Married Life: Children and Stepchildren

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Married Life: Children and Stepchildren

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Blended Households. Because of the high mortality rate in the medieval period, especially of women in childbirth, it was common for a child to lose a parent. Moreover, given the dependence of the typical household on the labor of two adults, it was equally common for widows and widowers to remarry. At the highest social and political ranks, second marriages served to extend ties and cement alliances just as effectively as first marriages. Consequently, it was not unusual to find children of different parents growing up together in the same household, raised by a natural parent and a stepparent. Indeed, sometimes a medieval household could be quite complex, incorporating children from previous unions of both the husband and wife, along with the children they had together.

Stepmothers. Popular imagination has not been kind to the stepmother. Even in the early Middle Ages, the stepmother was portrayed as wicked, evil, and even cruel. Writers assumed that the stepmother would ignore, or even dislike, the children from her husband’s previous marriage because these offspring were in competition with her own natural children for their inheritance and that she would seek ways to promote her own son as heir at the expense of the firstborn child of a first wife.

Bonds of Affection. Such negative experiences, however, may have been unusual. The evidence of wills suggests the bonds of affection among stepparents and stepchildren could be as deep and strong as in conjugal families. Parents frequently divided the family’s goods among all the children equally. Court records reveal that stepbrothers and stepsisters turned to each other for help and advice in marriage or to serve as guardians for underage children. Living in the same household was as important as blood relationship for developing bonds of affection.

Sources

Daniele Alexandre-Bidon and Didier Lett, Children in the Middle Ages: Fifth-Fifteenth Centuries, translated by Jody Gladding (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).

Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

Mary Martin McLaughlin, “Survivors and Surrogates: Children and Parents from the Ninth to the Thirteenth Centuries,” in The History of Childhood, edited by Lloyd deMause (New York: Psychohistory Press, 1974), pp. 101-182.