Elizabethan Family Dinner
ESSAYS / ARTICLES
To what extent were there important changes in the way children were brought up in this period?
The history of childhood is a subject of controversy. Since serious historical investigation began into
this area in the late 1960s, historians have increasingly divided into two contrasting camps of opinion, those advocating
"continuity" in child rearing practices, and those emphasising "change". As there is little evidence of what childhood was
really like in the past, it is incredibly difficult for historians to reconstruct the life of a child, much more the
"experience" of being a child. In so many ways, the history of childhood is a history that slips through our fingers.
Few Parents have left written records of how they reared their children, and fewer still children have left us their
story. It is largely because of this lack of evidence, and because the evidence that does remain - advice literature,
journals and letters, are so open to differing interpretations, that historians have divided over major issues such as
whether children were loved and wanted in the past, the way parents viewed their children, and the treatment they
The first major works into the history of childhood were those of Philippe Aries and Lloyd De Mause, Centuries of Childhood, and The History of Childhood respectfully. Both historians took a "progressive" approach to history, and concluded that the treatment of children by their parents and society have improved considerably throughout the centuries. Both paint a very negative image of childhood, and family life in the past. Lloyd De Mause went as far as saying that;
"The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken." (1)
"The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused". (2)
Aries concluded that there was no concept of childhood as a state different to adulthood in these centuries, and therefore, even if parents did feel affection for their offspring, they did not fully understand how to respond to the emotional needs of their children. This argument gained further weight with the mammoth work of Lawrence Stone on the history of the family and family relationships in the early modern period, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. Stone too focused on the "evolution" of the family through these three centuries, arguing that the family changed from being of an "open lineage" structure in which family relationships were formal and repressed, to the "domesticated nuclear family", which resulted in "affective individualism".
In the early 1980's, Linda Pollock in her influential, yet highly controversial work, Forgotten Children: Parent/Child Relations 1500-1900, harshly criticised all the arguments made by Aries, de Mause and Stone. From her intensive study of over four hundred diaries and journals, she argued that childhood experiences were not as grim as they suggest it was. She strongly denies that there were any fundamental changes in the way parents viewed or reared their children in this period;
"The texts reveal no significant change in the quality of parental care given to, or the amount of affection felt for infants for the period 1500-1900". (3)
Pollock's work has received support from Rosemary O'Day and Mary Abbot, who both deny that childhood "evolved" considerably in this period. In recent years, it is this approach that is beginning to predominate, but Pollock et al are not without their critics.
Therefore, as there are two so very different approaches to the history of childhood in the early modern period, attempting to determine just how methods of child rearing did change in the past is fraught with difficulty. In order to determine how something has changed, it is necessary to determine what it changed from, and there is no consensus of opinion as to how parents reared their children in this period. However, it is perhaps important to emphasise that it is not so much the structure of childhood that is difficult to assess, in the sense of describing what the children actually did, but the attitudes and values of the parents. It is difficult to determine whether these changed, if they did how they changed, and why they changed, and the outcome of these changes. Between 1500 and 1700, the actual structure of childhood changed little. In this pre-industrial age, England was largely agricultural. Amongst the poor, children were put to work at early ages on the farm, sowing seeds, chasing birds, and other rather unstrenuous activities. If they could not be made useful on the family's own farm, then they would be put to work elsewhere. This was a characteristic of both the town and the country, although in the towns, children were put to work a year to eighteen months earlier. This applied to both sexes, although boys were more likely to be put to work earlier, and girls to stay home a little longer to help their mother. Children who could be spared from the farm, or whose wages would not be missed, were often put to school, to receive a form of elementary education which would help them acquire the necessary literacy and arithmetic they would need in life. Most of these children, especially the girls, remained in school only for a short period, and would then be expected to work to help their family financially. Some children never attended school, but were taught by their mothers at home. Amongst the wealthier social groups, boys, and to a lesser extent girls, would be provided with a more rigid and higher standard education from the age of six or seven upwards. This could take the form of private tuition, a school education, or education in someone else's house.
It has been argued by Stone, Aries and De Mause, that there was a growing awareness of childhood as a state different to adult hood in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to them, society was beginning to appreciate that children were not miniature adults, but were at a substantially lower level of maturity, and so had distinct needs from adults - protection, love and nurturing. Society was now becoming more aware of the importance of parental socialisation, that it was socialisation that largely determined the kind of adult a child would eventually become. Lawrence Stone and J. H. Plumb believe the emergence of this new characteristic can be traced in the artistic development of the period. Stone argues that in the middle ages, children were invariably portrayed as miniature adults in paintings, without any childish characteristics. However, into the sixteenth century, images of children began to acquire a distinct identity, and childish appearance. Plumb argues that from the late seventeenth century onwards, children can be seen playing, sketching and amusing themselves in portraits, which he suggests shows there was a definite concept of childhood emerging in this period. He also argues that the increasing availability of toys and literature especially aimed for children, shows a greater understanding and appreciation of childhood.
It is certainly possible that children were seen in a different light in this period, considering the influence of the Renaissance and the Reformation on ideologies(an explanation that Stone touches upon and will be discussed in more detail later), but the evidence employed by both Stone and Plumb needs to be used with supreme caution. Art and literature may reflect to a certain degree the values and attitudes of a given society, but they are also limited by the technological understandings of the age. It could be argued that the change in the portrayal of children was due entirely to the Renaissance influence on physical realism in portraits, and the development of superior artistic skills as a consequence. Also, as artists became more familiar with painting the human form, they may have been more comfortable in exploring other forms of presentation, moving away from the stiffness of some early portraits, to the more naturalistic settings of the eighteenth century. Similarly, the commercial availability of toys and children's literature may have been the product of a growing materialistic and technological world, not an indication of a greater awareness of childhood. Just because toys were not commercially available in the past does not mean that the need for children to play was not appreciated. Parents may have manually made toys for their children. Indeed, Linda Pollock argues that imaginative play was common through out this period. The literary development could likewise be due to the growing influence of the printing press which opened up new avenues for literature. There is no conclusive evidence that there was an increase in the "concept of childhood" in this period. Linda Pollock, and Rosemary O'Day, strongly deny that there was, arguing that parents had always been "aware that childhood was different in kind from adulthood." (4)
Stone et al have argued that once society became aware that childhood was a distinct state from adulthood, this effected the relationship between parents and children. They argue that now parents were aware of the needs of children, they were more equipped to respond to them, and give their children the care and protection they so desperately needed. Both Ralph Houlbrooke and Lawrence Stone argue that during the course of the seventeenth centuries, families became more openly affectionate. They see the decline in observances such as the "blessing" as evidence of a more loving family relationship. The "blessing" was considered to be important in what it symbolised about the inferiority of children to adults. Children were expected to seek their parent's blessing every morning and night. Even in adulthood, children were expected to ask for this blessing every so often. There were also other customs to remind children of the respect, duty and obedience they owed their parents. Boys for example, were expected to take off their hats in their parent's presence, and allegedly girls were expected to kneel before their mother. The Countess of Falkland for example, knelt before her mother even in adulthood, and even though she had obtained a higher social status than her mother through marriage. Ralph Houlbrooke argues that in the seventeenth century such practises were declining. The "blessing" he says was replaced with a "goodnight kiss", and the other customs relaxed. He believes that the increased intimacy in letters between parents and children in the seventeenth century are firm evidence of a growing affection and intimacy. He claims that parents were now using phrases such as "my dear child" or "my darling", instead of the colder ones of "child" or "son, daughter". However, again this evidence needs to be treated with caution. In this period, society was becoming increasingly literate, especially amongst the wealthier social groups, and a greater depth of education may have meant that individuals were now able to express themselves easier. It must also be remembered that the English language itself was going through a transition at this time, greatly benefitting from the Renaissance emphasis on the vernacular. Lawrence Stone sees the decline in the customs of swaddling and wet-nursing from the late seventeenth century and particularly into the eighteenth, as a further indication of a growing affection. However, again, this depends on interpretation. It was not for any abusive or oppressive reason that parents swaddled their children, but because they genuinely believed that it was for the child's benefit, in that it prevented the child's limbs from growing crooked and deformed. Arguably the decline of this practice was due to an increased scientific understanding of the human body, rather than an increase in parental affection towards children. Also there is no solid evidence that wet-nursing declined in the seventeenth century. Indeed, for much of the eighteenth century, wet-nursing continued amongst the nobility and gentry. Admittedly it was increasingly the subject of attack, as puritans in particular believed that all mothers should breast feed their own children, but that this practise continued in aristocratic circles (it had never really been a custom amongst the poor) well into the nineteenth century, it cannot be used to illustrate a growing affection between mothers and children.