He that spareth his rod hateth his
son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.
In the past the Christian Church condoned all manner of evil
done to children. It tried and executed them for witchcraft
and for other offences. It saw nothing wrong in beating them
frequently and severely for minor wrongdoing even for
other people's wrongdoing. It terrified them with stories of
Hell. It allowed them to contract arranged marriages. It failed
to speak out against child labour because it saw nothing at
all wrong in the practice. For many centuries the Church opposed
the education of poor children, except in the few cases where
boys could be drawn into its own service. Girls were denied
education altogether. In punishing children for sins they had
not committed, there seems to have been almost no concept of
fairness or rights. Thus, the Church made much of the concept
Bastardy, or illegitimacy, was a condition imposed upon a
child by the canon law as a punishment for the sin of the
parents who conceived it by illicit connection. By a legal
fiction, a child born out of wedlock was no one's child,
The idea of punishing children for the acts of their parents
could easily be justified on scriptural grounds:
...I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity
of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth
generation of them that hate me; Exodus 20:5
Also, as theological authorities pointed out, God had punished
the children of Sodom by death, for the sins of their fathers*,
so the punishment of innocent children was easily justified*.
Good Christians were, as they pointed out, only following God's
The stigma of illegitimacy has now virtually disappeared in
secular societies, and the civil law has been amended, but canon
law continues to discriminate against the illegitimate. In the
Church of England they cannot for example become bishops. Other
Churches stick to the traditional line that illegitimacy is
a bar to ordination. In the past the Church punished other children
for the supposed sins of their fathers, and grandchildren for
the sins of their grandfathers*.
Church has always been strong on punishment and has only recently
adopted a cautious stand on corporal punishment for children.
As usual the worst excess could be justified on biblical grounds:
The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil ...
Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod
of correction shall drive it far from him.
Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest
him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with
the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. Proverbs 23:13-14
the time of writing there is still a steady flow of children
who die at the hands of Christian parents and guardians who
interpret these passages in the traditional way. Several are
reported in national newspapers each year. Under secular pressure
corporal punishment of children in schools was made illegal
in many countries in the late twentieth century. Church schools
and only church schools were still mounting legal
challenges to this into the third millennium*.
Their arguments were based on the biblical passages cited above,
which, as the complainants pointed out, not only permit but
also require corporal punishment.
abuse physical, emotional and sexual also continued
well into the twentieth century. The abuse was widespread, and
hardly a secret within the Churches, yet no one seems to have
thought of informing the secular authorities, or doing anything
to stop the abuse. Children without parents to look after their
welfare were particularly vulnerable. The "orphans"
who were taken from their parents and sent to British colonies
were routinely abused, along with real orphans.
To take just one example abuse continued for over 90 years at
an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy until it was exposed
in 1976. Nuns had used a red-hot poker on one child to "exorcise
the Devil" and forced another to put her leg in boiling
water (causing permanent damage) as a punishment for not washing
in hot enough water. Another developed a dangerous infection
after a nun used pliers to pull out her toenails. Injured children
were hidden from visitors in an underground cell without bedding,
ventilation or light. Sexual abuse by priests and other men
was "routine". Professor Bruce Grundy, who investigated
the Order's activities, referred to the "Madness, ruthless
and sadistic madness, on the part of at least some of the nuns,
and the depthless depravity on the part of some of the men who
inhabited the place"*.
These activities were far from unusual, and similar behaviour
has been exposed in numerous Christian orphanages throughout
to family carried no weight at all for religious people. Nuns
who had children were widely accused of infanticide for many
centuries. According to the Church, there were other explanations
for such missing children. They had been carried off by angels
and given to someone else to bring them up. The illustration
on the right is medieval and shows a baby boy, recently delivered
of an abbess (who was suitably penitant about her crime). Angels
have removed the baby and are shown here delivering it to a
hermit living in a remote place - providing an ostensible reason
why the baby would never be seen again. Even imagining some
element of truth in the story, no contemporary Christian considered
it at all odd that a new mother should be separated from her
baby, and handed over to a celibate man who had abandoned all
links to his own family.
Medieval Inquisition was permitted to torture witnesses, but
not if they were girls below the age of 12 or boys below the
age of 14. This did not stop its zealous officers, who believed
themselves to be doing God's work, who needed to answer to no
one when they ignored the rules, and who were empowered to figive
each other for their excesses of Christian zeal.
In England children over the age of seven were liable to the
death penalty, and few if any clergymen seem to have found this
at all questionable, at least until the rise of secularism.
A 13-year-old was hanged at Maidstone as late as 1831 and a
14-year-old in 1833*.
For years to come, younger children would be sentenced to death,
but were invariably reprieved, until the death penalty for those
aged under 16 was abolished in 1908.
Christian Child Marriage
listen to the Church's current views on the subject of sexual
abuse of children, one could easily form the opinion that the
Church has always been opposed to sexual activity below the
age of 16, or even older. In fact when the Church had control
of these matters the age of consent to sexual relations was
7 (though marriage contracts were voidable up to the age of
12 for a girl and 14 for a boy).
A marriage between a grown man and a little girl was as good
as any other in the eyes of the Church*.
For dynastic reasons toddlers could be, and were, married to
each other in church, though the civil courts would grant a
divorce if one of the parties later objected.*.
Here is the basic cannon law:
Betrothals cannot be contracted before the seventh year.
For they can be contracted only with consent, which requires
each party to understand what they agree to. (Decretum
gratiani, Case 30, q II)*.
But the Church would sometimes uphold marriages below the age
of seven, for example in one case a man had married a girl under
the age of seven, and had then left her to marry her cousin.
Pope Eugene provided the following decision:
"A young man, who took a girl not yet seven years old
in marriage, appears not to have consummated the marriage
he entered, due to age or some other human disability.
In doubtful matters, we are to follow the safer course. So,
because she was called and possibly is his wife, we command
you that he be divorced on the grounds of ecclesiastical propriety
from the girl's cousin, whom he afterwards took".
(Decretals of Pope Gregory IX , Book Four, Title I Betrothals
and Marriages, C. 3.)
Pope Hormisdas wtiting to Bishop Eusebius indicated that a
father cannot insist on who an adult son should marry, he can
decide who an infant son should marry:
"But if the son is not yet an adult, and his will cannot
be discerned, his father may give him to whomever he wishes
in marriage, and when the son reaches maturity, he must fulfill
(cited in the Decretals of Gregory IX , Book Four, Title II
There was also a special exemption for powerful nobles, who
could marry off their children for dynastic reasons at any age
- even new born babies. The euphemism for this was a marriage
"for the sake of peace". Here is the revelant law:
Two prepubescents, or a prepubescent and one older, are not
to be married, except for the sake of peace. (Decretals of
Gregory IX , Book Four, title II C. 2.)
Other interesting cases include one where a man married a young
girl, but then took her mother as a wife (the question being
which to recognise as the legal wife) and another one where
a man has had sexual intercourse with a wife aged under 12 (the
question being whether the sexual intercourse has sealed the
In general the rule was that children could be betrothed at
seven. When they reached puberty (ie the age of 12 for girls
and fourteen for boys) they were allowed to accept or reject
the arrangement, as long as they had not already had sexual
Prepubescents contracting betrothal may not be separated
before puberty, but after puberty they may if they reject
the betrothal, unless they have had carnal intercourse.
(Decretals of Gregory IX , Book Four, Title II C. 8)
Here is a specific cease:
From Your Fraternity's letter we gather that a certain girl
of twelve was sworn and betrothed to a certain boy of nine
or ten. With the passing of time, by the will of her parents
rather than her own, as she asserts, she was taken to the
home of the boy's father, and there, protesting and resisting,
as you say you have heard from her lips, and forced by the
arguments and the threats of the parents, she stayed for a
year or more. Then she left and returned home. Admonished
by her mother, and later by you, as you assert, she completely
refused to return to him, asserting that she did not, and
still does not, want him as a husband. She now asks permission
to marry another. The boy, as you letter says, had not yet
reached the age of fourteen, nor did he ever have access carnally
to the girl. Therefore, we reply to Your Discretion as follows:
If the girl is warned zealously by you to wait until the boy
completes his fourteenth year of age, and will not wait in
accord with your warning, you may, by our authority, give
her the liberty and permission to take another man as husband,
in accord with what has been stipulated.
(Decretals of Gregory IX , Book Four, Title II C. 11)
Christian sources now claim that Christian child marriage was
always very rare and restricted to great noble houses. We know
that this is not true through several sources. Although child
marriages were not always recorded, divorces were recorded by
the courts - and since we know of countless thousands of child
divorces, we can safely assume that there were more marriages
than divorces by a significant factor. We also have have written
evidence that contemporarries took child marriage for granted.
In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Juliet was just 13. Her mother,
who was 26 refers to her almost an old maid.
The children of Henry II had been married in babyhood, and
the Council of Westminster (1175) conceded that these could
be valid marriages "pro bono pacis" (for the sake
of peace), A few examples of Christian child marriages - taking
just supposed saints the greatest nobles whose dates can be
easily confirmed - are:
- Saint Theophanes Confessor was married at the age of twelve
- Eleanor of Aquitaine was fifteen when she married Louis
VII of France in 1137.
- Theodora Comnena was thirteen when she was married King
Baldwin III of Jerusalem in 1158.
- Agnes of France was twelve when (already widowed) she was
married to Andronicus Comnenus, Byzantine Emperor in 1182.
- Sancha of Aragon, aged 8 was betrothed to Raymond VII of
Toulouse in March 1211.
- the Treaty of Meaux-Paris 1229, included a requirement for
nine year old Joan of Toulouse to marry nine year old Alphonse
of Poitiers (they were betrothed in the same year, and their
marriage ceremony took place in 1239)
- Eleanor of Castile was twelve when she married the fifteen-year-old
future Edward I of England on 1 November 1254
- Saint Elizabeth of Portugal was twelve when she married
to King Denis of Portugal in 1281.
- Margaret Countess of Tyro, was married at the age of twelve
to eight-year-old John Henry of Luxembourg, a younger son
of King John of Bohemia, in 1300
- Saint Clara Gambacorta was married at the age of twelve
in 1374 and widowed at the age of fifteen.
- Saint Rita of Cascia was twelve when she was married to
Paolo Mancini in 1393 against her will, and delivered her
first child as the same age.
- Isabel of France was eight when she married Richard II of
England in 1396.
- Blanche of England was eight years old when her marriage
contract was signed on 7 March 1401. The formal marriage ceremony
between Blanche and Louis III, Elector Palatine, took place
just over a year later, shortly after her tenth birthday.
- Philippa of England was married at the age of twelve to
Eric of Pomerania on 26 October 1406
- Bianca Maria Sforza was not quite two years old when she
married her first cousin Philibert I, Duke of Savoy in January
1474. She was a widow at the age of ten.
- Bianca of Savoy, Duchess of Milan, was thirteen when she
was married to Galeazzo II Visconti in 1350) (and fourteen
when she gave birth to a son)
- Lady Margaret Beaufort Margaret was married to John de la
Pole. The wedding was held when she was no more than three
years old. (A Papal dispensation was granted on 18 August
1450 because the spouses were too closely related.). Three
years later, the marriage was dissolved. She was twelve when
she married 24-year old Edmund Tudor on 1 November 1455.
- Caterina Sforza was betrothed aged nine to Girolamo Riariomarried
in 1473. The marriage was consummated four years later.
- On 26 February 1491, a matrimonial arrangement was drawn
up between eleven year old Lucrezia Borgia and the Lord of
Val D'Ayora. It was annulled less than two months later in
favour of a new contract engaging Lucrezia to Don Gaspare
Aversa, count of Procida. Pope Alexander VI called off Lucrezia's
engagement and arranged for her to marry Giovanni Sforza,
a member of the house of Sforza, who married thirteen year
old Lucrezia on 12 June 1493 in Rome.
- Claude of France was promised to the future Holy Roman Emperor
Charles V at the age of four, but the arrangement fell through.
She was later betrothed to her cousin Francis, Duke of Angoulême,
and married him aged fourteen, in 1514.
- Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet was married
at the age of twelve to Charles d'Angennes in 1600
King Richard II of England Receiving
his Bride Isabella fromher Father King Charles VI of France.
Jean Froissart, Chronicles, c 1470, BL MS Royal 14D VI
As Erasmus pointed out
It is no uncommon case, especially in France, for a girl
of scarce ten years to be married and a mother [the] next
year. . . . It seems portentous, and yet we sometimes see
it, especially in Britain and Italy, that a tender child is
married to a septuagenarian ... Yet Church Laws do not rescind
such nuptials, although they are satitized by public jests
In England the marriage age was raised to 16 in 1929*,
though many other states that have retained Christian custom
and practice have opted for the ages of 12 and 14. The rock
and roll star, Jerry Lee Lewis caused outrage in Britain, in
May 1958 when it emerged that his third wife, Myra Gale Brown
was only 13 years old at the time (and his first cousin once
removed). Particularly Christian states in the US still had
12 as the age for marriage at this time. (The state of Delaware
retained the traditional lower linit of 7 as the age of consent
into the twentieth century).
Children as Chattels
were mere chattels of their Christian parents and so could be
used as free labour, or sold or even given away. If a couple
had ten or twenty children, they could even be offered to the
Church as tithes, and the Church would accept them.
At the age of eight, boys were given away to monasteries and
girls to convents. The hagiographers of the migranous Hildegard
of Bingen tells us that although she was a weak and sickly child
she was given away as tithe offering at the age of eight, to
become a nun at the age of 14.*.
This was by no means unusual - and of course the children generally
had no say in the matter.
Don Perosi with the Choir of the Sistine
Chapel (c. 1905).
Seven of these boys had been castrated, to better serve
Christian record on children's rights is no better than its
record on other matters. The Churches opposed the education
of poor boys and all girls. European Churches were responsible
for the trial, torture, conviction, imprisonment and execution
of children as young as five or six, often contravening the
civil law. In the nineteenth century the Churches opposed the
abolition of child labour, and continued to be party to a wide
range of abuse, mental, physical and sexual well into the twentieth
Mid 19th Century:
young children working over 80 hours per week in a dark
tunnel, about half their hieght
short, the Church has never supported the rights of children.
Mainstream Churches made no more effort to end child labour
than they did to end slavery. In England, Anglicans consistently
opposed unbelievers like Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill and the
philanthropist Robert Owen (1771-1858), who championed the improvement
of social conditions for working children. Children's rights
are an invention of secular philosophers.
champions included almost anyone except the Churches. For example,
the first law in Germany to prohibit the employment of children
(under the age of nine) in factories was passed in 1839 at the
behest of the military authorities, who were concerned at the
poor physical condition of their recruits. Nowhere did any mainstream
Churches lead the move to protect children. There are still
Churches teaching the traditional Christian line that children
should be seen but not heard, and affirming the Christianl injunction
"spare the rod and spoil the child", based on Proverbs,
Cartoon by Frederick T. Richards in
Philadelphia North American, 1913:
"Emaciated child laborers pulling chariot of rich,
monstorous 'child labor exploiter.'"
A US cartoon, lampooning the continued exploitation of
child labour well into the twentieth century.
Factory workers - The reality of child
labour in the USA
In 1938 child labor was regulated by the Fair Labor
For the first time, minimum ages of employment and hours
of work for children were regulated by federal law -
for two millennia Church Law has never considered child
expoitation either a sin or a crime.
in every area of reform, the Churches have followed secular
opinion and few in the west are now prepared to defend the opinions
that they held with absolute certainty in the nineteenth century.
As so often there are exceptions. It is still possible to find
pockets of traditional belief from Church schools insisting
on their rights to beat children to pastors advocating the killing,
torture or abandonment of possessed and bewitched children.
In 2005 it wasestimated that 70% of the street children in Kinshassa
had been abandoned by their parents because of accusations of
witchcraft*. With Christianity
expanding fast across Africa and Kinshasa as a belweather, there
may now be more children being tortured and starved by Christian
leaders and by Christian parents than ever before.
More social issues: