The primary guideline followed by medieval parents in training their children was the biblical admonishment: "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Scolding was considered ineffectual, and cursing a child was a terrible thing.1 Centuries before the field of child psychology came into being, medieval parents would have had no use for a "time out," which may have appeared more like a reward than a penalty. Corporal punishment was undoubtedly the norm.
From the perspective of our modern society, "beating" a child will certainly appear "medieval." But corporal punishment had its practical side. Is it kinder to smack a child on the bottom when he reaches for the cooking pot, or to let him burn his fingers and spill scalding soup on himself when he pulls on it to look inside? The medieval world was a dangerous place, and it could take harsh measures to prepare a child to live in it.
As children grew older, they could expect corporal punishment not only from parents but from teachers and neighbors should they be caught making mischief. This fact of life could be a deterrent to more circumspect youngsters and a rude awakening to those who thought themselves invulnerable. Pain was the medieval way of illustrating that actions had consequences.
As with all other aspects of family life, how parents handled discipline surely varied from family to family. There is no reason to believe that, by definition, the father who dispensed corporal punishment to his child could not love that child, as well. At the same time, there were parents who abused their children, just as there are today.
In general, the use of corporal punishment was as a disciplinary action taken to shape behavior, not a pervasive dispensing of beatings for no reason, but discipline could get out of hand. When it did, it usually came to the attention of the community.2 While legal action was rarely taken, in tightly-knit societies like the medieval village, the mere awareness that the neighbors knew your business had influence. Furthermore, the very fact that extreme discipline incited comment makes it clear that unwarranted beatings were not commonplace.
In fact, even in busy, crowded communities such as London, folks kept a watchful eye on the children among them, and some were known to fight for a child's welfare -- literally. In one incident in early 14th-century London, neighbors intervened when a cook and clerk were beating a boy carrying water. A scuffle ensued and the child's tormentors were subdued. The neighbors didn't even know the boy, but they firmly stood up for him even when they were physically attacked, and they stood by their actions when the cook and clerk later sued for damages. 3
To what end were children so assiduously trained and disciplined? Ultimately, it was to prepare them for leaving home.
Continued on Page Three: Leaving Home.
1. Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 182.
2. Ibid, p. 183.
3. Hanawalt, Barbara, Growing Up in Medieval London (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 67.