Sunday, November 27, 2022

Question from Don - Treatment of children in Tudor times

I was wondering, how were kids treated in Tudor times? (Hopefully this kind of question hasn’t already been asked). We all know women were regarded/treated like only second-class citizens, so, unfortunately, it should make sense that a child would be treated no better. However, did it also depend on the kid’s social status/gender? Like, were the boy children treated slightly better than the girl children, or were the young/little boys also expected to only “be seen, but not heard”?

(Note from Lara - I think there are pieces of an answer to this scattered through other posts, but I thought I would go ahead and post it so there would be a centralized place for the topic.)


  1. Just your average historianNovember 27, 2022 8:13 PM

    I think, in a way, personally, that the treatment of children (and also the elderly), was worse than that of women, but I also think that, in a different sense, being a woman was worse because, a person’s age will change, (they will get older), whereas girls/women couldn’t change their gender! That being said, before we all start having a “pity party”, there definitely was a family/gender/age hierarchy, in general, centuries ago, up until rather recently, (e.g., after the mid/late 20th century). For example, it would’ve been first and foremost, the husband/father; the patriarch, then it would’ve/might’ve been the wife/mother, and then last, came the children, and in aristocratic/wealthy families, say, like the Crawley’s on “Downtown Abbey”, classism, unfortunately, would’ve also existed, in that era. So basically husbands could beat/abuse their wives, they could also beat their child, (boy or girl), if they so pleased, women/mothers could’ve beaten/abused their child(ren), and it wasn’t illegal, either, for an aristocrat to have treated his/her servant(s) any way they wanted to, like yelled at them, and I guess even hit/beat/assault them to put them “back their place”. E.g., lords could’ve slept around with their female servants, got them pregnant, and then sack them for getting pregnant. Child abuse, wife-beating/domestic violence, and bullying and/or abuse in general, until very recently wasn’t really our concern, in society, and if such treatment of these people was made “public”, it would’ve just been viewed as “their private disputes” or “a family matter”, rather than a case of abuse/abuses of power over the victim(s).

    1. Charles Edward MannDecember 16, 2022 12:08 PM

      It all sounds like, for the head male at least, a good deal, but the lower you go on the ladder the worse it all becomes.

  2. Hey, pretty much everything you’ve said here is quite accurate. I also want to add, that, I think part of the reason why children/women/domestic servants/employees; etc,. are treated better in modern times is because it was likely a combination of people “breaking the cycle” through the centuries, by someone who was a very good person deciding to treat those who were “lesser than them” better than their forefathers (or foremothers) did, or the people/groups subjected to bad treatment, such as women, were getting tired of being abused, and started standing up for themselves. Why else do you think second wave feminism happened? We’ve each come so far, yet, so far to go!

  3. Even though women’s rights are the most controversial topics, looking back, everyone was supposed to be subservient to someone, not necessarily, automatically beaten/abused like the person above has stated, however, they could get beaten/hit if they “got out of line”, and didn’t behave like a proper woman/child; etc,.. For example, women were subservient to men, boys and girl children were supposed to be subservient to (both) parents, servants were subservient to their masters and mistresses, I could just go on and on. This is also the reason why thoughts like, a “henpecked husband”, or children bossing adults around were/are so funny, because it’s the opposite of who’s supposed to be dominating who. Kind of to think of it, the mere thought of a butler ordering his employer around is funny, too. ‘Cause how could he even have the “guts” to even “dare” to do that! He would be therefore portrayed as an extremely wimpy pushover, who’s so pathetic that even his servant can push him around!

  4. (Part One of Two)

    Apologies, but this is going to be one of my long responses. Childrearing practices of the sixteenth century is one of my main areas of scholarly archival research.

    First, most of Don’s question cannot be answered simply because there are so few sources surviving to tell us how children were actually treated. Remember, 95% of the population could not write, so we do not have much in the way of personal documents such as letters, diaries, etc., to tell us about the differences in treatment of boys vs girls or high-born vs low. So we just have to make do with what we have and paint a very sketchy picture.

    Each of the three previous responses appear to me to assign a modern judgment on the past, and each seems to lack significant familiarity with the sources of the period (i.e., they seem to me to rely instead on something the three writers may have read in some secondary source, and possibly non-scholarly ones at that, or … worse … novels supposedly “based on” history). The responses are judgmental to the extent that they use words like “unfortunately” and “worse” or they characterize the treatment of children in those bygone eras as “abuse” while using the twenty-first century meaning of that term. That does a great disservice to the people of the past. The more helpful approach, in my opinion and in the opinion of most scholarly historians working in the area of childrearing, is to ask how children were actually treated while avoiding the use of modern emotionally laden terminology, as well as to ask WHY discipliners acted as they did toward those being disciplined.

    What qualified as “abuse” was entirely different in the 1500s from twenty-first century “abuse.” It is FALSE to say that fathers or mothers could beat their children without restraint. There WERE limits, and those limits are sometimes (but not always) remarkably comparable to how children in the US and Europe were disciplined until the second half of the twentieth century. Those born after about 1970 will not recall firsthand, as people of my generation do, the days of lashings from Father’s belt severe enough to raise welt marks and 3-day bruises across the child’s backside, of teachers in school striking students one or more times across the knuckles or on the palms with a wooden ruler or across the backside with a large and painful paddle. And let’s not forget the practice in English “public” (boarding) schools of caning, which continued unabated well into the middle of the twentieth century. Today, such practices are considered “abuse,” but they were the absolute norm until just a half-century ago. And to persons of the sixteenth century, the disciplining of persons lower down the hierarchy meted out by persons higher in the hierarchy, including beatings (and nailing ears to posts, or cutting off noses or ears, or branding, etc) was entirely normal.

  5. Part Two of Two

    More importantly, the forms that discipline took were very solidly based and justified among persons of the sixteenth century by nothing less than the Bible and the teachings of the church (both Roman Catholic and the emerging reformist church). And since it was believed by virtually everyone that the Bible was the received inspired word of God, there simply was no higher authority to whom one might appeal or who might offer a different direction on how to treat children. In the sixteenth-century mind, God commanded and so man acted. Numerous childrearing manuals were written and published in the sixteenth century in England, even though less than 10% of the male population could read. And virtually every one of those manuals cites Proverbs 13:24 – “He that spareth the rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth betimes.” In other words, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” The issue was not *whether* to beat, but rather *how* to beat. As I have almost certainly stated in previous threads, numerous childrearing authorities offered advice and guidelines on how best to discipline children through beatings of various kinds. Bartholemey Batt (d.1559), author of “The Christian Man’s Closet,” advised use of the rod, and it should be applied to the lower body and sides. Use of fists, especially to the head, should be avoided lest the parent inadvertently use too much vigor and murder the child. Beatings were necessary and appropriate, Batt advised, but only so long as parents “do not beat them like asses.” Robert Cleaver, writing in c.1598, tempered Batt’s advice only slightly by suggesting that “one stripe will do more good to a child in time [i.e., if applied immediately after the offense] than a hundred stripes afterward” (“A Godly Form of Household Governance,” p.305).

    Assigning value judgements to past historical actions and events does not serve a valid purpose since doing so cannot change the past. Most scholarly historians seek to assess the past from a point of non-judgmental neutrality and, when possible, to learn from the past. Is it fair/correct/appropriate to call the practices “abuse” if no less an authority than the Bible (i.e., God) advocated in favor of the practice? To persons of the sixteenth century, beating as a form of discipline was a perfectly “normal” aspect of childrearing and even of life as an adult.

  6. I happen to agree with PhD Historian, on this one. We should also not forget that what’s considered as “abuse” now, wouldn’t have been considered so, back in those days, (even not to the people/victims on the receiving end of it). Did this mean that husbands were completely “allowed” to beat their wives, or men and/or women were “allowed” to beat kids senseless? Actually no, it just meant that beating/hitting was allowed as long as it didn’t leave any “life long scars” on the victim(s). However so-called limits such as, “the rule of thumb”, unfortunately just meant that even if beatings “went too far”, too often, the one getting (mis)treated that way was usually not helped by other people, or their abuser(s) getting prison time/punishment. Victim-blaming would’ve been rampant such as, “what did she do/say to make her husband so angry, that he would strike her,” or if child abuse was going on, “maybe if he/she had obeyed mommy and/or daddy, he/she wouldn’t have gotten smacked across their face, or belted.” Or using the phrase, “spare the rod, spoil the child”, would’ve been a common excuse for abuse. The concept of victim/survivor-blaming also still exists, today, but it’s safe to say at least not as much.

  7. Just your average historian is right about one point, (not topic of discussion here), but please hear me out. Even in modern times it can be hard to rid yourself of an abusive boss, especially if your employer is wealthy. Working for a wealthy family isn’t always like “Richie Rich”, “Batman”, or “The Nanny”, it’s easier for a rich employer to use their power/wealth to exploit their (for lack of a better word) servants. For example, they can lie about you, speak bad about you, gaslight you, or even only pay you minimum wage; etc., and yes, if you DARE stand up for yourself, suddenly, you’re the bully who needs to get their butt fired! I’m sorry if I sound bitter or like I have a chip on my shoulder, but, I can unfortunately speak from personal experience, because I worked as a chauffeur, for nearly 20 years, and I’ve had to deal with some pretty cruel, nasty employers.

  8. Update: In March 2023, Yale University Press published a new scholarly study of childhood in Tudor England by Nicholas Orme entitled "Tudor Children." I have not read it yet, but I am about to do so.


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