By Lucie Laumonier
When people think about medieval families, they tend to emphasize certain timeworn ideas. These usually include that medieval families had an endless number of children, that child and infant death rates were extremely high (which they were), and, as historian Philippe Aries has argued, that because of this high mortality regime, parents felt little affection for their offspring.
For more than four decades now, medieval historians have strived to rectify these inexact perceptions. For example, although it is true that death did take a dramatic toll on medieval children, families were, from the beginning of the medieval era, smaller than we had once thought. Furthermore, any thorough investigation of medieval records shows that parental love and the desire to care for children were commonplace, which disproves the preconceived idea that repeated grief estranged parents emotionally from their children.
Looking specifically at late medieval Western Europe, this article examines how large families actually were. As we shall see, the study of medieval demography poses a series of methodological challenges to historians. Moreover, this article will also reveal how wealth and place of living influenced the size of families, bringing further nuance to imprecise yet widely held beliefs about the subject.
Sources and the Meaningless Mean
Engaging with medieval demography is a difficult endeavour as very few sources provide any substantial information on the rates of birth and death among humble families. Among the only archival documents that yield relatively accurate demographic data are the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century fiscal sources of Prato, Florence and other Tuscan cities, analysed in detail by David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber in the 1980s in their famous study Tuscans and their Families.
The “catastos” of these Italian communes — as these fiscal records were called — unveiled some of the demographic trends underlying the lives of the rural and urban dwellers of the area. Other detailed Tuscan sources providing information on the size of medieval families are the Ricordanze books, in which wealthy families recorded the dates of the births, baptisms, marriages or deaths of their close relatives. As fascinating as they are, these sources only shed light on late medieval Tuscany, which had a culture and customs that were distinct from those found in other parts of Europe.
In the rest of Western Europe, historians have to work with much less detailed tax records, which, when they were in fact drafted, often omitted to list young children. Other sources used by historians interested in demographic history are notarial documents, such as wills. However, it is important to note that these sources only mentioned the surviving offspring of the testator at a fixed point in time, thus only providing a snapshot of these families’ cycle of development.
Another issue with medieval demography is methodological. Dubbed “the meaningless mean,” it is widely held that averages and means can be devoid of significance if not interpreted wisely. If, in a sample of one hundred individuals, 50 of them had only one child, but that the other 50 each had six children, the average number of children per individual would be 3.5 – which none of them actually had. Nuances and careful examinations of data sets are thus essential in demography to better understand population patterns.
Wealth, child mortality and fertility
Two factors have a determining impact on the size of families: fertility rates and child mortality rates. Estimates of infant and child mortality are often elusive in the Middle Ages. When they are available, they range from 30% to 50% of births, depending on the context and the socio-economic circumstances of families. Fertility patterns are even more difficult to ascertain. What is clear, however, is that both rates varied depending on a number of factors. Of these, wealth was the most important since it directly impacted the ability of individuals to properly feed their children and to have access to health practitioners. This, in turn, largely determined their fertility and life expectancy.
Wealth indeed played a role in female fertility patterns. Malnutrition and physical frailty are detrimental to women’s fertility and to their chances of having healthy pregnancies. Malnutrition for instance causes amenorrhea (an interruption in the menstrual and ovulatory cycle) and augments risks of miscarriages. The impact of wealth differences on fertility was in evidence in late medieval Tuscany, where wealthy women were more often pregnant and were fertile for a longer period of time than women of humbler means.
The richer the people then, the larger their families tended to be. In rural England, between the twelfth century and the Black Death, the average number of children who survived infancy in poor families was slightly below two. This average improved to over two surviving children in landowning peasant families, and climbed to as high as five among the wealthiest noble households. The situation was similar in the southern French diocese of Maguelone in the late Middle Ages, where peasant families had on average two living children at the time they made their wills, while wealthy families counted an average of three.
The Plague and its Aftermath
Even if medieval authors often stressed how the plague affected everyone equally, be it the young or the old, the poor or the wealthy, archaeological evidence points to the contrary. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the plague took a larger toll on underprivileged individuals. Bioarchaeological evidence shows that malnutrition, prior infections and traumas – more common among poor families – increased risks of mortality during epidemics and famines. The poor had a shorter life expectancy than the wealthy and victims of plagues were predominantly from non-elite families. In sum, poor peasants lost far more children to the plague than wealthy merchants or aristocrats.
The Black Death may have killed the young and the old alike. But the plagues that followed the initial outbreak of 1348 took a larger toll on the young. In Sienna, Italy, children age 12 and under made up 88% of the victims buried during the 1383 plague epidemic. At the opening of the fifteenth century, underage skeletons made up almost two-thirds of the Sienese burials. In London, England, the average number of children per family dropped in the decades following the Black Death. During the plague of 1361-62, sometimes nicknamed the “plague of children,” two-thirds of the testators of the rural town of Manosque, southern France, were childless.
In the rural areas of the diocese of Maguelone, Languedoc, between c. 1325 and the outbreak of the first plague epidemic, testators had on average 2.8 live children. Between 1350 and 1375, the average dropped to 1.9 and continued to decrease, reaching a low of 1.4 children per testator between 1400 and 1424. Fortunately, families soon began to expand, as Western European sources suggest that there was a “baby boom” in the fifteenth century. The threshold for population renewal (two children per couple) was thus reached by the mid-fifteenth century.
Rural and Urban areas
Rural dwellers, even if impoverished, may have had a better chance of seeing their children reach adulthood than urban dwellers. Medieval English townspeople for one had a shorter life expectancy than villagers. Overpopulation, pollution and poor general health in cities contributed to creating an “urban pathogen load” that enhanced rates of child mortality and tended to hamper women’s fertility. This is not to say that life in rural settings was devoid of risks, but chances of survival were statistically better in the countryside.
For instance, fifteenth-century Tuscan women from the crowded city of Florence saw their fertility dwindle once they had reached their mid-twenties. Meanwhile, rural women had most of their children during their twenties and thirties. As a result, rural women had a wider window of fertility and were able to mother children in greater numbers than urban women.
Another example comes from the city of Montpellier, in southern France. There, urban peasant families of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries counted on average one surviving child — a very low number — while rural peasant families of the diocese had twice as many. This rural/urban divide is even visible in the sizes of wealthy families. The Montpellier elite had an average of two live children in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, while rural elite households had three. Wealth and place of residence thus played a central role in fertility and mortality patterns.
Family size increased during the demographic expansion of the high Middle Ages. It then stabilized in the first half of the fourteenth century before dwindling dramatically with the onset of the Black Death. Families remained small, often decimated by disease, into the first decades of the fifteenth century. They began to grow again once as the threshold for population renewal was reached by circa 1450. However, like with any study of human populations, these broad demographic trends must be nuanced by taking into account the wealth and place of residence of families. Doing so helps explain why wealthy families were usually larger than humbler ones and why urban families may have been smaller than rural ones. Finally, each family was different and had its own story. These are told by a few extant documents, most of which only offer a fleeting glimpse of their histories.
Barbara Hanawalt, The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Barbara Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London. The Experience of Childhood in History, Oxford University Press, 1993.
David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427, Yale University Press, 1985.
Carol Neel (ed.), Medieval Families, Perspectives on Marriage, Household, & Children, University of Toronto Press, 2004
Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children, Yale University Press, 2001
Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 2609, fol. 12r