Lifecycle (religion)

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Until approximately 1800, the population of Europe consisted mainly of farmers. They were in close contact with nature and experienced the ever-repeating seasons, thus developing the popular beliefs that are sometimes called lifecycle. The first signs of these can be dated back to the sixth century.[1]

Mother Earth and ancestors

  • Mother Earth was regarded as the source of all life.
  • Ancestors were considered important.
  • Life should be passed on at all costs, so people wanted to have as much offspring as possible.
  • Although the Church opposed vigorously, many women participated in rituals of fertility at sanctuaries. There were stones, wells and trees of fertility.
(CC) Drawing: Ed Jussen
The life tree as an illustration of the lifecycle.

Life and death followed each other in a quick succession.

  1. One was born, had children and died.
  2. After death, the soul went to some sort of waiting room underneath the earth. In this realm of the dead, the souls of the deceased were supposed to wait until they could return in the body of one of their grandchildren.[2]
  3. During conception, the soul reappeared out of the earth and incarnated into the body of a grandchild. So people without children broke both the lifecycle and the relation with their ancestors.

Every human had his own body but also was a twig on the tree of all living and dead consanguinity. A human being was considered mainly as an instrument to pass on life.


By the end of the fourteenth century, citizens of Florence started to put out to nurse their new-borns for about two years to a nurse. This nurse usually lived on the country.[3] In the fifteenth and sixteenth century this practice spread to many towns of Western Europe. And it was also adopted by the lower classes.[4] [5] This way the mother did not have to feed her children and could get pregnant immediately after the birthgiving, because people wanted to beget as many children as possible.[6]

The body of the children was hardened, because the child should be able to conquer misfortune. It had to pass on life. It should realise that it belonged to a big family in both good and bad times. There was very little room for intimacy.

Changes after 1450

In the towns, the popular belief in Mother Earth and the eternal cycle of time gradually disappeared between 1450 and 1650.

  • People found their ancestors less important.
  • The desire to get as many children as possible disappeared. Infertile couples no longer consulted a magician or physician.
  • On the country, these developments took place much slower.
  • In the sixteenth century, many women also thought about themselves instead of being only a body destined for reproduction.
  • In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, more and more women did not like to be pregnant all the time. They thought that by being pregnant continuously, they would turn old and ugly. Their husbands often agreed.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century the individual body started (symbolically) to tear itself free from the big body of his family. An individual more and more wanted to lead his own life instead of being nothing but a reproducer of offspring for his family. Life was short and one wanted to enjoy it as much as possible.

The popular belief of the lifecycle was gradually replaced with a linear and fragmented notion about life.


  1. History of the personal life. From the Roman Empire to the year 1000.
    Under redaction of Philippe Ariès, Georges Duby and Paul Veyne.
    Written by Michel Rouche, professor at the university of Lille.
    ISBN 90-5157-001-5
    1985 Editions du Seuil, Paris.
    1987 Agon, Amsterdam.
  2. That's why people gave there children the name of a grandparent.
  3. History of personal life. From the feudal Europe until the renaissance.
    Under redaction of Georges Duby.
    Written by: Charles Bourel de La Roncière, professor of the university of the Provence.
    ISBN 90-5157-016-3
    1985 Editions du Seuil, Paris.
    1988 Agon, Amsterdam.
  4. History of personal life. From the renaissance until the age of enlightement.
    Under redaction of Philippe Ariès, Georges Duby and Roger Chartier.
    Written by Arlette Farge, Centre national de la recherche scientifique.
    ISBN 90-5157-018-x
    1986 Editions du Seuil, Paris.
    1989 Agon, Amsterdam.
  5. In Paris, 21.000 children a year were born and from them each year 20.000 left on carriages to the country.
  6. Physisians and moralists however condamned the practice to let the children educate by a nurse. In their opinion the animals feeded their youngs, so people should do the same. And in their opinion the milk of a stranger giving to a new-born was comparable to a bloodtransfusion to the child and it would alter the body and the mind of the child. As a matter of fact there were as well many woman who were delighted to feed and educate their own children.

Main source:
History of personal life. From the renaissance to the age of enlightement.
Under redaction of Philippe Ariès, Georges Duby and Roger Chartier.
Written by: Jacques Gélis, scientific assistant of the university of Paris VIII.
ISBN 90-5157-018-x
1986 Editions du Seuil, Paris.
1989 Agon, Amsterdam.