Edward Barlow says goodbye

Tom Shippey

  • Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England by Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos
    Yale, 335 pp, £25.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 300 05597 8

This book conspicuously fails to ask one question: what’s the difference? What’s the difference between that time and this time, between the experience of ‘adolescence and youth in Early Modern England’ and ‘adolescence and youth’ right now? It could be said that such a book has no need to consider this. It’s history, about that time, not sociology, which would be about this time. One could say that the problems of this time are hard enough to deal with on their own, and should not be brought in to confuse the delicate task of historical reconstruction. Yet the question keeps on being raised, partly by Ilana Ben-Amos’s habit of coming to a conclusion which looks, from its prominence in the argument, as if it is meant to be emphatic, but which by itself seems hardly worth saying. ‘Young people appear then to have been more promiscuous... than married adults.’ Even allowing for all kinds of cultural change, that seems always likely to have been (on average) true. So what is this book trying to tell us? That some things never change?

Actually, I am sure the book is not trying to say that, and the impression so often created is a by-product of scholarly caution. Ben-Amos is considering and trying to mediate between two established scholarly models of youthful experience in Early Modern society. One, the older of the two, argues that the problems of adolescence are essentially a modern phenomenon, and that before the appearance of young people with adult pay but without adult responsibilities, the transition to full maturity was shorter and easier to achieve. So Pollock and Maitland: ‘in past times boys and girls had soon achieved full age; life was simple and there was not much to learn.’ The deep nonsense of this view at least is destroyed by many of the details in Ben-Amos’s book. Nowadays, if you can learn to run a couple of simple machines – an electronic till or a drinks dispenser – you are fit for some kinds of employment. By contrast, the sheer manual and intellectual difficulty of learning how to look after sheep or poultry, or how to boil soap or tan leather, when nearly all information was passed on orally and by demonstration, stands out with painful obviousness from Ben-Amos’s citations. In making cutting tools, she notes, ‘a youth had to learn to control a series of colour changes which were not apparent to the untrained eye... for “if the temper was too strong... with the vehement blow of the hammer it flew in pieces; but if it was soft, it bowed, and would not touch the stone”.’ This ‘uncomplicated’ model of adolescence in other times and cultures has suffered blow after blow since Maitland’s time (1895), not to mention that of Margaret Mead thirty years later.

The other model Ben-Amos has to deal with is the ‘extended puberty’ thesis, which rests on the known late average dates of marriage in the Early Modern period (between 1550 and 1700, about 28 for men and 26 for women), and the simultaneous low illegitimacy rates, ‘no more than 3 per cent throughout the 16th and 17th centuries’. Ben-Amos says with characteristic caution that ‘this relatively low rate’ – it seems to me a staggeringly low rate – ‘may not have implied chastity or strict moral codes among the young’; but it is hard to see quite what else it could imply, given the absence of most known modes of contraception. What these statistics strongly and surprisingly suggest is that the sexual drive, generally seen now as irresistible, especially among the young, can be and was suppressed by purely material concerns, ranging from ‘strategic chastity’ for women to calculating prudence for men. In a rare venture into literature (it has escaped her index programme), Ben-Amos cites Thomas Deloney’s hero Jack of Newbery refusing to marry a widow because ‘it is not wisdome for a yongue man that can scantly keep himselfe, to take a wife... for I have heard say that many sorrowes follow marriage, especially where want remaines’: Malthus would have been proud of him.

On the whole, and predictably, Ben-Amos prefers this second model, which stresses difference between the modern condition and the Tudor or Jacobean one. Yet she is reluctant to go along with some of its corollaries. Lawrence Stone, for instance, has made out a case for ‘the patriarchal and authoritarian nature of parental rule’ in this period, following Ariès in suggesting that childhood was not much valued, that parents did not invest too much emotion in their children (perhaps as a result of infant mortality rates), and that much of what we consider ‘natural’ emotion is instead culturally programmed. Ben-Amos has little trouble in showing that this was certainly not always true. She begins her book with Edward Barlow leaving home in Lancashire in 1657 to go and be a sailor, and years later drawing a picture of the parting in his diary, with his mother beckoning to him to stay. So much for Stone. But if parental emotions are still allowed, or not altogether disproved, do the statistics not still tell us something about the suppression of sexual ones?

It will be seen already that the issues raised in this book really cannot be contained within the decorous confines of scholarly historical study. Muddled, unconsidered, or foggy notions of ‘the family’ create trouble as soon as they come into contact with real experience, which is why even the severest of historians have a duty to do more than just present the data. They must also present a thesis which can be tested and eventually proved, disproved or modified. This is what I feel is missing in Ben-Amos’s book. It does come to some general conclusions. It states, for instance, that there was nothing in the Early Modern period at all corresponding to the popular image of today, ‘in which youth is presented as an eternal culture with political and social value.’ With exhaustive survey it shows that besides the assistance of kin or parents, Early Modern adolescents also got some forms of ‘aid and services’ from the neighbourhood (what we should now rather doubtfully call ‘the community’), and that this latter influence did indeed apparently exert some control over the potential abuse of female servants (see illegitimacy rates again). It points to a continuing struggle throughout the period between two sets of prevalent norms, one stressing dependency and subjection (the Stone model), the other early independence and self-reliance.

All these conclusions are moderate, plausible and well-grounded. Yet in spite of the promising start made with Edward Barlow’s diary account of parting, they say little or nothing about the emotional structure of adolescence, or its difference from/relationship to the modern situation (which latter is bound to be in the background at least of every reader’s mind). One remark Ben-Amos does make which might have provided a starting-point here is that in the Early Modern period ‘there was no single event which marked the transition from childhood to adolescence and youth.’ She does not say this, but we have one critical transition now almost entirely absent from her survey: leaving school. Truancy rates shoot up, but even determined truants usually know which school it is that they do not go to, and have age-mates who still attend. One of our modern troubles is that the school-leaving age, raised steadily within living memory from 14 to 15 to 16, is close to but not the same as other critical ‘maturity’ dates, such as voting age, dropped from 21 to 18, or drinking age, still (in the UK) 18. A skilled carpenter of my acquaintance once told me that the raising of the school age had ruined the old apprenticeship system under which he had been trained. Apprentices of 16, he said, were not biddable as had been those of 14. Under the old system the 14-year olds had learnt a lot by the time they got through puberty, and were encouraged in the last years of their seven by the thought that at 21 they would have certain and definite status: they would be skilled craftsmen, voters, and entitled to ‘the key of the door’ (then not just something to put on birthday cards), all at the same time. Behind his view was a folk-thesis about sevens: till seven, at home with parents (even Beowulf says ‘I was seven winters when the lord of treasures took me from my father’); from seven to 14, at school with your friends; from 14 to 21, with adults but not an adult yourself.

Nowadays the 16/18/21 uncertainty has some bedevilling consequences. One is that while you can leave school at 16, and so become part of the ‘work force’ and therefore eligible for Unemployment Benefit, Income Support and Housing Benefit, in practice some or all of these are difficult to claim without parental support. To get the latter it is said that you need a parental letter refusing to house you. Of course, by a variation on Catch-22, if you have parents who refuse to house you (or no parents at all), getting a parental letter for the DSS becomes difficult or impossible. A good deal of the youthful homelessness now so evident comes from the gap in the muddled, uncertain, Enid Blyton model of adolescence held by our legislators and turned by them into law. The structure of adolescent experience at present is created not only by the familiar teenage sub-culture, but also by decades of bit-at-a-time bien pensant bureaucratic tinkering.

There are other respects in which compulsory state schooling has made a decisive difference in modern experience: for one thing, it creates an immediate ‘streaming’ effect which very much channels adolescent expectation, from leave-at-16 and the dole queue to on-to Oxbridge and (the chance of) secure professional status. Adolescents in Early Modern England seem from Ben-Amos’s evidence to have avoided that kind of categorisation, but to have been subject to others, related naturally to their own individual abilities but also to the chance of raising capital, for apprenticeship premiums or for eventually setting up on their own. Social transformations of the Dick Whittington kind, Ben-Amos cautiously remarks, ‘were extremely rare throughout the 16th and 17th centuries’ (when weren’t they?), and there was every difference between the merchant-apprentice from a rich Bristol family, with his wig, gold lace and gold buttons, and the poor seaman-apprentice with his buttons cut out of hardened cheese. Was social mobility definitely less then than now? Ben-Amos is reluctant to say (one has One’s doubts), but at any rate concedes that there were some successes. Edward Barlow, who went off to sea in 1657 with his mother trying to call him back, became a master-navigator and went home in triumph on a pay-scale eight times his father’s.

A sneaking feeling emerges from reading this book that it provides evidence for another unstated thesis: namely, that youth and adolescence in the 20th century used not to be very like the Early Modern experience (as a result of the aerating effect of compulsory competitive education), but is heading back in that direction. The closest parallel to Ben-Amos’s account of Jacobean apprentices seems to me to be modern American PhD students. They undergo a kind of extended adolescence lasting into their thirties, during which they are allowed to marry (unlike Jacobean apprentices) but retain uncertain economic status. Nevertheless, just like the apprentices, they become increasingly economically valuable as they come to the end of their seven years or so, because they do so much of the undergraduate teaching. This gives them something of a bargaining position, which they can tentatively exploit – Ben-Amos records cases of skilled apprentices extorting wages from their masters by a threat to withdraw labour, and careful calculation of how much they brought in and how much they took out. There was also a temptation for the apprentice to extend his (or, this time, her) term for a couple of years to make immediate money in order to pay off what were effectively ‘tuition costs’: again the parallel – graduate students teaching extra courses for money at the expense of their completion date – is close if not exact. Ben-Amos finally records contemporary complaint about the ‘tricks and knaveries of servants’, who were in the habit (it is said) of going to a new master, getting a better deal and ‘earnest money’ paid down, and then returning to their present master to ‘discourse’ with him ‘if he cannot make better terms’. The parallel with modern American academic life (the tactical interview, offer letter, and interview with your own Dean to see if the offer will be matched) is once more completely recognisable.

It cannot be denied that in the end Ben-Amos’s is a slightly disappointing work. It flirts with the idea of emotional analysis, but abandons it as not scientifically sound. It keeps an eye on statistical evidence, but too often is forced to conclude that not enough exists. Trains of thought continually start, or are started, but fail to finish or go anywhere. One demonstration, however, for which I remain grateful is a reminder of how much original material survives from this period in accessible form. Edward Barlow’s Journal of his Life at Sea ... from 1659 to 1703 was printed in 1934, and the Autobiography of Phineas Pett, a shipwright who worked on some of the largest ships in the Navy, in 1918. Ben Amos’s bibliography lists some seventy printed works from the period, ranging from familiar ‘spiritual autobiographies’ like Fox’s or Bunyan’s or Lodowick Muggleton’s to racier works like Simon Forman’s Autobiography or the lives of unknowns like Mary Pennington, Elizabeth Stirredge or Captain Roger Clap. Literary evidence is almost totally absent. The Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale says: ‘I would there were no age between ten and three-and twenty ... for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.’ He must be wrong about this – see the illegitimacy rates once again – but the passage does show that there was a perceived and familiar ‘teenagerdom’ in Shakespeare’s time. The statistics and the autobiographies and the apprenticeship records all say that this was a fantasy, like Dick Whittington, far removed from the material concerns that really motivated adolescents, and therefore of no great significance for serious history. Just the same, a feeling remains that one might learn more of the inwardness of the life of an unskilled Jacobean servant or low-grade apprentice from H.G. Wells’s Life of Mr Polly than from many worthier works. The core of the experience was boredom and ignorance mixed with insecurity: just what we had hoped state education would deliver us from.