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Collateral of the Plague. Children of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

As the Middle Ages was a period of time marked by the plague, there was a remarkable decimation of the world population; a reduction from 450 million to about 350 million in the fourteenth century. In Europe alone the Black Death was estimated to have reduced the population from between thirty and sixty percent. As in other time periods, mortality among infants under the age of one year was high, and fifty percent of children did not make it to adult hood.1 As a disproportionate number of children were felled by the plague, a greater appreciation of the very young manifested in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.2

Effects of the Black Death

The Black Death of the Middle Ages was actually three different types of plague. The fatal form, septicemic, was spread by fleas, while the pneumonic variety was spread by coughing and sneezing. The bubonic plague, also caused by fleas, was more widespread, representing seventy-five percent of all cases of the plague; however, it was less deadly and less contagious. Incidences of the bubonic plague tended to rise over spring and summer.3 Because of misunderstandings of the nature of the different types of plague and the fear of contagion, the dead were often unceremoniously buried in pits.

While greater value was ascribed to children after the plague began to abate, some parents abandoned their children at the onset of the disease. Parents had no way of knowing the extent to which the pestilence would spread through a family. Children in particular were more likely to succumb to the disease, while the elderly were more likely to recover from certain strains of the plague. Greater immunity was acquired by exposure to various diseases during a life time; survival of one major epidemic increased the chances that one would survive another.4 In 1363 a particular outbreak of plague killed mostly infants and toddlers, likely because it was the same strain to which older children and adults had already been exposed previously, and therefore, had acquired immunity.5

High mortality had a long lasting effect on the labor forces of Europe. In Tuscany in 1427 children and young adults up to age nineteen represented forty-four percent of the population, an unusually large percentage, while only forty-one percent of the population included productive adults. At this time children died before they could repay society the resources and energy devoted to them.6 In addition, the lack of people available to perform labor increased wages as well as productivity. Historical economists believe that this facilitated the beginning of economic growth in Europe.

Although this book, and a great deal of the death literature, concerns itself with parent reactions to death, the discussion of children’s responses to death, be it their own impending death or that of a sibling or friend, contributes to a fuller understanding of mourning in general, and the effects of an epidemic on the grieving process, specifically. A genre of children’s literature which instructed in the practice of “the good” death presented itself in the form of seventeenth century texts for children titled A Token for Children, by James Janeway. This particular book included narratives of young children in Europe preceding their impending deaths. Two Dutch siblings, in particular, conducted themselves in such a singular manner, so near to their death, it has been proposed that they received both spiritual and emotional support from their parents, and that this support was distinctive for the time period. Their story was often reprinted as a model of “well-dying”. The children, Susanna, aged thirteen, and Jacob, nine, lived in Lyden in 1664 where nearly 64,000 people perished from the plague the next year. The siblings also lost a younger sister to the disease. At the time, most people believed that the fatal form of the plague was spread through the air, rather than by fleas. Susanna was heard to ask “ not God the Creator of the air? If it came out of the earth, is it not done by God?”7 When sensing the end was near, Susanna begged her mother not to cry after her death, and for her father to comfort himself by channeling the biblical Job who lost all of his children but still said “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord”.8 Her little brother Jacob was equally steadfast. He parted with his toys and books stating: “...away with all my pleasant things in the world...”9 It is clear that these children, fortified with religious teachings, loving parents, and entrenchment in a community greatly affected by the plague, learned not to fear death or suffer anxiety, but to accept their fate and comfort the living instead.

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