views updated May 14 2018


YOUTH. The transitional phase of life between childhood and adulthood in early modern Europe is not easily fixed chronologically. Traditionally childhood ended around age seven, but since full adulthood was usually marked by marriage, "youth" (Latin iuventus ) could last as little as ten years and as long as twenty-five or more years. Consequently, terms for male youths, such as lad or knave, garçon (French), or Knabe (German), could refer to someone as young as seven years old or as old as thirty-five. The same is true of the female maid or maiden, jeune fille (French) or Jungfrau (German), as well as the forms of address of Miss, Mademoiselle, and Fräulein. Early modern legal codes similarly varied widely on the age of majority, ranging from twelve in canon law to twenty-five in Roman law and its later imitators.

The onset of youth, on the other hand, enjoyed broader consensus in European societies and was reinforced by the ecclesiastical tradition established by Lateran IV (1215) of establishing seven as the age of discretion (Latin anni discretionis ), when a child was intellectually and morally competent to receive the Eucharist. Puberty certainly fell within this life stage but was rarely a formalized marker within itself, not only because of its individual character but also because the average age of menarche was at least sixteen or seventeen, and many males continued to grow physically into their twenties. Occasionally, certain rituals marked the transition from childhood to youth, such as the bestowing of a knife or sword on a boy, or distinctive jewelry, headwear, or a new hairstyle among girls. In general, though, early modern "youth" is best measured in chronologically flexible terms of an individual's position in various groups, principally relating to his or her immediate family, employer, and peers.


Most boys and girls left their homes at some point before marriage for apprenticeships or domestic service positions with relatives or strangers. Few departed before the age of seven and some not until their late teens. By the time youths had reached their early twenties, though, at least two-thirds and sometimes three-quarters of them had left their parents' homes. 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. Some returned at the end of their contractual period, awaiting an inheritance (in the case of a son), a dowry and/or marriage prospect (in the case of a daughter), or a new position. The same expectations held for the large number of youths who had never left home in the first place (particularly in the countryside) and who in the meantime worked to contribute to the family's income. Meanwhile, the remainder had married and usually set up their own households, a universally recognized sign of adulthood.

Education received a powerful boost from both the Renaissance and Catholic and Protestant Reformations, but schooling remained a minority experience among European youths until at least the eighteenth century. The majority of those boys and girls who did attend school usually received no more than a few years of instruction from parish or private schools in basic vernacular literacy and some fundamental arithmetic. Well-to-do and intellectually gifted boys were able to attend Latin grammar schools, with many continuing their studies at a university. Often, pupils, like apprentices, moved into the homes of their masters. Among the wealthy, either tutors took up lodging with their students' families, instructing their charges in a variety of subjects, or teenagers attended exclusive boarding schools. In Catholic countries, the new religious orders of the Catholic Reformation, notably the Jesuits, Barnabites, Piarists, and others, offered free education in Latin schools found in every major city and many towns. Those boys who were able to continue their studies at a university were forbidden to marry before completing their degrees and were controlled in other ways by their masters, who acted in loco parentis and continued to set strict rules and discipline with the rod.

One of the initial benefits of the Reformation for girls was the opening of many mixed and single-sex schools that they might attend in Protestant lands. Among Catholics, new teaching orders such as the Ursulines undertook a similar mission to educate girls and young women. In addition, in Catholic countries many girls received educations as long-term boarders in convents or as novices (future nuns). The majority received limited vernacular reading and writing skills plus sewing and singing lessons. A few convent boarders and future nuns received good Latin educations. Unfortunately, both movements coincided with a greater restriction against and eventually prohibition of nonaccredited "cranny schools," the more affordable and thus more common site of education for early modern girls. The reforms and advances among Protestants must also be weighed against the closure of all convent and other girls' schools run by nuns. Consequently, only a minority of girls enjoyed the fruits of the education boom of the early modern era and even those who did, with the exception of the privileged few, gained little more than the most fundamental of literary and mathematical skills.


Rural fraternities or youth groups were known by a variety of names: iunores (Latin), Bürschen (German), garçons de village (France), gioventù (Italian). All were exclusively male, rarely accepted anyone younger than sixteen, and sometimes required experience as an apprentice or soldier. Their leaders might be known as "abbots" (in the case of France's abbayes de la jeunesse, or 'youth abbies'), "captains," "kings," and so forth. Initiation usually involved some sort of extended and humiliating hazing, after which new members swore their allegiance to the group and received their own secret nicknames. Some fraternities maintained their own written law as well as primitive courts for handing out fines and other punishments. As everywhere in early modern society, a strict hierarchy ruled, with older boys at the top charged with introducing younger males to the adult male culture. Drinking, gambling, and cursing constituted the main pastimes, but the principal focus of such groups was the regulation of sexual activities in the community. For the most part this meant finding eligible girls for one another and possibly organizing dances. However, such bands of rural youths also ritually harassed other members of the community who had transgressed local mores (such as widows who remarried too soon or shrewish wives), failed sexually (presumed impotence or sterility), or were beginning a sexual union (newlyweds). The youths' loud verbal abuse, lewd songs, and crudenessknown as charivaris, 'rough music', or Katzenmusik (German)served an important communal function of expressing popular approval or disapproval of what modern people would consider private matters. Surviving modern customs, such as putting tin cans and signs on the groom's car, have largely lost such meaning in the contemporary world but continue to survive as obscure relics of communal approval of some sort.

In cities, male youths could join a number of groups. The best organized were probably the journeymen's associations (German Gesellenverbände; French compagnonnages ), distinguished by craft. Like rural fraternities, these groups were characterized by prolonged hazing and other mischief as well as drinking and gambling. Because of their extensive European networks as well as growing association with assorted acts of violence, journeymen's associations were banned in France in the early sixteenth century and were prohibited in the Holy Roman Empire in 1730.

University fraternities were also a prominent part of urban life, with students originally divided into "nations" (based on common languages), but by the eighteenth century organized by a variety of purposes and identities, including religious groups such as the John Wesley's Holy Club at Oxford, derided by other students as "Methodists." In Britain the college constituted a central corporate identity for most students and continues in this role to a lesser degree today, albeit with an increasingly heterogeneous undergraduate population. Still another type of young male organization were the secular fool societies (French sociétés joyeuses ), groups that played key roles in all secular pageantry (especially at Mardi Gras) and reveled in mocking their elders and playing pranks on them. The most famous of these was the Parisian Enfants sans souci ('carefree children'), closely rivaled by the Kingdom of Basoche, composed of the clerks of the Parlement of Paris.

Male groups tended to gather at local inns as well as at private homes or barns. In addition to their charivari activity, they were especially visible during public holidays, when they would engage in various ball sports, archery, wrestling, boxing, card-playing, cock fighting, and dog tossing. Often competitions became quite heated and led to serious injuries and occasionally deaths. In England Guy Fawkes Day (5 November) was renowned as the prompter of many violent town versus gown riots in Oxford and Cambridge. Ritualistic raids on brothels were also common, though more so at the beginning and end of the early modern period.

Single-sex gatherings of young women, by contrast, were both less formalized and less publicly visible than those of their male counterparts. This reflected the typical public-private expectations in gender relations. Among Catholics, convent schools and cloisters themselves were the most obvious centers of exclusively female societies, in both instances removed from the public sphere. Some Protestant girls formed prayer groups, particularly during the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Otherwise, spinning at home with female relatives or communally with other women provided opportunities for young women to become acculturated to their society's expectations of them as adults. Such gatherings also provided important companionship and conversation with peers, without any of the prolonged rituals of initiation or formalized aggression of male groups. On the other hand, segregation of teenage boys and girls shared one important goal, the finding and securing of an acceptable mate, an objective that simultaneously reinforced and (if successful) undermined the coherency of single-sex groups.


The numerous festivals and wedding feasts provided a host of opportunities for young men and women to meet and court. In addition to local village or town holidays, youths were especially prominent in the festivities of St. Valentine's Day (England), Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), May Day, Midsummer (June 24), and Christmas. According to the historian Michael Mitterauer, "These were social institutions which virtually forced adolescents into contact with the opposite sex." Males were almost always expected to initiate contact with the opposite sex, though in a few cases girls were customarily allowed to organize dances and collect boys, such as the St. Catherine's Day Ball in France (25 November) and the German Jungferntanz ('maidens' dance'). In rural Bulgaria, the feast of St. Lazarus, before Palm Sunday, marked the ritual transition of young girls (lazarki ) into eligible young women, known as lazarouvané. Following a collective withdrawal of adolescent girls from the village, they would return to sing outside the house of every bachelor, donning new festive dresses that signified their right to take part in all of the village's public festivities. More typically, teenage boys and girls met under more informal circumstances: through relatives, in the marketplace, or (especially in the case of domestic maids and males of the house) in the home. In fact this last pairingincluding masters, their sons, and male servantsaccounted for more of the illegitimate children born than any other type of relationship. Sometimes the sex was consensual; often it was coerced, either through threats of dismissal or outright rape. It rarely resulted in marriage and usually meant dismissal and disgrace for the pregnant young woman. As in cases of incest between stepfathers and stepdaughters, we have no reliable statistics on the actual frequency of such situations since families usually shrouded themselves in conspiracies of silence.

After first contact, youths normally began a courting process, varying in formality by social status, whose ostensible final goal was marriage. Throughout Europe, we hear of the practice of youths visiting girlfriends in their bedrooms at night, a custom variously known as "night visiting" in the south of England and "sitting up" in the north, "nights of watching" in Wales, Kiltgang ('dusking') or Fensterln (climbing in through a window) in German lands, and nattelöpere ('nightrunners') in Norway. Sometimes these visits involved kissing, petting, or even intercourse, but given the possibility of parental interruption, sex was not always involved. Parental attitudes toward this ubiquitous practice varied widely, with some mothers and fathers turning a blind eye if they thought the two youths well-matched for marriage, while others (particularly in Scotland) strongly condemning such meetings on moral and religious grounds. The same divergence characterized parental attitudes toward premarital sex in general, with most of Europe's parents apparently tolerant even of premarital cohabitation as long as they were assured that a suitable formal union and public ceremony were forthcoming. If parental disapproval was known or feared, young people might meet at the homes of friends, secluded places, or the boisterous gatherings known as "spinning rooms" (German Spinnstuben or Gunkeln; French veilles; Russian posidelki ), smoky rooms at private residences or inns where women of all ages gathered in the evening to spin cloth and gossip, visited by young men who drank, sang, and occasionally danced with their female counterparts. Often such encounters led to engagement and eventually marriage; other times they could result in unwanted pregnancy and rushed marriage, abortion, abandonment, or infanticide.


Complaints about "youth these days" are as old as civilization itself. The early modern period was no exception, with unceasing laments from every region about a world "full of ill-advised and illnurtured youth" (Griffiths, p. 111). Some of these concerns may be tied to the attempted Protestant and Catholic reforms of morals through catechization and other educational means. It is thus difficult to assess whether there truly were more problems with young people or simply higher expectations. Clearly, economic instability during the entire early modern period also contributed to the perceived laziness of youths at any given time. Changes in the common practice of tramping (German Wanderjahre; French tour de France ), for instance, illustrate some of this transformation at work. Since the Middle Ages, most young journeymen spent their late teens and twenties traveling the countryside, sometimes staying at established houses of call for their profession (referred to in France as "mother houses"), but more often renting a small room or bed and getting by on whatever work was available. Ideally, those already trained in crafts would be accordingly employed, but by the late sixteenth century such temporary positions were increasingly difficult to find, and becoming a master was a near impossibility for someone without family connections. Instead, many youths turned to day labor or, what was more lucrative still, begging. Countless ordinances throughout Europe complained of a pandemic of "able-bodied beggars," whose tactics were often quite physically aggressive and extortionate of passersby. References to what we might call "gangs" of youths had been common since at least the late Middle Ages, but during the early modern period scuffles increasingly went beyond turf battles. Violence could also be turned against property, yielding vandalism such as breaking or stealing street lanterns, damaging conduits, rolling timber onto the highways, and committing widespread graffiti. Some of these unemployed and "masterless" youths made the more serious turn to professional crime, principally burglary and robbery, but occasionally arson and murder.

In response, some parents succeeded in having their unruly children incarcerated in new "bride-wells" and workhouses. During theseventeenth century, punishment of both juvenile delinquents and sturdy beggars grew in intensity, with magistrates increasingly relying on chain gangs, galley sentences, military impressments, and "transportation" to foreign colonies. Repeated petty thefts were also often treated as capital offenses. Despite such extreme measures, the number of "masterless" young people continued to grow in Europe, particularly in burgeoning cities. Philanthropic endeavors approached the problem from a different perspective and had some successes but were no match for the enormity of the economic and social crisis underway.


While early modern youths throughout Europe shared many experiences, it would be misleading to speak of a uniform youth culture. Friends and other peers were merely one of several social groups to which a young person belonged, and their influenceadmittedly strong during the teens and early twentieswas not the only shaper of individual identity and values. The transition from childhood to adulthood involved many biological, cultural, economic, and political changes that occurred at different ages for each youth. Some events, such as entering the world of work or school, proved more significant in the social development of some young people than others. Only marriage could be described as a universally recognized sign of adulthood, and even here an independent household might still be years away. Thus while clearly an important stage in every individual's life cycle, the phase known as youth often remained ambiguous as to both rights and responsibilitiesa situation not completely unfamiliar in the modern West.

See also Childhood and Childrearing ; Crime and Punishment ; Education ; Family ; Festivals ; Guilds ; Marriage ; Sexuality and Sexual Behavior ; Vagrants and Beggars .


Ben-Amos, Ilana Krausman. Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England. New Haven, 1994.

Cox, Pamela, and Heather Shore, eds. Becoming Delinquent: British and European Youth, 16501950. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt., 2002.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. "The Reasons of Misrule." In Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays, pp. 97123. Stanford, 1975.

Eisenbichler, Konrad, ed. The Premodern Teenager: Youth in Society, 11501650. Toronto, 2002.

Gillis, John R. Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1770Present. Expanded Student Edition. New York, 1981.

Griffiths, Paul. Youth and Authority: Formative Experiences in England, 15601640. Oxford and New York, 1996.

Levi, Giovanni, and Jean-Claude Schmitt, eds. A History of Young People in the West. Volume 2: Stormy Evolution to Modern Times. Translated by Carol Volk. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

Mitterauer, Michael. A History of Youth. Translated by Graeme Dunphy. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

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

Joel F. Harrington


views updated Jun 11 2018

youth No other stage in the life cycle provokes as much debate as the period between childhood and adulthood that embraces puberty. Some historians question whether such a transitional stage has always been recognized in past societies. ‘Youth’ was, nonetheless, the word usually employed in Western societies to denote how these years were different from the years around them. Jesuit seminaries in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century France, for example, frequently made a distinction between the training of children and the training of youth — suggesting that, for the purposes of religious education at least, these were considered as separate stages of development. Another convincing argument for the recognition of youth as an intermediary stage is the significance attached to it for conversion in religious literature of the period. The early modern definition of ‘youth’, in so far as one existed, was much broader than the generally accepted meaning of ‘adolescence’, a concept identified by educational reformers, social scientists, and psychologists only towards the end of the nineteenth century. An extended period of youth became common from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, ranging over a broad age span between the ages of 12 and 25, marked at one end by confirmation (the threshold in Protestant countries between childhood and a new mature status) and at the other by marriage.

About two-thirds of pre-industrial youths in much of Western and Northern Europe were sent away from their own families and into the households of others as ‘servants’ or apprentices, in what was almost a ‘rite of passage’ associated with the onset of puberty, separating them from the lives of their childhood and preparing them for adulthood and citizenship. As apprentices, young men grew accustomed to negotiating with their masters and to being entrusted with adult responsibilities. Young women also left home during their teens, often to large towns as domestic servants, moving from household to household and acquiring a large range of domestic skills by the time they married. This constant mobility of the young was one of the reasons for the relative absence of a distinctive youth culture. In general, the values of the young in the early modern world were not very different from those of their elders because they lacked the peer relations, tastes, or money to become an independent consumer group. Severe constraints were also placed upon relations between the sexes, but the deferment of sexual gratification was accepted by English youth, for example, with surprising equanimity. The rate of illegitimate births was very low considering couples did not normally marry until twelve years or so after puberty because of the difficulty of saving up enough money to set up a separate household. On the other hand, as many as a fifth of seventeenth-century English brides were pregnant at the time of their marriage.

Historical records reveal a certain consciousness of the passage from youth to adulthood. At the close of 1789 John Tennent, apprenticed to a general merchant and grocer in Coleraine, in the Protestant north east of Ireland, demonstrated in his diary a new, Rousseau-like, self-conscious awareness of the transformation he had experienced from the ages of 14 to 17. ‘What a wonderful Change have I undergone since 1786 to 1789, I scarce know myself to have been the same person, so alter'd in stature, knowledge and ideas.’ As a proper and God-fearing apprentice, John condemns the reading of novels and romances and records the dismissal of a fellow apprentice, ‘a very foolish, and careless Boy’, for heavy drinking. ‘Man is more happy when a child than ever after if I may judge by my own experience’, he records lugubriously. ‘At twelve years of age I new [sic] very little, at seventeen what I am now rather more and I am emerging into Man.’

A history of growing up in America from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, drawing upon evidence for about 520 individuals of both sexes, testifies that there has never been one common path from childhood to maturity. ‘Tried to make up my mind what to do’, a young man from Greene City, New York, wrote in his 1851 diary. ‘Whether to buy our old farm, teach school, go in a store or study law or go west.’ The story of how girls grew up in the nineteenth century away from home is also significant, despite its neglect by historians. Mill work took one young woman from a farm in Epsom, New Hampshire, to the Middlesex Woollen Mills in Lowell in 1843 at age 19. Her journey continued with school teaching from 1845 to 1859, when she married. The combination in late adolescence and early adulthood of work as a mill girl and school teaching was not unusual then, despite crossing middle- and working-class lines. Each was a common experience for American women in this era, and both were routes away from declining opportunities elsewhere. Gender, race, and social class, along with ethnicity, place of residence, and of course age itself, emerge as especially powerful factors in determining the eventual pathway taken to adulthood.

John Springhall


Ben-Amos, I. K. (1994). Adolescence and youth in early modern England. Yale University Press.
Graff, H. J. (1995). Conflicting paths: growing up in America. Harvard University Press.

See also growth and development: school age and adolescence; puberty.


views updated May 11 2018

youth / yoō[unvoicedth]/ • n. (pl. youths / yoō[unvoicedth]s; yoō[voicedth]z/ ) 1. [in sing.] the period between childhood and adult age: he had been a keen sportsman in his youth. ∎  the state or quality of being young, esp. as associated with vigor, freshness, or immaturity: she imagined her youth and beauty fading. ∎  an early stage in the development of something: this publishing sector is no longer in its youth. 2. [treated as sing. or pl.] young people considered as a group: middle-class youth have romanticized poverty | [as adj.] youth culture. ∎  a young man: he was attacked by a gang of youths.


views updated May 29 2018

youth Typically regarded in sociology as an ascribed status, or socially constructed label, rather than simply the biological condition of being young. The term is used in three ways: very generally, to cover a set of phases in the life-cycle, from early infancy to young adulthood; in preference to the rather unsatisfactory term adolescence, to denote theory and research on teenagers, and the transition to adulthood; and, less commonly now, for a set of supposed emotional and social problems associated with growing up in urban industrial society.


views updated May 18 2018

youth fact or state of being young; young people OE.; young person XIII. OE. ġeoguð = OS. juguð (Du. jeugd), OHG. jugund (G. jugend) :- WGmc. *juʒunþ-, alt. of *juwunþ- (cf. L. juventa, -tus, Goth. junda), f. *juwuŋ- YOUNG; see -TH1.
Hence youthful XVI.


views updated May 23 2018

youth if youth knew, if age could proverbial saying, early 17th century, comparing the strength and effectiveness of youth with the wisdom of age; a similar saying is recorded in French from the late 16th century.
youth must be served proverbial saying, early 19th century, meaning that some indulgence should be given to the wishes and enthusiasms of youth.

See also gilded youth.


views updated May 18 2018

709. Youth (See also Children.)

  1. Agni Vedic light god; embodies eternal youth. [Vedic Myth.: LLEI, I: 322]
  2. Freya goddess of eternal youth. [Ger. Myth. and Opera: Wagner, Rheingold, Westerman, 232]
  3. Hebe (Juventas) goddess of the young. [Gk. and Rom. Myth.: Hall, 146]
  4. primrose symbol of early youth. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 176; Kunz, 327]