Being a teenager is hard. It’s a time characterized by heightened hormone levels, acne, more acne, and insecurity. As a teenager, your biggest concern may be figuring out who you are and establishing your identity.
On top of that, you’ve also got high school to contend with and the politics of cliques that come with it. You must navigate through the social order to figure out where and who you belong with. Do you try to get in with the jocks and cheerleaders or do you play it safe and chill with the chess club crew?
And who do you ask to prom? Not only do you grapple with finding your social niche, but you’re also being pressured left, right and center to decide on a college and make important choices about your future.
This is made all the more difficult when you’re still so unsure about yourself as a person. But if you thought being a teenager is hard in today’s modern age, imagine what it must have been like during a prior time period. More specifically, the middle ages.
Perhaps there are some of you who may view the medieval period as a romantic time.
William Shakespeare’s depiction of it in his works may certainly make it seem like an era filled with chivalry and love at first sight- along with a great deal of violence and dead fathers.
It is a time that may also lead many of us to think of sword fights, jousts, brave knights in shining armor, battles for honor and glory, hand-to-hand combat, and rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress. Sounds pretty cool, right?
Well, as most of us are aware, it was far from glamorous. Even Shakespeare’s classic, love-stricken, teenaged characters, Romeo and Juliet, face tragedy at the end of the tale with an untimely demise.
There was a great deal of hardship during the middle ages and, being accustomed to our comfortable, modern lifestyles, many of us can’t even begin to fathom the harsh reality of living in such drastically different circumstances.
Teenagers in medieval Europe
First of all, we should start off by saying that if you were a teenager in medieval Europe, you would have had to thank the lucky stars that you even managed to survive that long!
During this time, it was not uncommon for children to die of illness, disease or injury at a young age. In fact, parents tended to purposefully produce more children to accommodate for this. The king of England was encouraged to produce “an heir and a spare,” as they coined the phrase.
In other words, it was vital that he have at least two sons to inherit his throne in case the first should die for one reason or another. Many factors worked against you and it is estimated that only about half of all children survived into adulthood, especially when there existed a constant threat of plague or sweating sickness without proper medical solution.
As far as teenagers were concerned, they were pretty much unrecognized. In early medieval society, you were considered an adult by age 12 in the eyes of the law. People did not live long lives back then, so adulthood started early. Even children were considered miniature adults and expected to act like it.
Kids were immediately given work and responsibilities almost from the time they learned to walk. The medieval world was also obsessed with courtesy and politeness. Having good manners as a child was essential for survival if you wanted to earn social support and protection.
There was no leeway for acting like a brat or throwing a tantrum if you wanted to get on successfully in life. Punishments for doing otherwise or not following model behavior could be brutally harsh. You were often beaten if you made one too many mistakes. Life was no joke and survival was everyone’s first and foremost priority.
In a heavily male-dominated world, boys especially faced hardship in a strict regime.
They were expected to grow into strong men and fill leadership roles. Many boys were bullied by their peers if they were perceived as being too weak or unmanly. It was not uncommon to encounter casual violence, and this was only thought to make young men stronger. For this reason, you wouldn’t receive any sympathy from others if you were picked on.
Instead, you had to learn to defend yourself and stand up to others in the face of adversity. There existed a predominant cultural mentality of, “Get over it!” and “toughen up!” so complaining wouldn’t be tolerated and would only make you appear frail while placing a larger target on your back for others to antagonize you.
When you consider this, you may be thankful that, in today’s time, you at least have the option to go speak to a guidance counselor or a dean if you want to report a bully. But back then, you were entirely on your own and forced to grow up even before you might have felt ready.
If you were a girl during the middle ages, you were typically groomed to be a bride and expected to marry a man of your family’s choosing.
It was not uncommon for girls to be married off very young by their parents, sometimes even at the delicate age of six depending on which century you lived in. Your purpose was to basically serve your husband, whoever he may be. Really, you didn’t have any rights and were barely even be considered human. Instead, you were considered property of men.
You could forget about pursuing higher education or starting a career. It was your duty to look after the home and provide your husband with children, mainly sons. Manners were again essential, and you were expected to act feminine and behave gracefully.
Being matched with a kind husband was based on luck. If you were dealt a bad hand in the game of life and given an abusive husband, too bad. You had to submit to him and simply endure it. If you did not, the consequences could be dire.
The crude reality for women of the time was that they were required to be “seen but not heard.” The middle ages could be incredibly grim for women, as exemplified in history when King Henry VIII would express bitter disappointment when he had daughters born instead of sons.
It is thought that Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, would not have been executed had she given birth to a son instead of the future Queen Elizabeth I at the time. Others think she may have overstepped her bounds by trying to manipulate the king so that she could take control in various governing situations, which may have fueled a feeling of resentment within him later.
Anne herself admitted to being jealous of the king during her final confession before execution in 1536. This would have been considered highly unacceptable to the point of evoking repugnance. After all, the emotion of jealousy was considered a masculine feeling which violated the rules of being a woman.
In her case, some may argue that Anne Boleyn’s strong personality may have held some influence towards her own undoing, causing the king to flock to his third wife, Jane Seymour, who portrayed opposite characteristics of modesty and gentle submissiveness- qualities considered ideal for a woman to possess.
There were, however, times when life could get slightly easier, particularly for a teenager.
Life was still bad, but it wasn’t always completely horrible, depending on your situation. Many children would be wiped out by the black plague because, unlike adults, they weren’t around to develop immunity from the last onset. As death favored the young and the population became more middle-aged, the demand for younger workers would heighten.
This meant that if you were a teenage boy who happened to survive the last plague, you had many opportunities to develop new skills that you were interested in and find better work. For a girl, you may have been considered a hot commodity since many men favored younger girls for their fertility and ability to produce more children than older women.
For this reason, your odds of marrying a man of greater wealth and prestige may have been increased after a plague wiped out the majority of your competition. Yes, this is morbid, and you may now be thinking that life must have been very dismal if something as devastating as a plague could make it better, and you would be right. But this was the dark reality for youth at the time.
For sons of noblemen, however, life was arguably as good as it could get.
There was the option of becoming a knight, which was an expensive occupation with much prestige. Training started very early in life. Boys had to be proficient in horseback riding and the art of combat. In essence, they were coached into becoming young soldiers.
Teachings were very strict. Think military academy for tots! But it had the potential to pay off with a glorious future as a medieval knight, a bold and respected profession. As a teenager, you could achieve the rank of squire before later being granted knighthood.
Perhaps you’re thinking that working towards becoming a knight seems a lot cooler than being a high school student in 2019. But it was not as chivalrous as people may presume. Being a knight came with great privilege, but the power was often abused.
As a knight, you could very well go around and take what you wanted. No one would dare stop you. It was fair game with the losers usually being poor, unsuspecting peasants. Yes, it may sound kind of cool in a Grand Theft Auto sort of way, but you’d be tainted as being pretty evil.
Still, it could be argued that being a horrible person was the best way to earn a better quality of life during this dark time. After all, it was an intense dog-eat-dog world. Aside from being among the royalty and high-ranking, wealthy noblemen, knighthood was what could’ve led to greater happiness for a young person in medieval times. Just be careful what you wish for.
Perhaps our discussion of lifestyles for teens in the middle ages makes you appreciate modern living a little more.
Here at least you don’t really have to worry as much about survival as our ancestors did and you’re mostly free to explore your likes and dislikes while discovering your self-identity. You may be concerned about your homework and figuring out what to wear to prom but at least you don’t have to grapple with adult responsibilities just yet.
And if you act up or show attitude towards your parents occasionally, you’ll usually be forgiven at some point without being brutally beaten. Just don’t make a habit of it.
Given the information about medieval life, it’s not hard to make the assumption that times are much better now, especially when you consider that the invention of the internet allows us constant access to instant gratification.
We also have advancements in modern medicines that don’t include leeches or bloodletting. So, let’s face it, there are a lot of comforts, conveniences and technologies we take for granted now that would seem completely alien to people from the middle ages.
If they could peer through a time portal and witness our lives unfold before their eyes, they might think we’ve learned how to harness magic or something like it. We also have a far less infant and child mortality rate, which means more children get to survive into teens and adulthood while pursuing their futures. This means that you may be alive today precisely because you didn’t grow up in the middle ages.
Featured image: Medieval children playing in 14th century, by James le Palmer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons