Children have always liked to stash things in hidey-holes. The Carmelite church in Coventry was built with resonance passages, a series of hollows under the wooden floorboards of the chancel. In the 15th century, the church was home to a choir, which meant herding together a dozen young boys and making them stand still for long periods of time; in the 1550s, the building came to be used as a grammar school, which meant gathering a larger number of boys and making them sit still for even longer periods of time. When archaeologists excavated the site in the 1960s and 1970s, they discovered the trove of stuff that generations of bored children had posted into the chambers.
The boys had been hungry. Most of the finds were animal bones: ox, rabbit, chicken, mutton, a whole midden of working lunches. But there were treasures too, carelessly dropped or maliciously dispatched through gaps in the floorboards. The archaeologists found brooches, buckles, jettons, dozens of knives, a pair of spectacles, inkwells, quoits, a mouth harp, a bone pointer or stylus, amber beads and a milk tooth belonging to a child between the ages of nine and twelve, undecayed but worn from grinding. Some finds, such as coins and pottery, could be dated with a degree of precision. But others, apparently originating on one side of the Reformation or the other, resisted interpretation. Did the bronze religious medallion depicting a Virgin and Child belong to a conformist chorister of the 1500s, or a recusant schoolboy of the 1550s? Grown-up history requires us to ask such questions: to look for dividing lines and turning points. Children’s history seems to operate in a different register, both everyday and timeless.
Children in Tudor England did much the same things that children do now. They jumped, they fell, they cried. They played with dolls and flicked cherrystones at one another. John Dee, the Elizabethan astronomer and diarist, describes his son Arthur, aged about three, playing with a friend’s daughter, Mary Herbert, making ‘as it were a show of childish marriage, of calling each other husband and wife’. Francis Segar, trying to teach decorum in 1557, criticised those boys who came out of school ‘running like a heap of bees … whooping and hallooing as in hunting the fox’.
But if children have remained much the same, the concept of childhood has changed dramatically. In 1960 Philippe Ariès published Centuries of Childhood, a book equally influential and infamous for its argument that childhood was an invention of early modernity. Before this, he claimed, Europeans were unsentimental about their children, and accorded them no special significance. The high incidence of mortality spurred a general ‘feeling of indifference towards a too fragile childhood’; parents couldn’t get worked up over dead infants who were too ‘inadequately involved in life’ to be worth mourning. In Ariès’s view, it wasn’t until the 17th century that ‘youth’ came to be regarded as a virtue, and only in the 19th century that childhood came to be seen as a time of innocence and nostalgia.
The idea that parents weren’t attached to their children touched a nerve among medievalists. More than thirty years ago, pioneering work by Shulamith Shahar and Barbara Hanawalt showed conclusively that Ariès was wrong. Not only did medieval people have a concept of childhood, adapting the sequential model of the ‘Ages of Man’ from classical antiquity, but they loved their children and mourned them when they died. A translation exercise given to schoolboys in the late 15th century suggests that the frequency of death was no barrier to grief: ‘A great while after my brother died my mother was wont to sit weeping every day. I trow that there is nobody which would not be sorry if he had seen her weeping.’ At Stanford Rivers in Essex, a funeral brass shows an infant in swaddling clothes. It was made to preserve the memory of Thomas Greville, who ‘died in his tender age’ in 1492.
Nicholas Orme is perhaps best known for Medieval Children, a lavishly illustrated survey published in 2001, which helped to popularise medievalists’ critique of Ariès. Tudor Children reuses some of the same material, but its implications are more ambiguous. It’s certainly worth reiterating that Ariès’s basic assumptions were wrong. Premodern statistics come with a constellation of asterisks, but the rate of child mortality in England around 1600 has been estimated at 30 per cent for children under fifteen. That’s very high by modern standards, of course, but lower than it would be in the later 17th century, the period in which Ariès thought parents were becoming more sentimental about their children.
For all its flaws, Ariès’s work did attempt to confront the problem of feelings changing over time. Did early modern adults begin to regard children differently? England in the 16th century is fertile ground for such a history: the future was being broken up and stirred around. The literary critic Lee Edelman has written that children are charged with the continuity of collective narrative, with ‘the task of assuring “that we being dead yet live.”’ Tudor children, thrust into a world of religious turmoil, economic upheaval and political transformation, could offer their elders few such assurances. Children watched the adults closely – maybe too closely. In 1548, on the cusp of the more radical reformation under the government of Edward VI, the boys at Bodmin school in Cornwall began to act out the conflict for themselves. They divided into two ‘factions’ for games, old religion and new, ‘with some egernesse and rougnes’. Things soon got out of hand. One boy made a gun from an old candlestick, loaded it with gunpowder and stone, and managed to kill a calf; ‘the owner complayned, the master whipped, and the division ended.’
Under the old religion, children had been treated as helpmeets rather than believers, deployed at altars or in choirs, marshalled to act out spectacles. On Palm Sunday, boys dressed up as prophets and scrambled for cakes thrown out of the church windows by the choir. This sort of fun was banned in 1547. Another tradition was the ‘boy bishop’ appointed to take over the church on St Nicholas’s Day (6 December), turning the world upside down and setting the adults to rights. Banned in 1541, it was officially reinstituted under Mary I. One boy bishop gave a sermon at Gloucester in 1558: ‘Now for yow childer, both boys and wenches … it is for yow most necessary to kepe the innocency of your childhod, and other vertues proper unto that tendre age, and not to learn the vices and evill qualities of your elders.’
Religious education became a focus of reform. Parish priests were ordered to hold a class at least once every six weeks. Children were expected to know the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed in English; instead of the Ave Maria, a prayer of grace, they learned the Ten Commandments, a list of rules. Godparents were deputised to ensure that fathers and mothers were being duly honoured. Norfolk Puritans complained in 1556 that ‘many good men of forty years, that had been godfathers to thirty children, knew no more of the godfather’s office but to wash their hands ere they departed from the church.’ After Cranmer’s edicts, they were required to catechise children and encourage them to attend sermons.
But beneath the din of the reformations, subtler changes were being made. People began to call their children different names. Most medieval records confront us with a colourless procession of Johns and Marys, Thomases and Catherines. From the late 15th century, variety creeps in: an Augustine here, a Bartholomew there. Reformers looked to Hebrew names from the Old Testament – Samuel, Josiah and Abigail – to signify the elect. The Puritans went further still, putting modern celebrities to shame, though I doubt Tribulation, Silence, Humiliation or Fear-God are due a comeback. But four hundred years later, I can’t think of a better name for my own blueberry-loving toddler than the jubilant More Fruit. In 1603 the antiquary William Camden cited the new practice among the gentry of using surnames as first names, pointing to Grevill Varney, Bassingburne Gawdy and Calthorp Parker: ‘Although many dislike it, for the great inconvenience that will ensue … neverthelesse it seemeth to proceede from … a desire to continue and propagate their owne names to succeeding ages.’
Continuing a trend that had begun in the 15th century, more and more children – both boys and girls – received some basic schooling. ‘Come, little childe, let toyes alone, and trifles in the streete,’ wrote Francis Clement in The Petie Schole, an educational treatise of 1587. ‘Come, get thee to the parish Clarke … [and] Learne A, B.’ He addressed the work to tailors, weavers and seamstresses, who ‘hath lore as much to reade’ and might teach their children. Printed alphabets were as cheap as a penny and mounted on hand-held boards. The letters were recited or perhaps sung: Thomas Morley set the alphabet to music as early as 1597. The word ‘ampersand’ is a curious relic of Tudor learning methods. It was considered the 27th letter, and to conclude the alphabet children would say ‘x, y, z, and per se and’.
Printers began to shape a literature aimed at children. The Friar and the Boy, a fabliau of eight folios printed by Winkyn de Worde in the 1510s, tells the story of a farmer’s son and his travails against an evil stepmother; he acquires a magic charm that makes her fart loudly whenever she gets angry with him. Medieval romances were still popular in the 16th century, and were sold as standalone pamphlets: in 1520 the Oxford bookseller John Dorne had A Little Gest of Robin Hood for tuppence, Robert the Devil for thruppence. Orme makes the suggestion that cheap ‘jest-books’, short collections of riddles and stories, can be seen as forerunners of children’s comics.
Around the age of seven, a privileged few boys would move on to grammar school. Most English towns had one by the 1500s, and the dissolution of the monasteries prompted a slew of new foundations and re-endowments, like that at Coventry. Boys would follow a curriculum reshaped by Renaissance priorities. Grammar textbooks were rewritten: out went the workaday composition exercises that prepared boys for Latinate bureaucracy; in came Horace, Ovid, Virgil and Cicero, a training in classical literature aimed at the cultivation of virtue. Education changed, but the corrective regime remained the same. Routine beatings were given with a ferule, a wooden spoon with a hole in the end to raise a blister on the palm; serious offences were punished with the birch, a bundle of twigs lashed on the bare bottom. The poet Thomas Tusser complained of ‘53 stripes given to me’ during his time at Eton ‘for fault but small, or none at all’. The headmaster at the time was Nicholas Udall, a playwright, who was sent to prison in 1541 after confessing ‘that he did commit buggery’ with one of his students ‘sundry times heretofore’. Though the offence was punishable by death, he was released from the Marshalsea after calling in a favour from an unnamed patron.
Other children were disciplined with work. A survey of the Norwich poor in 1570 found that boys as young as four sat at looms, while their sisters knitted hose and made gloves. The Norwich commissioners recorded the household of the chandler Thomas Usher and his wife Agnes: ‘six children, three sons, the eldest twelve year that make lace, the other nine year, six year, & the eldest daughter spin wool, the others are idle at home … No alms. Very poor.’ From 1572, ‘honest men’ were empowered by statute to take beggars’ children into service from the age of five, binding girls until they were eighteen, men until they were 24.
Orme is a compassionate guide to the lives of Tudor children, rich and poor, boys and girls, from birth through adolescence. His book is a traditional social history, taking up a sympathetic perspective on a marginalised group. But children make difficult subjects for social history, confounding its basic categories. Do they even represent a coherent group? Orme’s account moves fluidly from the likes of Walter Raleigh junior, who was painted with his father in a blue suit braided with silver, to the nameless ‘impotent householders overcharged with children’ who received shirts and smocks from Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting. But even across the divides of class and gender, the child is not a stable category. A toddler and a teenager have very little in common; that they can be lumped together as ‘children’ reflects a set of cultural mores and legal precepts about their capacities and rights. In 16th-century England, children were understood to be capable of giving consent to marry from puberty. The practice was uncommon, but it came to be a target of religious reform – not due to fears of exploitation, but because of concerns that children would be able to marry whoever they liked, regardless of the approval of their parents.
The question of children’s historical agency is fraught with complications. Read one way, Orme’s book presents us with a record of spirited resistance. As a boy in the 1520s, Peter Carew was sent to school at Exeter, staying in the household of a city alderman. He grew to hate his host, and one day played truant from school, scaling the city walls. He was found high up on a turret, threatening to throw himself off to get the alderman into trouble: ‘I shall break my neck and you shall be hanged.’ His father was summoned, and Carew was soon put in his place – tied to a leash and led around the city like a dog, then taken home and confined to the kennels. Against the possibility of such extravagant cruelty, children resorted to the weapons of the weak. Robert Yall, a teenage boy placed under the supervision of an Oxford fellow sometime in the early 1500s, wrote a rather pitiful letter asking for softer treatment. ‘Master Molesworth, I would pray and beseech you that you would be my good master, for such stuff as I learn, that you would show it to me by fair means and punish me reasonably … I did learn more by your fair means than I do now.’ It’s a rare instance from this era of a text composed by a child, rather than dictated by an adult.
We can see children more clearly when they were let alone and watched from afar. The late 15th-century Scottish poem ‘Ratis Raving’ describes young children in the midst of an imaginative game, making ‘a white horse of a stick/Of broken bread a sailing ship/A bunweed [ragwort] to a burly spear/And of a sedge a sword of war/A comely lady of a clout [cloth]/And be right busy thereabout.’ They played conkers, tennis and ran about with whirligigs, described in 1598 as ‘a piece of card or paper cut like a cross and with a pin put in at the end of a stick which, running against the wind, doth twirl about’. Orme notes that ‘hot cockles’, a version of blindman’s bluff played in the 1550s, was a feature of his Devon childhood in the 1940s.
Adults have always intruded into this freedom. In 1584 Reginald Scot wrote against the practice of scaring little children with monsters: ‘They have so frayed us … with Robin Goodfellow, the sporne, the mare, the man in the oak, the hell-wain, the fire-drake, the puckle, Tom Thumb, Hob Goblin, Tom Tumbler, boneless, and other such bugs that we are afraid of our own shadows.’ He was concerned that such stories made people credulous of witchcraft. With witches long gone, he might have wondered why we still scare children, preying on their naivety just as we were preyed on when we were small. Orme concludes that ‘children in the Tudor age, as always, differed from adults,’ and that ‘adults, as always, recognised the fact.’ The ‘always’ is the problem. If Tudor children seem familiar it’s partly because of the way we have continued to treat them in the thirty generations since. A schoolboy named Dick in the anonymous Elizabethan play July and Julian complains:
Men may do what they list, God wot, and so cannot we,
For if I laugh my father a wanton calls me,
If I be sad, my mother saith I am dumplish and surly …
Both my parents and masters handle me so shrewdly.
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