In January 2013, I began a series on the medieval “cycle of life,” beginning with birth and ending with death. I didn’t include a piece on child mortality, so I want this entry to be considered as part of the older series, with “Toys” and “Starting School.”
I can’t put the causes of death in any significant order; I’m sure that some scholarship based on English parish death records could make estimates. Here, I’ve just listed them as they came to mind.
1. House fire. All houses except castles were build of flammable material, though they tried to plaster over the wood or wattle on the inside and outside. A poor family’s house plaster was less likely to be in good repair, since the parents put every waking hour into making ends meet. Even then, the mud-plaster having straw and dung mixed in, it was not exactly fireproof. Houses burned fast and often a sleeping child was trapped inside.
2. Falling into a well. You know the classic look of a wishing well, with a stone wall, a little roof, a crank with a rope and bucket? Well, those didn’t exist yet. All of those things are improvements for clean water and no drowning, and it was the Middle Ages that proved the need. Wells at this time were just holes. Maybe some had a wooden cover to keep out rain water. To use the well, you stood at the edge, hoping it wasn’t slippery from rain or spilled water, and you lowered your own bucket. Women fell in frequently, and tag-along children even more frequently.
3. Falling into the river. Any women who lived near a sizable creek or small river saved the step of hauling water for laundry by just doing their laundry at the water’s edge. This was safer for them than the well, but it didn’t work well for little children. Often, the river had a steep bank, not a gentle ford or beach. In a city, the river had buildings that went right up to and out over the water’s edge. These buildings included docks and piers, warehouses and taverns, and some lodging. They also included outhouses; if you watched “Slumdog Millionaire,” you saw the same set-up along the slum’s water’s edge: a shack with a hole in the floor, and feces floating around. Children slipped and fell into rivers in any and all of these settings.
5. Infectious disease, including much of what we vaccinate babies against.
6. Simple infections. Infections of the ear, eye, or tooth. Infections of cuts and wounds. Infections of the lungs, following on viral colds. Tetanus.
7. Famine, though often famine just weakens the body so that it dies of #5 or #6. Since food was all “locavore,” if the region’s crop was rained out, or if late frost killed buds, there was just less to eat that year. Every now and then, bad year followed bad year. In the early 1300s, some severe famines lasted as many as 7 years. In those severe famines, about 1 in 10 didn’t make it to see good harvests.
8. Wandering animal attacks. On a typical day, a medieval wife tending her cradled or toddling baby kept her hut’s door open, since there were no windows and she needed daylight. If something called her away from her seat in the open doorway, then the child could be left untended, especially if he was asleep in a cradle. The worst animal offenders were pigs, who were kept half-wild. They looked like wild boars, not like the pig in Charlotte’s Web. They foraged for most of their food, eating acorns in the forest and garbage in the town. Sometimes a boar wandered in and ate the baby. In places where this had happened frequently, they hung cradle-boards on the wall, but cradles on the floor remained the norm.
9. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. That includes everything unexplained, like heart problems, digestive failure, infant cancer, and birth defects. Defects like having six fingers or webbed hands were known and feared. But most babies with defects just didn’t make it, because in addition to the visible, there is something invisible like an immune system problem.
10. True freak accidents. Kicked by a horse; hit by a falling tree; injured by a tool that flew out of a workman’s hand.
Child mortality was, to say the least, high.