The recognition of child abuse in its multiple forms (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect) came to the forefront in the twentieth century. Child abuse continues to be more likely recognized in economically developed countries than in developing countries. Children, however, have been beaten and abandoned for many thousands of years, based primarily on the belief that children are the property of their parents.
Early civilizations regularly abandoned deformed or unwanted children, and the ritual sacrifice of children to appease the gods took place in the Egyptian, Carthaginian, Roman, Greek, and Aztec societies. In Roman society the father had complete control over the family, even to the extent that he could kill his children for disobedience. Sexual abuse of children was common in both Greek and Roman societies. Children were also sold as prostitutes. Women often participated in abuse. Petronius (c. 27–c. 66), a Roman writer, recorded the rape of a seven-year-old girl witnessed by a line of clapping women.
During the Middle Ages (c. 350–c. 1450) in Europe, healthy but unwanted children were apprenticed to work or offered to convents and monasteries. Infanticide, or the murder of babies, was also common. The Roman Catholic Church contributed to infanticide when it declared that deformed infants were omens of evil and the product of relations between women and demons or animals. In another example of religious support for what would now be considered child abuse, the archbishop of Canterbury in the seventh century ruled that a man could sell his son into slavery until the child reached the age of seven.
In thirteenth-century England the law read, "If one beats a child until it bleeds, it will remember, but if one beats it to death, the law applies" (Albrecht Peiper, Chronik der Kinderheilkunde, Leipzig, Germany: Georg Thieme, 1966). By the child's fourth year, harsh discipline played a major role in his or her socialization. Children and parents were taught that beatings were in the child's best interest. In The Babees'Book: Medieval Manners for the Young, a primer on manners used first in the eleventh century in France to educate the upper classes, a verse in "How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter" instructed future mothers, "But take a smart rod and beat them in a row/Till they cry mercy and their guilt well know/Dear child by this lore/They will love thee ever more" (York University, http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/babees_rickert.pdf [accessed November 2, 2004]).
Children were beaten not only by their parents but also by their teachers. In a poem written around 1500, a schoolboy admitted that he would gladly become a clerk, but learning was such strange work because the birch twigs used for beating were so sharp. The children at an Oxford school must have felt justice was served when their schoolmaster, out early one morning to cut willow twigs for a switch to beat them, slipped, fell into the river, and drowned.
The late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (roughly the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries) saw changes in how society viewed children, but abuse was still common. Neil Postman, in The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Delacorte Press, 1982), noted that the idea that children were small adults had started to change by that time. Among the upper classes children began to receive a long, formal education, increasingly separated from adults and kept with their peers. It was becoming apparent that children were not really that similar to adults after all, but rather like mounds of clay to be molded.
In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe fathers commonly placed their children in apprenticeships to provide inexpensive labor. The apprentice system was the major job training method of pre-industrial Western society. The apprentice who trained with a master frequently worked under conditions that, by today's standards, would be considered severely abusive.
The practice of paternal control was brought to the American colonies, and the father ruled his wife and children. The mother, however, was also expected to discipline her children, inflicting corporal punishment as she saw fit. A child was little more than the property of the parents. At the same time, the child was an asset that could be used to perform work on the farm.
Parental discipline was typically severe, and parents, teachers, and ministers found support for stern discipline in the Bible. Several verses in Proverbs (Proverbs 22:15, Proverbs 23:13–14, and Proverbs 29:15), summed up in the phrase, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," were cited as justification for beating children. It should be noted that the biblical "rod" referred to was a shepherd's rod, used to guide the sheep in the right direction, not to beat the sheep. Church elders taught that children were born corrupted by original sin, and the only path to salvation was "to beat the Devil out of the child." (In Christian theology, original sin is humankind's inherent tendency to sin as a result of Adam's rebellion against God.) Some colonial legislatures even passed "stubborn children laws," giving parents the legal right to kill unruly children. According to journalist Roger Rosenblatt, Massachusetts enacted a law in 1646 that allowed the death penalty for a rebellious child, though the law was never enforced ("The Society That Pretends to Love Children," New York Times Magazine, October 8, 1995).
By their teens, many children were living with other families, bound out as indentured servants or apprentices. It was common for heads of households and masters to brutalize these children without fear of reprisal except in cases involving excessive beatings, massive injury, or death.
Holding a Child Abuser Accountable
The earliest recorded trial for child abuse involved a master and his apprentice. In 1639 in Salem, Massachusetts, Marmaduke Perry was charged in the death of his apprentice. The evidence showed the boy had been illtreated and subjected to "unreasonable correction." Nevertheless, the boy's allegation that the master had been responsible for his fractured skull (which ultimately killed him) was called into question by testimony that claimed that the boy had told someone else that the injury was a result of falling from a tree. Perry was acquitted.
In 1643 a master was executed for killing his servant. In 1655 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a master found guilty of slaying a servant was punished by having his hand burned and all his property taken away. Other early records show brutal masters being warned for abusing young servants. In some cases the children were freed because of the harsh treatment. Virginia passed laws protecting servants against mistreatment in 1700.
Most of the early recorded cases of child abuse were specifically related to offenses committed by masters against servants and did not involve protecting children from abusive parents. Society generally tolerated the abuse of family members as a personal matter while condemning abuse by strangers.
The few recorded cases involving family matters were limited to the removal of children from "unsuitable" home environments, which usually meant that parents were not giving their children a good religious upbringing or were refusing to instill the proper work ethic. In two Massachusetts cases, in 1675 and 1678, children were removed from such "unsuitable" homes. In the first case the children were taken from the home because the father refused to send them out to apprentice or work. In the second case the same offense was compounded by the father's refusal to attend church services. Physical abuse was not an issue in either case.
It was during the nineteenth century that the American legal system began to change in favor of protecting children even against their own parents. In 1840, in Johnson v. State (21 Tenn. [2 Hum.] 283), a Tennessee parent was prosecuted for excessive punishment of a child. According to the testimony, a mother had hit her daughter with her fists, pushed her head against the wall, whipped her, and tied her to a bedpost. A lower court convicted the abusive parent, but a higher court reversed the conviction, claiming that the jury was improperly instructed, but concluding:
In chastising a child, the parent must be careful that he does not exceed the bounds of moderation and inflict cruel and merciless punishment; if he do[es], he is a trespasser, and liable to be punished by indictment. It is not, then, the infliction of punishment, but the excess, which constitutes the offence, and what this excess shall be is not a conclusion of law, but a question of fact for the determination of the jury.