Life Cycles in England, 1560-1720: Cradle to Grave

By Mary Abbott | Go to book overview
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This is a book in three parts. It was conceived as a portable archive. The I idea was that, faced by empty shelves in the library and too broke to buy a book to prepare for the week's seminar, the student who had a copy of Life Cycles in England 1560-1720 would never be reduced to the single received authority of the conventional key text. The portfolio of images and the dossier of extracts, although selected and introduced by the author, would offer alternative perspectives.

The first section of the book plots the human career in England, roughly between 1560 and 1720, from birth to old age. It opens with a chapter, Worlds of Difference, designed to put the life stories in context. The chapter which follows, 'Live to Die', examines what I would argue is one of the most notable differences between their world and ours, the manner and the meaning of death. The plan of this section of the book is straightforward: there are chapters on the first stages of life from conception to weaning, on childhood, youth, love and marriage, householding and old age. If you feel that death should come at the end of the book, feel free to read this chapter last. The material is drawn primarily from the personal testimonies of letters, diaries and memoirs. Chapters end with a list of suggestions for further reading.

The second section is a collection of extracts from texts written between 1560 and 1720, the great majority transcribed in the Rare Books Room in Cambridge University Library. This is a dossier of public material, much of it published during the period in question. This section is not designed to be read from beginning to end. The dossier and the portfolio of photographs are your pocket library or museum, the quarry which you are expected to 'mine' for evidence.

If you are not used to reading material written three or four hundred years ago, you may find some of the texts hard going at first. Language is a living medium; the meanings of words alter across time. I have given definitions for those I suspect will prove puzzling or problematic but there may be others which I have not identified. Context may help but a big dictionary is a better solution: the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary is the best. Persevere and you will enjoy the fascination of exploring a world very different from our own-but one in which people wrote and spoke in a language we can understand. We can share the jokes they told each other and eavesdrop on the trials for witchcraft and murder which riveted the attention of seventeenth-century readers and hearers.

The order in which the texts appear is to some extent arbitrary. Many of them provide evidence on a range of topics. To take one example: the account of the trial of two Suffolk women on charges of witchcraft (pp. 201-9). A trial is a debate about the reliability of evidence and the ways in which that


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