 percent of parishes had schools for boys in 1580, and 10 percent had schools for girls. By 1675 the figures had risen to 94 percent and 40 percent respectively. Among Catholics, religious orders with special teaching missions, such as the Jesuits and the Ursulines, thrived, founding hundreds of secondary schools and colleges across Europe. At the same time attendance at such schools was uneven and in many instances almost nonexistent, especially at harvesttime, when the labor of the children was needed most. Visitation reports on various parishes also call into question just how much was learned at such schools, suggesting that initial attempts at both religious indoctrination and teaching literacy failed more than they succeeded. Even when numerous free elementary schools for the poor began to open in the late-seventeenth century, school attendance before the age of thirteen remained spotty until made compulsory almost two centuries later.

A second impetus for education of children outside the home came from a group of individuals with quite different ideas about human nature and childhood. From the fourteenth century on, Italian, and later northern, humanists conducted a literary campaign to promote education as a moral as well as a civic virtue. Human nature, they argued, was both essentially good and malleable. Fluency in the ars humanitatis, or humanities, provided the citizens of a republic such as Florence or Venice with the clarity of thinking and eloquence of expression that were essential in all political debates and decisions. The practical skills taught by humanist tutors, moreover, gave young students a leg up on many highly coveted government positions. Finally, a humanist education, admittedly available to a privileged few, had a civilizing effect on young children, allowing them to fulfill the individual potential for good that its advocates saw in all individuals, regardless of birth.

Outside of Italy the humanist education of children took on a much greater moral significance. The Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) elegantly encapsulated his childrearing philosophy in the series of books and pamphlets he published during the 1520s: "[A child] ought to imbibe, as it were, with the milk that he suckles, the nectar of education, [for] he will most certainly turn out to be an unproductive brute unless at once and without delay he is subjected to a process of intensive instruction." Unlike Luther and other pessimists about human nature, Erasmus believed a child's nature was largely unformed, affected by original sin but not incapacitated by it. His method therefore comprised a mixture of play and learning as well as a noticeable absence of corporal punishment. Educationmeaning manners as well as literacy and religious instructionwas the indispensable shaper of the adult to be. For Erasmus parental neglect of a child's education was a worse crime than infanticide, since it sentenced the unwitting offspring to a life of ignorance, depravity, and overall bestiality.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries countless pamphlets, tracts, and books appeared on childhood and childrearing. Most took either a Lutheran or an Erasmian line on the subject of a child's nature and education. Among the most innovative publications were those written by English Puritan authors, who combined elements of both approaches. Though inherently inclined toward sin, they argued, the child's will could effectively be channeled rather than broken. Again the household was the ideal setting for this type of formation, and both parents shared a responsibility in childrearing as a wholea task that predecessors consistently assigned primarily to the father. Puritan authors also displayed the most attention to the particular circumstances of childhood and the most successful methods of education.

By the time of the Enlightenment the negative view of childhood was in clear decline among the learned elites of Europe, though it never died out. Two authors played especially important roles in this transformation. In Some Thoughts concerning Education (1693), the English philosopher John Locke (16321704) compared the mind of a child to a blank piece of paper or unformed piece of wax, possessing no innate tendencies toward good or evil. Rather, Locke argued, the responsibility for the child's future character lay with the parents, who could see that the child was well-educated in morality and letters or neglect it to malignant influences. Like Erasmus, Locke considered reason and play much more effective tools than the rod but deplored mothers who weakened their children by coddling them. A self-acknowledged disciple of Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) went to the farthest extreme in his denial of the child's fallen nature, arguing in Émile (1762) that the very nature of the child was good and that society, including formalized education, corrupted that goodness. Rousseau's notion of a "natural" upbringing lent support to the contemporary maternal breast-feeding movement in Europe and likewise coincided with many social reformers' complaints about schools and other child institutions. Not until the nineteenth century, though, did his pedagogical philosophy have a significant impact on formal education.


The first two years of a child's life, known as infantia in most early modern descriptions, were probably the most dangerous in terms of survival. In addition to a high rate of miscarriages and stillbirths, early modern Europe was characterized by an extremely high mortality rate for infants, at least by modern standards. Only seven or eight out of ten newborn babies would live to the age of one, and an additional two out of ten would die before reaching the age of ten. Many factors contributed to this predicament, including swaddling and other poor hygiene conditions, fatal childhood diseases (particularly smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis), and inadequate nourishment. Most of these causes were beyond any parent's control. Physicians could offer no effective cures for any of the deadly diseases and beyond that were unavailable to the great majority of the population, who instead relied on various home remedies, potions, ointments, regimens, and charms. Even a potentially harmful practice that was deliberate, such as swaddling, had a basis in some practical concerns, such as keeping the infant warm and restrained while left unattended for long periods of time. The same good intentions were true of sharing a bed with an infant, which sometimes resulted in overlaying, or accidental suffocation of the baby. Consequently there was no discernible difference in infant mortality by social class until the eighteenth century and no significant improvement overall until the late nineteenth century.

Then as now, the subject of nourishment and breast-feeding in particular could be quite controversial. Whether by choice or necessity, most women apparently nursed their own children at home. This practice was endorsed by physicians as well as folk healers, who recognized mother's milk as the healthiest option, especially given the absence of pasteurized milk until the late nineteenth century. The age of weaning could be anytime between six months and two years, depending on various factors, such as the economic status of the parents, health of the mother, sex and size of the infant, local customs, and so forth. At the same time the practice of wet-nursing, or sending a child to another woman in the country, was also a common practice, particularly in large cities, such as Paris and Milan. An infant's chances of survival were three to four times greater if nursed by its own mother rather than a stranger, but not until the eighteenth century did wealthy women heed the advice of physicians on this question. Many poor working women, on the other hand, had no alternative to wet-nursing for their children and thus continued to send their infants to "baby farms," with their shockingly high rates of infant mortality, well into the nineteenth century.

Infant abandonment was also a fairly common phenomenon in early modern Europe. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the typical foundling (enfant trouvé, French; expósito, Spanish; gettello, Italian; Findelkind, German) was the product of an illicit union, abandoned by a single mother who feared the consequences to her reputation. Since, outside of Italy, the numbers were relatively small, and 80 to 90 percent of foundlings under the age of two died within a short period, various foundling homes, orphanages, and hospitals were generally able to cope with those infants who survived into childhood. The eighteenth century, however, witnessed a sharp increase in the number of abandoned children in Europe, particularly in large cities. In Paris, for instance, the annual abandonment rate more than tripled between 1700 and 1789, going from 1,700 to about 6,000 foundlings per year. By the end of the century, one in four babies was abandoned in the cities of Toulouse and Milan, a rate that continued to climb everywhere in Europe until the mid-nineteenth century. Most of the babies continued to be illegitimate, but married couples also increasingly abandoned their children, sometimes as a temporary child-care measure. Many local studies have established a close correlation between rising food prices (often due to famine) and increased abandonment.

The most extreme fate for an unwanted child was death by infanticide. Here too the majority of the perpetrators convicted during the early modern period were single mothers, usually domestic maids, who feared the reputational and economic consequences of giving birth to a bastard child. A number of new ordinances and legal codes during the sixteenth century, most notably the Holy Roman Empire's Carolina (1532), brought new attention to infanticide and prescribed precise measures for preventing, detecting, and punishing the crime. There is no basis for believing that such laws corresponded to an actual increase in infanticides. Their social impact, however, was undeniable. By the eighteenth century, infanticide had become the most common cause of female executions in Europe. Only a number of tracts by Enlightenment authors eventually roused pity for the situations of most of these women and led to the abolishment of capital punishment for infanticide.

Historians in the Ariès school have cited the unbearably high possibility of an infant's death as an argument that parents would invest few emotional or material resources in a child until at least the age of two. Here the historical evidence can offer no satisfactory resolution. Despite the obvious logic of withholding one's affections until it was safer as well as the frequent reuse of the names of dead babies, many parents clearly grieved greatly at the loss of an infant. At the same time abandonments that were fairly certain to end in the child's death continued to grow in number throughout the early modern period. No historical evidence is likely to resolve this paradox.


Having survived infancy, an early modern child was freed to explore the world outside its crib. Toddlers and small children of the era probably experienced much less adult oversight than modern childrena fact clearly evident by the high number of accidental deaths recorded. In any event they spent the majority of their time with female relativesmothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, nurses, or governesses. Of the major achievements of toddlerhood, walking upright was clearly valued the greatest, prompting parents to employ a variety of strings and props oramong middle- and upper-class familiesbackboards and iron collars for girls to speed the process. Toilet training, by contrast, often occurred late or haphazardly.

Above all, children under seven enjoyed relative immunity from the world of work. With the exception of a few small tasks requiring little strength or skill (for example, collecting firewood or feeding livestock), their time was devoted completely to play. Some of this entertainment might be provided by adults in the form of nursery rhymes, lullabies, riddles, counting games, and so on. The stories later known as fairy tales were likewise passed down from generation to generation, each invoking its own mixture of fantasy, humor, and monsters ranging from trolls and bogeymen to Turks andduring the Thirty Years' WarSwedes. Some common toys, such as dolls, marbles, and spinning tops, were manufactured, but most playthings were improvised until the proto-industrialization of the eighteenth century brought specialized toy shops selling jigsaw puzzles, board games, and miniature soldiers.

The age of seven marked a key transition in many respects. Until that point, for instance, children were usually dressed in unisex tunics or gowns. Afterward they began to wear clothing more appropriate to their genders, boys putting on breeches and possibly carrying a knife (or a sword among the nobility), girls wearing dresses and skirts. This symbolic joining of adult society usually corresponded to new life experiences for the child. The Catholic Church had long taught that seven was the age of reason (and therefore conscience); popular wisdom held that this was when children became teachable. On farms this meant full participation in the adult work as divided by gender. Occasionally a boy was sent to an apprenticeship at this age, although that usually came more around the age of twelve to fourteen, as did domestic servitude for girls. If a family could afford it, a boy (and sometimes a girl) might be sent to a Latin grammar school, a vernacular school, or one of the unregulated and independent "corner schools." Poor families in cities might send a child to beg in the streets at this age, when she or he was young enough to evoke pity and old enough to make the most of it. Finally, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries more and more children were employed in weaving and other forms of cottage industry, in some cases earning up to one-quarter of the household's income. In general child labor was considered quite normal until the excesses of nineteenth-century industrialization.

The new gender specificity in work was also evident in recreation and leisure, with boys and girls gradually playing less with one another and instead separating into "gangs" of boys and smaller groups of girls. Games and pastimes included various forms of chasing, hunting, racing, daring, guessing, and pretending, with sports preferred among the older boys. Occasionally youth groups, especially boys, would engage in rough street games, petty thefts, pranks, and vandalism. In cities these gangs might also engage in violent confrontations with groups from other parishes or neighborhoods, each carving out its own "turf" against rivals. Secular authorities throughout Europe repeatedly complained of rowdy and unruly children in the streets, apparently to little effect.

There was no indisputable age when childhood ended, just as there was no universal age of reaching adulthood. Both transitions, rather, tended to be determined by relative degrees of independence from one's parents and immediate family. By the age of sixteen, for instance, at least one-half of children had left their family homes to work as servants or apprentices, sometimes for relatives but normally for strangers. Usually this involved a written contract specifying the respective expectations of master and servant, including money paid by the child's parent (for an apprenticeship) or by the employer (for a domestic servant). Ostensibly the main purpose of the arrangement, typically lasting three to seven years, was for a boy to learn certain marketable skills and for a girl to earn the money for her dowry. The sojourn away from home, however, also had the effect of reducing a household's expenditures while the child was away. Those teenagers who remained at home usually worked to contribute to the family's income. For this reason education beyond the age of twelve or thirteen continued to be a rarity in early modern society. Even among nobles service as a page in another aristocratic household was considered essential to proper socialization and thus the norm until the eighteenth century, at which point formal education became more important. Proto-industrialization and industrialization also contributed to the decline of apprenticeships and servant placements among artisanal and lowerclass families, since a youth's labor was now an asset needed at home.


Within a relatively short span of forty years, the history of childhood has become a burgeoning field of research. Still, the knowledge of the ideals of childrearing far surpasses the understanding of the everyday experiences of early modern children. Like their adult counterparts, children were culturally diverse yet commonly bound by their era's biological and technological "limits of the possible." Apart from their great susceptibility to premature death or the relative primitiveness of their living conditions, they apparently shared more with modern children than not, at least until the age of seven. Even then a key social transformation was well under way by the close of the eighteenth century, with ever more children starting school rather than work. The abolition of child labor in Europe remained far off, but the foundations for modern childhood had been laid.

See also Education ; Family ; Gender ; Motherhood and Childbearing ; Orphans and Foundlings ; Youth .


Primary Sources

Locke, John. Some Thoughts concerning Education. Edited by John W. Yolton and Jean S. Yolton. Oxford, 1989. First published in 1693.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York, 1979. First published in 1762.

Secondary Sources

Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood. Translated by Robert Baldick. London, 1996. Originally published in 1960.

Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. London, 1995.

Haas, Louis. The Renaissance Man and His Children: Childbirth and Early Childhood in Florence, 13001600. London, 1998.

McClure, Ruth K. Coram's Children: The London Foundling Hospital in the Eighteenth Century. New Haven and London, 1981.

Ozment, Steven. When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.

Ozment, Steven, ed. Three Behaim Boys: Growing Up in Early Modern Germany: A Chronicle of Their Lives. New Haven, 1990.

Pollock, Linda A. Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

Strauss, Gerald. Luther's House of Learning: Indoctrination of the Young in the German Reformation. Baltimore, 1978.

Sussman, George D. Selling Mother's Milk: The Wet-Nursing Business in France, 17151914. Urbana, Ill., Chicago, and London, 1982.

Joel F. Harrington

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Childhood and Childrearing." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 16 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Childhood and Childrearing." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (August 16, 2018).

"Childhood and Childrearing." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved August 16, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.