Being a #Teen in the Middle Ages Was the Worst

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Ditch all your "uphill in the snow both ways" stories, because there's a new, wonderful way to remind the teens in your life just how easy they've got it: Tell them how miserable it was to be a teenager in Medieval Europe. Because mom wasn't giving you gas money and there was a good chance you'd die of the plague, too.


The BBC reports on ye olde timey teens in northern Europe, when children old enough to shift for themselves were generally sent away as servants or apprentices. An assistant to the Venetian ambassador to England circa 1500 wrote home 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".

This was billed as being for their own good, but the Venetian observer was pretty sure it was also because you don't have to coddle other people's kids, they make for cheap labor and you don't have to listen to their whining about prom, cellphones or chemistry homework. Though you'd still get letters complaining about floor-scrubbing duties and crappy food.

Generally kids were given their walking papers at around 14 or so, which sounds about right. I think we can all admit with the virtue of hindsight that we hit peak whine around 15 and a half. Packing off the kids was also considered a good strategy for dealing with bad behavior:

"If you have a son who does nothing good… deliver him at once into the hands of a merchant who will send him to another country. Or send him yourself to one of your close friends... Nothing else can be done. While he remains with you, he will not mend his ways."

Not that packing your sullen boy child off to an apprenticeship necessarily worked. According to the BBC, apprentice riots were a pretty regular occurrence and, "In 1517, the Mercers' guild complained that many of their apprentices 'have greatly mysordered theymself', spending their masters' money on 'harlotes… dyce, cardes and other unthrifty games.'

How reassuring to know that teenagers basically never change.

Photo via Getty.



'Exchanging' kids also served a wider purpose for aristocratic families. It enabled them to build up stronger networks with other families, which in turn exposed the child to a wider social circle, a circle sometimes of a higher status.