What medieval Europe did with its teenagers

William Kremer in BBC World News:

TeenAround the year 1500, an assistant to the Venetian ambassador to England was struck by the strange attitude to parenting that he had encountered on his travels. He wrote to his masters in Venice that the English kept their children at home “till the age of seven or nine at the utmost” but then “put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another seven or nine years”. The unfortunate children were sent away regardless of their class, “for everyone, however rich he may be, sends away his children into the houses of others, whilst he, in return, receives those of strangers into his own”. It was for the children's own good, he was told – but he suspected the English preferred having other people's children in the household because they could feed them less and work them harder.

…So why did this seemingly cruel system evolve? For the poor, there was an obvious financial incentive to rid the household of a mouth to feed. But parents did believe they were helping their children by sending them away, and the better off would save up to buy an apprenticeship. These typically lasted seven years, but they could go on for a decade. The longer the term, the cheaper it was – a sign that the Venetian visitor was correct to conclude that adolescents were a useful source of cheap labour for their masters. In 1350, the Black Death had reduced Europe's population by roughly half, so hired labour was expensive. The drop in the population, on the other hand, meant that food was cheap – so live-in labour made sense. “There was a sense that your parents can teach you certain things, but you can learn other things and different things and more things if you get experience of being trained by someone else,” says Jeremy Goldberg from the University of York.

More here.