It is 1485. The instability and destruction of the Wars of the Roses is gradually fading into the past, and a new chapter of English history is being presided over by Henry VII. His control of the throne, tough fiscal administration and dominance over the nobility soon provided a relative calm and stability that had not been experienced by the inhabitants of England during a century filled with war. The Valor Ecclesiasticus (or ‘Church Valuation’) indicates that, during this period, the Church and State implemented various measures aimed at managing the levels of the poor and sick, and provided palpable support to local communities. The Catholic Church in England was the cornerstone of society, and children in particular benefited from its monastic institutions though alms, sanctuary and education. The combined stability provided by both Church and State meant that a child growing up in Henry VII’s England would have been fortunate enough to experience the most stable period of the Renaissance.
Enter Henry VIII
Upon his death in 1509, Henry VII left behind him a legacy of effective economic policy, shrewd diplomatic initiatives and a very healthy exchequer. But the man who inherited this legacy of stability had very different ideas about kingship. The reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) began with 20 years of relative stability, largely due to the considerable financial resources left by his father, with the day-to-day running of the country overseen by capable statesmen; but by 1530, the exchequer was nearing empty, the coinage debased and taxes had reached their limit of public acceptability.
Minor religious reforms that had been quietly carried out for a decade soon spiralled into a fiscal enterprise, fuelled by Henry’s obsession with marrying Anne Boleyn, and his quarrel with the Bishop of Rome over his divorce from Catharine of Aragon. The AD 1535-1550 religious reforms that saw the dissolution of the monasteries, and the emergence of Henry as the head of his new protestant Church of England, irrevocably tore apart the social fabric of England, destroying the infrastructure provided by Catholic ‘social welfare’ (see box at the end).
Crown management of the poverty levels was non-existent until AD 1536, and largely ineffective until the introduction of the Poor Laws in AD 1598. Prior to this, the Church took it upon itself to manage levels of poverty, and children in particular were beneficiaries of their support. Homeless children, poverty stricken families and the sick were dependant on the provisions of alms from monastic houses as their only real source of money. In AD 1500, approximately 5% of the population, around 120,000 people, were living below the poverty line, existing on an income inadequate to buy enough food for their entire family; but by the end of Henry’s reign in 1547, this had jumped to over 10%. These dramatic changes were hastened by escalating population pressures and an unstable economy in which the cost of living outpaced rises in wages.
A child growing up in Henry VIII’s England would have experienced significant social disruption, and the changes in education, social conditions, poor relief, hospital provision, charitable infrastructure, social welfare and community spirit is likely to have affected every person, and indeed every child. But what do we know of these children, and why should they even be studied?
Children, in archaeology and history, are rarely the focus of research, often being overlooked entirely. Indeed, most previous studies into medieval England have not even distinguished between childhood and adulthood, with researchers instead believing that medieval children were simply thrust, by indifferent parents, into the brutal world of adult responsibility almost as soon as they could walk. Certainly, with limited documentary evidence, a lack of material culture and few artistic impressions of medieval childhood, reconstructing the world of the medieval child is problematic.
However, children are important when assessing a past population’s overall health since they represent a particularly vulnerable part of any population: not only do children require active care to survive, but they are more susceptible to the stressors of disease. As such, children’s health status (or lack thereof) can be used as a ‘barometer’ of the social and physical environment in which they lived. The only trouble is that the most direct evidence that we have of medieval children is their skeletons, and interpreting such data is complex.
So in 2012, I set out to discover more, and have since collated countrywide data from 4,626 medieval child skeletons dating from AD 1000 to AD 1700. My work focuses on palaeopathology, or the study (logos) of ancient (palaeo) suffering (pathos) – that is, the scientific study of tissue abnormalities caused by disease in skeletons in the archaeological record. Disease found in a human skeleton is not a random occurrence; instead, it is a reflection of any number of causative factors, including environmental stress, climate change, diet, occupation, genetics, and violence. By investigating the patterns of disease or trauma in bones over a 700-year period, I was able to assess the changing impact of such outside stressors. In so doing, my research has also, for the first time, revealed three clear, definitive, and separate stages of medieval childhood (based on varying palaeopathological patterns): the under-fives, six-11s, and 12-16s. By analysing the cause of disease among these three different groups, we can gain many new insights on life – including, as we shall discover, something of the true impact of the new social order under Henry VIII.
The Reformation’s under-fives
Aside from the risky business of birth itself (some historical documentation suggests that a quarter of all births resulted in death), levels of infection and trauma – which are arguably reflective of overall living conditions – were, throughout the medieval era, significantly lower for the under-fives than for the older age groups. It seems, therefore, that these youngest children were, on the whole, relatively well cared-for and protected.
Some of this difference reflects the difficulties of analysing disease in the skeletons of young children, as their growing bones make it problematic to accurately distinguish evidence of disease from normal growth. But, when we compare the pre- and post-Reformation data, the results are striking.
Between 1485 and 1520, trauma rates for the under-fives dropped significantly, likely in response to the social stability provided by the reign of Henry VII, and the cessation of civil war for the first time in 100 years. The only disease that increased for young children during this period was rickets. However, after the Reformation, the trauma rate in children of all groups peaked, while the rate of rickets quadrupled.
Caused by vitamin D deficiency, rickets is a lack of mineralisation of growing bones, usually because the individual has not acquired at least 20 minutes of sunlight a day. The likely cause was the swaddling of newborns, which was particularly popular with medieval parents. This is the act of wrapping an infant in ‘swaddlebands’, which was done for warmth, to promote straight growth of the long bones, and probably because of the practical convenience (of restricting the movement of children) that it provided to parents. In reality, swaddling prevented the infant from gaining sufficient levels of sunlight, and the sustained binding caused further abnormalities.
The significant increase in rickets during the Reformation is most likely due to an increase in swaddling – and potential extension of the practice up until the end of the first year of life (rather than just the first three months, as tends to be recorded in the historical documents). Was this increase in swaddling related to some parental wish to protect or control the children during the turbulence of the Reformation? Or some attempt to recover a sense of order during a time of turmoil?
Whatever the case, around age one children become more mobile, and will have been ‘released’ from their swaddlebands. Contemporary documents indicate that young children were regarded as playful and active, yet lacking both discretion and judgement. A few rare archaeological finds reveal that childhood play was likely centred around imitating adult activities such as cooking, cleaning and hunting, aided by scaled-down versions of domestic household items as toys. Meanwhile, the few existing artistic images of children depict them in a variety of pursuits, playing with everyday items, and socialising. Documentary accounts also allude to the sorts of play, or household risks – such as choking, falling down, drowning, and attacks by household animals – that might have led to some of the trauma seen in the skeletal evidence.
Despite these risks, the skeletal data refute the traditional model that medieval children were raised in a brutal, uncaring environment by indifferent parents who mercilessly thrust them into the adult world almost from infancy. Instead, the evidence shows that the under-fives, even during the hardships of the Reformation, were relatively protected by their caregivers from the stressors in their environment and the realities of medieval life.
The end of hospitals
The destruction of hospitals was not the aim of the Reformation, but a casualty of the wider dissolution. The medieval hospital did not provide the kind of medical environment that we would expect today. In fact, any ‘medical’ treatment was rare, instead the focus would have been on a regime of spiritual routine, prayer and confession. Hospitals also provided bed rest, warmth, food, exercise and nursing in a clean and quite environment. Historical evidence indicates that the majority of medieval illness and accidents would have been curable with such basic treatment, rest and nutrition. By AD 1530, the Church presided over 585 hospitals, but within just 20 years this dropped to 220. Those communities that lost their hospital were stranded, since the surviving hospitals were often unreachable, overcrowded and poorly funded after the Reformation. The closure of the monastic hospitals would have had most impact on children in need, given that children were perhaps the most vulnerable subsection of society.
Middle stage of childhood
As children grew and developed, contemporary accounts indicate that they were given basic tasks and slowly became productive agents within the household, and that by around age six, they began interacting with the adult world. For boys, joining the hunt was a particularly important stage, and ‘playing at war’ was encouraged – with boys as young as seven being taught how to shoot a bow and arrow. Despite this, the skeletal evidence again contradicts previous historical interpretations that children aged five or six were undertaking a substantial portion of adult tasks – the patterns of disease from their skeletons, when compared with older children (12-16s) and adults, are simply too dissimilar. Rather, it seems that a state of ‘childhood’, as we might understand it, was retained between six to 11 years of age.
Education at this age was entirely informal, and solely the prerogative of the parents, who typically had a perception of the ‘mouldable’ nature of the young and thus the need for them to be instructed from an early age. This education was largely based on learning Christian principles, mixed with customs and etiquette of medieval society, and a general transmission of culture to the younger generation. A child’s obedience to its parents was a by-product of the commandments, and an important form of social obedience.
In pre-Reformation England, the Catholic Church and its teachings permeated society at every level, and fundamentally affected all aspects of people’s lives. Social conduct, diet, taxation and education were the purview of the Church, which also influenced a child’s conceptions of morality, chastity and charity. In return for this obedience, the Church would support children in times of crisis, poverty and sickness. A pre-Reformation child could seek alms, shelter, education and even hospital care from the Catholic Church.
The Reformation (1535-1550) halted the functions of the Church, and the impact of these changes is visible in the skeletal data, which shows an extremely high peak – higher than any other point in medieval England – in overall stress at around AD 1540. This is not surprising when one recalls that the economic stability cultivated by Henry VII meant that by AD 1510, most of the population enjoyed high wages, easy tenures, lower rents and good harvests. Whereas by AD 1530, market growth had slowed significantly, caused by poor harvests, plague outbreaks, tax increases, population pressure, a rise in the cost of living, growing poverty and the debasement of the coinage.
Despite the 1540 peak in overall stress within the middle group (which is slightly higher than that observed in the under-fives), the stress levels are nonetheless much lower than found among the final group, the 12-16s – or indeed among adults. This indicates that this middle stage of childhood was also mostly buffered from the harsh realities of medieval life, even during the difficult times of the Reformation.
Adolescent growing pains
According to the palaeopathological evidence, the final stage of medieval childhood lasted from about 12-16 years. Socially, too, at around 12 years old the majority of children undertook occupational roles: boys often took to the fields and girls tended the household. Most children did not receive a formal education, and most would instead learn their occupational skills by watching and working with their parents, while others might be employed by a great household, or as an apprentice.
This shift towards a working life is reflected in the skeletal evidence. Trauma rates during this final stage reached the same levels as adult rates, indicating that, by this age range, children were exposed to the same dangers of adulthood. However, rates of infectious disease, though higher than earlier stages of childhood, were still not at adult levels. This suggests that although this group was moving into the working adult world, this was still a period of gradual transition, and not some abrupt shift out of childhood. Historical evidence also supports the assertion that this was a period of transition. By age 14, children were susceptible to the poll taxation, a definite indication of their matured status in society. Children of this age were also significant contributors to the medieval economy, and by AD 1540 they made up almost a third of the entire English workforce.
How did these older children fair? Their bones reveal that trauma rates in this group doubled during the Reformation, demonstrating that they experienced similar levels of unrest as adults. To my mind, the behaviour of the economy therefore had a direct impact on the health of these children, through its impact on food prices, wages and employment opportunities (recall the doubling of people living below the poverty line from 1500 to 1560). Any children seeking the sort of charitable support once available from the Church would have now found limited assistance, and were no longer as buffered by their families as the younger children. Some clearly found themselves stranded.
Reformation and childhood
My study has thus refined our perception of medieval childhood. It also shows just how far the dissolution caused direct, negative changes in health on the children of England.
The world of the medieval child had been established and commanded by the Christian Church through their control of the word of God. Henry VIII’s religious reforms saw usurpation of this role and quickly descended into a financially motivated enterprise that saw the permanent alteration of both the theological and physical reality of the children of England. These changes were swift and came at a time of significant economic turmoil. The ending of social welfare provided by the Catholic Church removed any supplementary support provided to the medieval child.
The children of the Reformation who found themselves in need of alms, education, shelter or medical care would have received no formal support, in a country where famine, harvest failures and a heightened cost of living was producing widespread social disorder. Overall, signs of disease and stress in children almost doubled from 1530 to 1550, with signs of trauma trebling.
Based on my analysis of 4,626 children’s skeletons dating from AD 1000 to AD 1700, I found that the Reformation caused the single greatest change in childhood health, and that it had more of an effect than the Black Death, Wars of the Roses, or the Hundred Years’ War.
Children’s bones allow only one possible conclusion: growing up in Reformation England was a traumatic experience.
Dental disease: truth from teeth
Dental disease is one of the most informative types of skeletal evidence reflective of lifestyle. In pre-Reformation times, all three groups – infants, children and adolescents – have similar patterns of disease, suggesting little difference in their diets. Patterns are also very similar in adults, further indicating that there were not separate diets for ages, and eating habits were relative homogenous. However, from the Reformation there is a significant drop in child dental disease. Why? Very little detailed research has been done on children’s dental health but it does seem clear that a sustained change in diet and eating habits must have occurred. This shift likely reflects a change in food production, caused by the changes in land management due to the Reformation. It could be that people were simply getting less food so their teeth were fairing better. This research is still to be done, but the change further supports the general picture that the Reformation was a time of dramatic change, and undoubtedly upheaval and disruption.
The Children of the Reformation: Childhood Palaeoepidemiology in Britain, AD 1000-1700, by B J Penny-Mason; and R L Gowland, Medieval Archaeology 58: 162-194.