Child Death and Parental Mourning in the Middle Ages by: Danielle Griego, Ph.D.

Child, you are a pilgrim born in sin

you wander in this treacherous world, look ahead!

Death is hiding around a dark corner

with a gust to cast down the kin of Adam as he has done before…

Child…your days are numbered, your travels planned,

whichever way you go, north or east,

Death shall happen to you with bitter misery in your breast.1

Unlike the lullabies we think of today, medieval lyrics were not always meant to soothe the singer or recipient. This excerpt from the fourteenth-century lullaby has a dark tone and underscores the idea that death lurks around every corner, ready to strike even the youngest members of society. People of the European Middle Ages witnessed a staggering number of child deaths, both in and around the household, as well as in the wider community. Child death was so prevalent that warnings about hazards to children can be found in medical texts, priests’ manuals for midwives assisting in childbirth, miracle stories (i.e., biographies of holy figures that served as proof for their canonization) and, yes, even medieval lullabies. 

Although many strides are being taken to understand emotional responses to child death in European medieval texts, studies on the implications that these responses had for gender roles remain sparse. Child death accounts involving grief can give us an insight into not only perceptions of the dying process, but also into the lives of women in the Middle Ages and gendered expectations for parenting and mourning. In my research, I argue that medieval authors portrayed women as grieving more publicly than men in order to stress the idea that they were responsible for keeping children safe around the domestic sphere. As a result, in some cases, public grief was used to indicate guilt.

“in some cases, public grief was used to indicate guilt”

My first encounter with medieval child death came when reading an excerpt from the miracle collection of Thomas Becket, the famous Archbishop of Canterbury who was assassinated in the twelfth century in England. In the account, the author, William of Canterbury, tells his readers that an eight-year-old boy named Phillip from Cheshire was looking at rocks by a lake, when he was overtaken by the current and drowned. His father, Hugh Scot, was the one to find him and groaned and sighed in despair at the sight of his son’s body. When Phillip’s mother got word of the death, she indulged in tears and wailing. Both parents refused to accept his death and called upon Thomas Becket for divine intervention.2 Poignant accounts such as this one point to the grim reality that child mortality was high in the Middle Ages.

“Death and the wet nurse” by Master of Philippe of Guelders3

Medieval children perished from natural deaths caused by disease or complications during childbirth and postpartum. In addition, infortunia, or accidental deaths, occurred around the household. Coroners’ inquests confirm that children attached themselves to their gender parent early on and perished performing chores, such as herding animals, ploughing fields, cooking, and doing laundry, alongside their parents and siblings. There are also cases of foul play, or suspicion of foul play, involving children. For instance, mothers and wet nurses were regarded with suspicion if children died under their care, especially in cases of overlaying. Overlaying occurred when women fell asleep on top of children and suffocated them while nursing in bed. 

Although child death counts are difficult to confirm, historians of medieval childhood estimate that rates are similar to late-Tudor death counts, with 400-500 children out of every thousand dying before the age of ten. Approximately 124 (12.4%) children died between the ages of one and four, and fifty-nine (6%) perished between five and nine years of age.4 These statistics undoubtedly increased during times of famine and plague.

“Death and the Child” 5

Rejecting the French medievalist Philippe Ariès’ notion in Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1962), originally published as L’Enfant et la vie familial sous l’ancien régime (1960), that, although medieval parents cared for their children, they did not form strong bonds with them because of high death rates and therefore, did not mourn as strongly as parents did in the modern era,6 my research reveals how mothers and fathers were regularly described as expressing their grief, albeit in different ways from one another. Examined medieval written sources and interment items associated with child burials help highlight the ways in which relatives remembered children through religious devotion, such as erecting memorials in commemoration of their lives. Emotional responses at the time of child death has also been addressed in more recent medieval research. For example, Barbara Hanawalt, in her seminal work, The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (1987), uses coroners’ rolls to demonstrate that medieval people had strong emotional bonds with one another, both within the immediate family and wider community. Furthermore, Ronald Finucane’s The Rescue of the Innocents: Endangered Children in Medieval Miracles (1997) and Eleanora Gordon’s “Accidents Among Medieval Children as Seen from the Miracles of Six English Saints and Martyrs” (1991), show that parents mourned the deaths of their children and often refused to accept their deaths in miracle stories dating to the high and later Middle Ages. Lastly, Nicholas Orme, too, has demonstrated through the analysis of brass memorials, priests’ manuals, and poetry in Medieval Children (2001), that communities had emotional attachments to children of all ages, grieved their deaths, and took measures to prevent children from experiencing harm.

In conclusion, medieval parents formed emotional bonds with their children and grieved their passing. Looking at expressions of grief through the lens of medieval child death accounts can tell us much about the lives of women in the past and present. In the medieval world, women were regularly portrayed as mourning publicly in order to highlight the idea that they were responsible for the safety of their offspring. Even after the close of the Middle Ages, men were expected to grieve in a reticent manner because they were heads of households, while women were more vocal about their grief and assumed blame if children died under their care. Now, in most cases, both fathers and mothers are held responsible for the safety of their children; however, associations between women, public grief, and childcare can still be seen today.

“Looking at expressions of grief through the lens of medieval child death accounts can tell us much about the lives of women in the past and present”

  1. Reginald Davies, ed., Medieval English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology (London: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 107, Lines 25-28, 31-34: “Child, thou ert a pilgrim in wikedness ibor: / Thou wandrest in this fals world-thou lok thee befor! / Deth shall come with a blast, ute of a well dime horre, / Adames kin dun to cast, himsilf hath ido befor…Child, thy dawes beth itold, thy jurneys beth icest. / Whoder thou shalt wend, north other est, / Deth thee shall betide with bitter bale in brest.”
  2. William of Canterbury, Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, Canonized by Pope Alexander III., A. D. 1173., ed. James Robertson,Vol. 1 (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1875), 201.
  3. https://inpress.lib.uiowa.edu/feminae/DetailsPage.aspx?Feminae_ID=37694
  4. Edward Wrigley and Roger Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 248-249, 528; These statistics are from analysis of twelve English parishes from 1550-1590: Alcester, Aldenham, Banbury, Colyton, Gainsborough, Gelding, Hartland, Methley, Shepshed, Southill, Terling, and Willingham.
  5. https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=81554001&objectid=1429384
  6. Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, trans. Robert Baldick (Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 1962), 128.

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