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

By Mary Abbott | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1

Worlds of difference

For most of us, it will be the attempt to see the world through the eye sockets of our predecessors that requires the greatest effort of imagination.

Three or four hundred years ago it was held that the will of God determined that man should have dominion over all living things and justified the subordination of women. Man's unlimited jurisdiction over the creatures of the world was in stark contrast with his impotence in the face of sickness and the elemental forces: winds, flood, fire. This powerlessness was a source of anxieties which were magnified by the widespread belief that those who suffered were targets either of human malice or divine disapprobation. Since earthly existence was understood as a brief prelude to eternity, serious-minded men, women and even young children were exercised about their destination in the afterlife. Many feared hellfire.

This chapter is designed to highlight key aspects of difference and similarity between the early modern habitat and our own. These themes will be developed and illustrated in later chapters and in the dossier of documents.

The technological disadvantage suffered by our predecessors in Tudor and Stuart England is probably the easiest difference to appreciate. Many of us have the experience of living-temporarily-without gas, electricity or running water. Although it is inappropriate to draw close parallels between seventeenth-century England and developing countries today, we have all seen films of regions in which walking is still the normal way of getting from one place to another and much of the water, food and fuel consumed has to be carried on the heads or shoulders of human beings or slung across the backs of pack animals. We are aware, if only at second hand, of material deprivation and of the killing power of hunger and epidemic disease. It may be harder to envisage a world without telephones, sound recordings, film, radio or television, a world in which only a minority of adults possessed the skills of reading and writing, a world in which watches and mirrors were novelties.


THE SOCIAL ORDER

William Harrison (born 1534), the Rector of Radwinter, not far from Saffron Walden in Essex, published his Description of England in 1577. In his view,

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