Children in the Fifteenth-to-Eighteenth-Century Lithuanian Village: Analysis of Historical and Ethnographic Sources

  • Audronė Daraškevičienė
Keywords: child, childhood, fifteenth-to-eighteenth-century Lithuanian village, peasantry, history of childhood


Based on historical and ethnographic material in the collection of the sources of Baltic religion and mythology edited by Norbertas Vėlius, this article analyses a topic that is rarely addressed: the status of children in fifteenth-eighteenth-century Lithuanian rural communities.

It shows that as Lithuania (both the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Lithuania Minor) went through the processes of peasant servitude, a peasant child crossed the threshold into adult life with all its financial, matrimonial, and labour responsibilities at a much younger age than a child would today. The minimum age limit at which a child was expected to perform adult duties could be as young as twelve years of age. However, even children younger than twelve were obliged to participate in household chores, to be economically beneficial, and to take care of other family members. These were considered natural duties for a child.

Since the majority of peasant children were outside of any official schooling system, most of them were illiterate. However, the above-mentioned sources reveal that the education of a child which entailed the teaching of farming activities as well as the striving to pass down a worldview expressed in archetypical imagery, was of great importance to the family and community. This kind of child guidance was a never-ending part of all family activities.

Although rural children of the time frequently suffered from various diseases and high rates of child mortality, this should not be linked to parental negligence but rather to the lack of medicine and health care. The well-being of the child was a priority for rural families and communities, who put great effort into keeping their children as healthy as possible.

With high infant and child mortality rates, the loss of a child was a probability. Children were therefore considered to be ‘not-quite-a-human-being’ but rather some sort of a mediator between humans and mythical creatures. The sources upon which the article is based reveal that this concept does not inevitably indicate the neglect of children. On the contrary, such a belief elevated the status of children, granting them magical powers of the kind that adult humans no longer possess.

To conclude, the status of the child from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries in rural Lithuania was analogical compared to other gerontocratic societies, as outlined by the childhood researcher David Lancy. Children did not have a right to a long and careless childhood, or time dedicated to purely educational activities. Their lives were always endangered by various diseases. Nevertheless, the examined material proves that despite a short and often precarious childhood, children in rural Lithuania received a considerable amount of parental care, attention, and acknowledgement.