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When Children Were Sad

Hansel Gretel 1.jpg

We tend to forget, because of our current problems, that life is much better now than it was historically. GDP per capita is near an all-time high. Infant mortality is near an all-time low. Stephen Pinker has written several books giving a fairly optimistic account of how social conditions are much better now than they ever were in previous eras. If you do the job properly and look at all the historical statistics that you are supposed to look at, the case for massive social progress is pretty overwhelming.

When things do get worse, and they will at some point, we will all look back on this current era with nostalgia and regret. In terms of wealth, comfort, health and safety, human beings have never had it so good.


However, there is a non-statistical way to show how much life has improved.


We can look at Mother Goose Rhymes and children’s stories, such as the children’s stories told by the Grimm brothers. These were stories told by adults to relate to a world that children knew and understood. What children knew and understood was pretty awful. Most of these stories date from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Some stories or verses have earlier origins. The first English language version of Mother Goose was published between 1780 and 1784. (There is some ambiguity on this point due to the lack of a surviving first edition.) Children’s and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm was published in two volumes, the first in 1812, the second in 1814. Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son first appeared in an independent chapbook in 1795. Jack and the Beanstalk first appeared in 1734. It was republished in 1807, 1845 and 1890. Hansel and Gretel appeared in the Grimm Brother’s Children’s and Household Tales of 1812. The Pied Piper of Hamelin first appears (in stained glass form) in the 1300’s. The Grimm Brothers published their version in 1816. We still have these stories today, because those books were commercial successes. They reflected what parents and children thought about childhood.


Hunger figures prominently in these early stories.


Think about Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son:

Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son

Stole a pig and away he run.

The pig was eat and Tom was beat

And Tom went crying down the street.

This verse would make no sense to a modern child. What contemporary child would look at a pig and think “I could eat that!”? What contemporary child would see a pig as something desirable to steal because he could use a good meal?


Meat was hard to get for poor people in the eighteenth century. Slaughtering a cow or a pig was a major event reserved for special occasions (or reserved for the rich.) A contemporary child might shoplift a candy bar from a convenience store. Nowadays getting meat is no big deal. Few children would choose to shoplift a pack of pork chops.


Hunger was a particularly severe problem in Pre-Industrial Europe because crops failed frequently – sometimes as often as once every three years. Local crops were the only effective food supply. Transportation networks were weak to non-existent. So when a harvest came in too small, the locals could not just go to the supermarket to buy whatever groceries they needed. No food would be coming in from other regions. Famine was a real thing.


When food supplies ran out, infanticide and child abandonment became real dangers.


Hansel and Gretel makes little sense to modern children but would have been completely comprehensible to an eighteenth century child. In Hansel and Gretel, the “evil” stepmother makes a calculation that would have been all too familiar in an earlier age. Winter is coming. There is not enough food in the house to support two adults and two children. If the adults are to live, the children have to be abandoned. Note that the hunter-father is particularly villainous in this story. In this case, he finds the stepmother’s logic to be completely convincing. Not only once, but twice he takes his children out into the woods to starve.


Famine would have affected the elderly population as well as children. Widows who had no family to take care of them and were too frail to farm had little recourse but to wander in the woods, scavenging for whatever food they could find.


Who do Hansel and Gretel find out in the woods?


A very scary old woman who is very very hungry.


She is so hungry she even eats children.


Now in this story, she has a house made of candy. Starving children never saw candy at all, never mind a vast house of the stuff. This is the stuff of hungry children’s dreams.


But note that Hansel is too thin to eat. He is so food deprived the witch has to fatten him up to make him worth the pain of cooking.


What is the happy ending of the story? The hunter comes back into the woods with good news.


Mommy is Dead!


Now that the stepmother is gone, there is enough food in the house that he can bring the children home and they can eat what was left of the mother’s rations.


Imagine a world where parents and children were engaged in a zero-sum struggle where if one is to live, the others must die. This can not have been a world where parent-child relationships were terribly affectionate.


Children turning to crime to feed themselves is a not uncommon theme in these older stories. We have already seen this scenario in Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son. The theme is spelled out even more explicitly in Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack lives alone with a mother and no father. She is too sick to take care of herself or even go to the market. So, there is literally no one to farm or provide food for Jack. Out of desperation, the mother tries to sell her cow. A cow is a constant source of free milk. The cow is also a main source of fertilizer, and later on will be a key source of meat. Selling a cow is absolutely a last resort when everything else is failing.


Jack gets swindled in the marketplace and comes home with only a handful of beans. A fundamental food source has been lost for not enough beans to make one meal.


How does Jack compensate for the situation? He becomes a thief. He goes to the house of his very rich, very powerful, very dangerous neighbor (the giant), and looks for valuable things to steal. What he steals varies from version to version, but a typical list includes a bag of gold, a goose that lays golden eggs and a self-playing harp. The consequences of getting caught are dire. So, what happens when he is caught in the act? He murders the giant in self-defense. His mother helps. She totally approves.


Jack is less than ten years old and he is already a proud, accomplished killer. Other bandits, brigands or pirates of the period would have had similar youthful histories.


Famine was not the only danger facing pre-industrial children. There were also epidemics and disease. Typically, one quarter of all infants died in the first year of life. Babies who survived the first year of life had another 25% chance of dying before age 20. If a teenager made it to adulthood in one piece, it was generally one very tough, disease-resistant specimen. Adults lived as long as modern adults do today, with lifespans of approximately seventy years.


Plagues played a major role in killing off the babies and children. Because of the hardy constitution of surviving adults, most prime age adults survived epidemics fairly well. Death rates were high but concentrated on frailer populations. Senior citizens died in large numbers. So did infants and children.


Consider the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. This is a narrative about bubonic plague. Remember that bubonic plague is transmitted by fleas that are carried by rats. Rats appear carrying the disease. The rats die off, but not before the rat-borne fleas infect the human population. There are massive deaths among the human population, heavily concentrated among the children.


The town of Hamelin has a major rat problem. Who arrives but a Pied Piper? Pied means Yellow with Red Squares. Yellow is the ashen color of a plague patient with fever or jaundice. The Red Squares are the Buboes that give Bubonic Plague its name as well as the discoloration that comes from gangrene. Buboes are large red infected swellings that are typically located in the armpits or groin. However, they can appear on other parts of the body. As the disease advances and necrosis takes hold, the extremities of the patient’s body – toes, feet, fingers, hands, nose, lips – turn reddish black. A yellow man with dark red spots.


The Pied Piper makes the rats all go away. As humans start to contract bubonic plague, the rat population dies off.


The town fathers refuse to pay the piper. As a consequence, all the children who are dancing with the red and yellow man disappear into the mountain. The piper disappears too. The plague carrier dies and is buried in the ground. So, do all the children who had any contact with the carrier.


Nowadays, children’s stories do not involve hunger as a major plot element.


Nowadays, children’s stories do not involve all the children going away forever.


In The Cat in the Hat, the only plot tension is whether the messy house will be clean enough for Mom when she gets back from her errands.


The children in the contemporary rich world have childhoods free from famine, generally free from epidemics (coronavirus notwithstanding), and more or less free from violence.


There is some food insecurity among the poor in the United States. There is no mass starvation. Western European nations, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have no hunger at all.


Things are worse for children in the Global South.


Things were far worse for children before the Industrial Revolution.


We should count our blessings. These are good times.

For More Information

There are many fine histories of what it is like to be a child. One of the most brutal is Frank Shorters’ Making of the Modern Family. I concur with most of Shorter’s views. For a more moderate but still harsh interpretation, see Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood: Social History of Family Life. For a fascinating view that also incorporates the parts of the world that are not Europe, see Peter Stearns Childhood in World History. This is a good read for people looking for a message of hope. Stearns is one of the most astute writers in the world today on social improvement.  


For two good works on the history of hunger, see Lucille Newman’s edited collection Hunger in History and the more technical and narrowly focused Food Shortage, Climactic Variability and Epidemic Disease in Preindustrial Europe by John Post.

One of the seminal experts on the study of pre-industrial mortality was E. A. Wrigley. Wrigley did extraordinary methodological feats with church records to calculate all sorts of previously un-calculable rates. On life expectancies and death rates, see his 1968 “Mortality in Pre-Industrial England: The Example of Colyton, Devon Over Three Centuries.” in Daedalus. For the hardcore technical reader, see the collected essays in Roger Schofield et. al (eds), Decline of Mortality in Europe.

My near namesake at the University of Glasgow, Samuel Kline Cohn, has written many books and articles on the history of plagues and pandemics. One good place to start is his Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS.

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