Repressive and emotionally cold’. Is this a true reflection of relations between parents and children in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England

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Last updated: April 13, 2019

In sixteenth and seventeenth century England the parent-child relationship is often considered in emotional terms very different to the relationship we see today. Without doubt there are exceptions, but on the whole we tend to perceive these relationships in terms of altruistic love.

Parents selflessly provide love and affection for their children, without exposing them to cruelty or any injustice. In regards to early modern Britain, some historians argue that this has not always been the case and that ‘Repressive and emotionally cold’ is a statement that can be applied to parenthood in sixteenth and seventeenth century.Scholars from this school of thought understand that parental altruism is somewhat a modern occurrence that began to occur with the rise of the sentimental family amid the industrial revolution.

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With industrialisation trade and industries began to develop and families tended to work separately. This led to the family no longer having to be relied upon for primarily economic reasoning leaving a whole new space open for love and affection. The supporters of this school of thought advocate the theme of change. Lawrence Stone, for example suggests that children were simply viewed in this period as “smelly, unformed little animals lacking the capacity to reason”2. On the other side however, there are those that agree that parental love and devotion for their children has always occurred. These followers promote the theme of continuity; that Parental love is a natural, biological instinct that lays deep rooted within the family, as what will be argued here.From the continuality school of thought, Scholars such as Edward Shorter go as far as to say that early modern mothers from small towns and villages practiced “hideously hurtful-infant hygiene and child rearing practices”3. However, as Sharpe points out, what researchers such as Shorter are failing to understand is that family life was so much more unpredictable than by today’s modern standards, hygiene was “little known” and “poverty more immediate”.

4 In this case, it cannot be justified that emotional feelings can be supported on this presumption.What we must be aware of is that sixteenth and seventeenth century parents knew of a different set of norms and values to what we do today, that is not to say that they did not feel or show love and affection towards their children. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, practises on babies such as swaddling and wet nursing were without doubt common. However, they were certainly not used because parents showed neglect towards their children and the decline of such practises did not emphasise a rising development of parent-child emotions.

In regards to swaddling in early modern England, there is debate as to whether it was an act of neglect. Whilst scholars such as DeMause argue swaddling was used for parents to ignore their baby by making them sleep, Houlbrooke suggests that although swaddling encouraged sleep it was for the better, as sleeping was “necessary for digestion”. 5 Stone, although arguing that the act of swaddling was not out of cruelty agrees with DeMause’ theme of ignorance by stating that swaddling “prevents..

. from cuddling, hugging and caressing the child”. 6Today websites such. s The Baby Centre, a common reading place for expectant or new mothers suggest that swaddling is “an age-old technique for keeping a making a baby feel secure”, and for babies up to a month old it is encouraged. 7 It seems more plausible to suggest then that like Houlbrooke proposes, swaddling was not an act of cruelty or ignorance but a custom passed down generations8. Although writers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau began to brand swaddling as cruel later on in time, it seems clear that parents were acting on what they were accustomed to, genuinely believing they were acting for the best of their children.Lawrence Stone argues that swaddling began to decline from the end of the seventeenth century due to the fact that parents were beginning to care for their children more9. However, what Stone fails to acknowledge is the growing increase in knowledge of the human body.

In the eighteenth century Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in his hugely influential book Emile:on Education “The child has hardly left the mother’s womb, it has hardly begun to move and stretch its limbs, when it is given new bonds.It is wrapped in swaddling bands, laid down with its head fixed, its legs stretched out, and its arms by its sides; it is wound round with linen and bandages of all sorts so that it cannot move. ” Indicating that knowledge had began to surpass custom10. In the case of wet nursing it would be incorrect to link the practise straight to neglect, there were many reasons as to why a mother felt the need to hire a wet-nurse Generally nurses were only employed by the middle and upper classes and great care was often taken to ensure a suitable woman for the job11.In a letter reporting of the progress of the infant Prince of Wales there is an account of how a wt nurse had been found for him and that she is of “good health”. 12 In his diary, Henry Newcome describes his families’ wet nurse Mary Yannis as “where it pleased God to bless her she prospered well. “13 Stone suggests that the main reason for wet nursing was due to popular thought in early modern England, it was recognised that sexual activities whilst breastfeeding could interfere with the babies milk. Therefore, Stone uses a male dominance explanation: that it was the males that were more concerned with requiring a nurse.

4 A more reasonable explanation, however is that parents were thinking of their children’s wellbeing in regard to wet nursing. For women lower down the social scale the reasons that women sent their infants away to be wet nursed in the countryside, was that it was often believed to be healthier for the infant, an alternative to crowded unsanitary living conditions. There was also other reasons such as pain or discomfort caused by breastfeeding that could often result in a woman losing her confidence in her ability to successfully feed their child15.Lawrence Stone also claimed that parents sent their infants away to wet nurses to avoid any possible emotional attachment. If the infants arrived home safe then it was likely they were to survive to adulthood, making it bearable for the parents to allow themselves to become attached16. Stone relates his argument on parental distance to the high infant mortality rate. Even with cases that did not involve wet nursing, Stone argues that parents were emotionally cold towards their children because they were trying to avoid any unnecessary pain if the child was to die.

Stone sticks with the theme of change, stating that as the years moved on, the infant mortality rate decreased, therefore parents allowed themselves to become emotionally attached to their infants17. The difficulty with this theory however, is that Stone seems to contradict himself slightly. Stone states that in the late seventeenth century parent child relations were becoming closer. As Pollock points out some parts of England in the late 1600’s were suffering child mortality as high as a hundred years previous, completely challenging stones proposal18.It seems then, that Stones method of research linking parental emotion to infant mortality is certainly not far reaching enough and carries with it major flaws. Stone goes on to explain that because of the infant mortality rate, if an infant was to die, then generally the family did not suffer a great loss emotionally as parents “reduced the amount of motional capital available for prudent investment in any single individual, especially in such ephemeral creatures as infants. 19 The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were, no doubt times of obscurity and uncertainty in regards to death, especially death of infants, therefore in all logic it makes a lot of sense to suppose that child death did not mean a great deal to parents.

However, diaries and much popular literature at the time tell a completely different story. As Pollock suggests, the high infant mortality rate actually heightened parents concern in times of illness and parents were “grief-stricken at the death of a child”20.When Ralph Jossellin’s daughter became ill he wrote in his diary “My little daughter ill with wormes, I hope that mercy that gave her and hath hitherto preserved her will continue restore her and sanctify her21”. Eight year old Richard Evlyn, died on the 27th January 1658, his father wrote of him in his diary “He was all life of prettinesse’, far from morose or sullen or childishness in anything he said or did… Such a child I never saw; for such a child I bless God, in whom bosom..

. Here end the joy of all my life, and to which I go even morning to the grave. 22 Houlbrooke, like Stone, basing his evidence on the infant mortality rate agrees that an infant death caused much bereavement to parents, but he also points out that as a baby the level of grief probably was not that strong, but as the infant grew to ovr th age of one the parents had ben given time to form a stronger, emotional familiarity, leading to a much greater extent of heartache.Poet Ben Jonson wrote a poem about the tragic death of his six month old, and there are many diary entries that reveal how parents in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would become excited about the process of their growing babies. 4 For instance Ann Clifford wrote proudly about her baby daughter “we perceived that the Child had two great teeth come out, so as now she had in all 18”, demonstrating an attachment that had began before the age of one. 25 Undoubtedly there are difficulties with using diaries as evidence as only the higher classes were literate, therefore we are only gaining one side of the spectrum. However, sticking to the underlining theme of the essay it does no harm in suggesting that parental love towards their children is a natural thing. Surely class cannot get in the way of biology.

Even as far back as somewhere between 384 BC – 322 BC Aristotle wrote “Parents love their children for being part of themselves” and “parents love their children as soon as thy are born26” The death of a child was extremely painful for parents, yet religion often offered a great consolation. Catholics believed that a child was born with original sin, but providing a baptism had taken place, the infant was certain to enter heaven. However, with the reformation and the emergence of Protestantism, the conventional belief was that baptism no longer apprehended this authority.Protestantism stripped away of any rule that sins could be replenished through sacraments, therefore placing a lot more emphasis on the parents in regards to giving their child an appropriate moral upbringing. This obviously led to parents disciplining their children more stern. To what extent though, is a matter of debate. Sather argued that the reformation led to parents becoming a lot more physical and cruel towards their children, especially amongst Puritans27.

Pollock, however suggests that “most parents sought a middle way. 28 The difficulties in Sather’s thesis is that she based her evidence primarily on puritan conduct books, these were books that instructed parents on the believed correct way to bring up a child. One must be wary however; that what is taught is not always put into practice. But at the same time it is evident that parents did discipline their children, and did become a little stricter in regards to disciplinary methods towards their children in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, but it is apparent that it was not in the parent’s emotional nature.For example Thomas Cawton who did participate in catechizing his children noted that he was “so moved with compassion, his fatherly bowels did so yearn over [his children], that the tears trickled apace from his eies when he was correcting them. 29” Due to external teaching from the protestant faith, parents did feel they had to mould their child into purity for their own good. Because early modern England was faced with the discarding of sacraments, and the disposal of any thought of purgatory, correct teaching form parents had to be held otherwise the only place the child would be destined for is hell! 30Correct teaching, love, and affection towards offspring did not end in childhood.

Even when a child had grown and left home, parent to child relations were still full of warm emotional compassion. There were many reasons for a child to leave home whether it was to marry of to begin an apprenticeship. In any case, we can find many primary examples of parental love.

Lucy Hutchinson proclaimed to her daughter in the text Principles of organised religion, that although she was now married her mother would always like to be there to watch over her soul31. Another example for instance is a case that occurred in 1620 in Chancery Court.A situation had arisen when a concerned father of a Hereford apprentice was “hearing from day to day” about his son’s whereabouts and the master’s neglect in properly training him. “32 Consequently, a parent’s love for a child lasted eternally and did not stop after childhood. However, relationships obviously changed. An adult would almost certainly be treated differently to a young child. Aries however, disagrees and believes that the concept of childhood did not being until the seventeenth century.

Prior to then, in that case a parent treated their child in the same manor all throughout their lifetime33.On the whole the idea seems quite preposterous, all one has to do is look at sixteenth century literature, which was aimed at children or even advice books which demonstrate a clear example of how a child should be treated, distinguishing it from the adult. In addition, like Pollock suggests “children are all too dependant on adult care and attention”, to not be separated from adults.

34 Relationships between parents and children need to be placed into context before one could ever conclude that parental approaches were ‘repressive and emotionally cold’.Acts such as Wet nursing and swaddling do seem by today’s standards considerably cruel (although as mentioned some pregnancy internet sites are starting to encourage swaddling again) , but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England, there were many reasons encircled as to why parents genuinely thought they were acting as a loving parent. The same applies to parental discipline. It is correct that parents used stern methods to correct their child, but it was in the name of their faith, which is most people had to hold onto in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.When it comes to child death without a doubt parents were distraught at the occurrence of losing a child, whether newborn or much older, it seems insensitive to think otherwise. What one needs to bare in mind is that the concept of childhood in early modern England was completely different to what it is today. But with heart-warming diary accounts of children, grief stricken parents in relation to child death and a solid caring relationship that remained even when a child entered adulthood it is safe to assume that parental relations were certainly not ‘Repressive and emotionally cold’ in sixteenth and seventeenth century England.

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