You've probably heard somebody use the term "whipping boy" to mean "scapegoat" or a guy who repeatedly takes the punishment for somebody else's screw-up. But once again, a term that serves as a ridiculous mental image in today's society was real life in the Middle Ages.
It was an odd time.
Being born in medieval Europe was like playing the world's worst game of womb-roulette. That's just like Russian roulette, if you replaced the bullet with a life of poverty and pestilence--and instead of only one guy at the table getting hit, you all did. Surprise! Live to 30 and you were a hero; live to 50 and you were burned at the stake for being a witch.
"He's trying to blow out the flames. Get him!"
Unless you were popped out by a queen and had a penis. Life as a prince was pretty sweet. Then there were the rags-to-riches stories of the lucky common boy chosen to live a life of luxury with the prince, employed as a full time buddy. Kind of like Pretty Woman, but replace Julia Roberts with Danny DeVito. And for this privileged life, all the "lucky" boy had to do was take physical beatings for all the prince's wrongdoings.
Back in the 17th century, people believed the body of a prince, like that of the king, was sacred and could not be harmed. So what to do when the sacred vessel was acting like a royal prick? The answer: Whip the prince's friend while he watched.
The practice started with King James the First, who instructed a peasant whipped for his son Charles's crimes--clearly demonstrating both his authority and complete lack of understanding of little boys' sociopathic nature. While the royalty assumed the young prince would learn his lesson after watching his only companion take violence for the prince's own misdeeds, more likely the royal shit assumed the position of a unfuckwithable little tyrant with no regard for the pain and suffering of others. But history clearly shows this is just a phase they grow out of toward becoming benevolent and perfectly reasonable rulers.
OK wait, chimney sweeps are just adorable, cockney-throated, soot-smudged rapscallions given to dance and song. Getting dirty, dancing and playing, what's not for children to like?
Well, for starters, during the chimney sweeping heyday in Victorian London, it was legal to simply pick up vagrant children and force them to work for you.
There was a whole litter of them in a free box in front of the drug store.
Once a master sweep collected his slave orphans, it was time to put them to work. The children climbed up the chimney flue, scrubbing as they went. The job wasn't done until their heads stuck out of the chimney like an adorably mistreated groundhog. Constant exposure to soot could lead to lung cancer, while many children would slip and fall to their deaths. Get stuck? Just hang tight until you fall to your death. For those reluctant to climb to higher more dangerous places, the master climber would help light a fire under them with a pep talk! Wait, no, the fire was the pep talk.
And since chimneys were also narrow, it was in the master sweeps' best interest to starve the child.
"Tee-hee, I haven't eaten in weeks!"
But hey, look at those snazzy dressers! At least they got to be the Don Draper of the huddled masses, almost always wearing top hats and tails. They were probably so smug, striding around in their fancy clothes that they got as cast offs from funeral directors. Then when the black lung or whatever disease made kids fall down chimneys came for them, they didn't even have to change clothes!
Small creatures make great little vacuums - ask any dog owner who's ever spilled hot dog juice on the kitchen floor. The same goes for children. Back in the 19th century, textile mills hired children to run around the factory 24/7, picking up debris and loose pieces of cotton. Called "Mill Scavengers," these tykes lapped up the proverbial hot dog water, except this hot dog water lay beneath giant, spinning death wheels.
"Where did Jimmy go? I dunno, but he better have gotten that piece of cotton."
In fact, textile spinners made such good kiddy maulers, scavengers were reported to be "constantly in a state of grief, always in terror."
As you may have guessed, most mill scavengers were orphans adopted by the factory owners, which makes forced labor and child endangerment a family business. It's like Little Orphan Annie except without the money, happy ending or there being a tomorrow part.
It probably would have been easier to just turn off all the machines at the end of the day, then sweep everything up at once but it wasn't that easy because fuck you, kid, that's why.
Kids were pretty much lint screens that can feel terror and scream.
Without exposure to fresh air, children were susceptible to a multitude of health problems. You know, like cancer. Scavengers were not allowed to sit, rest or take a break while the mills ran. And the mills ran all day. And on Sundays? Those were usually spent cleaning the giant death wheels that terrified them so much.
An artist's rendering of the noble sacrifices made to clean up lint.
What could make this worse? Worse than forcing an orphan to work in a noisy, unventilated factory, crawling under spinning manglers to pick up tiny bits of trash? Oh yeah, scalping.
While crawling under all those spinning wheels, if a child's hair got too close to the machinery their hair got sucked in, separating their skull cap rather efficiently from their head. If the child wasn't lucky enough to die, at least when it came time to play Cowboys and Indians they were way ahead of the game.
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How else can you ruin your child's life? We thought you'd never ask; check out 9 Toys That Prepare Children for a Life of Menial Labor and The 5 Creepiest Sex Scenes in Comics.
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