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

By Mary Abbott | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 4

Childhood

THE DEBATE: THE DISCOVERY OF CHILDHOOD?

The outcome of the recent debate about past attitudes to childhood is a I salutary instance of the merits and pitfalls of a common-sense approach to historical problems. Philippe Aries' pioneering and influential L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous L'Ancien Regime (1960), which launched the controversy, came out in England in 1962. Aries claimed that, from the end of the sixteenth century, the offspring of the better-off were 'subjected to a special treatment, a sort of quarantine, family and school together removed children from adult society'. Building in part on Aries' work, J.H. Plumb set out to paint 'a dark picture of childhood in seventeenth-century England'. Plumb discerned a 'new attitude to children' emerging as, towards the end of the century, 'a social morality' displaced the war on 'the old Adam', epitomising the undisciplined, sinful, wilful nature of fallen man. Lawrence Stone argued that, as this 'new type of family' which 'evolved' among 'the upper bourgeoisie and squirearchy', 'more and more time, energy, money and love of both parents were devoted to the upbringing of the children, whose wills it was no longer thought necessary to crush by force at an early age'.

To the non-historian it may seem incredible that the existence of childhood could ever be questioned and, in due course, this thesis was indeed challenged by Linda Pollock, who analysed material from 236 British diaries, 144 American diaries and thirty-six autobiographies. She concluded that

children formed an integral part of the family from at least the late 16th century. Parents were undoubtedly aware of the individuality of their offspring, of their varying needs and dispositions and endeavoured to suit their mode of childcare to each particular child.

She found 'the amount of paternal concern for children', even babies, 'of particular interest'. Pollock was especially critical of the claim that parents in general were emotionally cold and physically violent.

Most recent writers have endorsed Pollock's common-sense conclusion that childhood was a recognised stage in the human life cycle. But, as Keith Thomas pointed out, while the 'affection and concern' felt by parents 'was no less great' than in the present, their 'methods' of child rearing 'may have been different'. Thomas' emphasis on methods reflects his reservations about Pollock's case. He concluded that, like 'adults in a servile condition',

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