‘Little Adults’?: The Presence of Children in the Early Modern Household

When reflecting upon the early modern household’s project, the lack of children present in the source material was raised and having already researched the extraordinary child demoniac cases of the late Elizabethan and Early Stuart periods, I decided to delve further. Considering the increased ratio of the child demographic in the early modern period, I found it odd that not more mention is made of children in relation to the household/family unit. There were plenty of children around so why are they not all-over contemporary literature?  

Early modern children have previously been considered as ‘little adults’, bred for labour and repressed of play and nurturement. [1] One answer is that they were not regarded as ‘full humans’ until they reached adulthood and could contribute to the household, therefore their mention was irrelevant. Yet when I came across two particularly worried women seeking advice from Sir. Hans Sloane about their children’s illnesses, I was glad to know that they certainly did care about their offspring, and a great deal too. Children tend to appear in sources when there was a cause for concern, the emotional despair of parents is then best seen through private documentation such as letters and diaries. The seventeenth-century diarist Reverend Ralph Josselin, constantly reflected upon his children’s fortunes and misfortunes, confirming that they were always on his mind. [2]

To be clear, childhood in the early modern period it is the stage before ‘youth’, which we would now interpret as adolescence. I am not suggesting that some early modern children, namely those of poorer families weren’t turfed out of home to work when circumstances required, but this was out of necessity and not choice. In terms of the middling classes at least, it can be gleaned that children could live out their childhoods with joy and love.

Mrs Tothill and Mrs Lowther wrote to Sloane with unrestrained desperation. Concerned that her son’s trouble with worms was re-emerging, Mrs Lowther lamented: [3]

‘I cant help fearing the Consequence of such frequent returns & therefore though it proper to acquaint you that we are very apprehensive’

Similarly, Mrs Tothill pleaded with Sloane :

‘I humbly beg you to grant me so as to take him into your compasinat and affecinat cear as a youth far from his own family and Sr both Mr Tothills and my grattud shall attend you in the most perticullers manner affecinat parants can show’

Mrs Tothill recognises that Sloane is unknown to her personally, yet her grief over one of her four sons whom ‘is a very dear dearling child’ to her and Mr Tothill is so great it prompts her to seek out Sloane. [4]

Yet these are parents of the eighteenth-century, a time where Phillip Aries decided families began to care for their children. [5] Apparently, until some point in the seventeenth-century, child-parent relations were distant and there was no such separation between the stages of childhood and youth, children were simply expected to ‘adult’ quickly. Being familiar with the child demoniac cases I must disagree with Aries. Parents were more concerned for their children than ever in the post reformation decades, a surge of child rearing publications became available, [6] and the removal of the element of exorcism in baptisms created an enhanced fear for the salvation of children.

Early modern children represented a religious battleground, where either God or the Devil would persevere, and the child’s predestination would become clear. In some cases, this battle was very visible. When 14-year-old Mary Glover fell into fits in 1602, later ascribed to possession, her parents feared so much for her life that they ‘caused the bell to be touled for her’. [7] Throughout the detailed report on her case, the efforts her parents went to cure her and the emotional trauma they felt is obvious. Regularly noted as being by Mary’s side is her mother, and her father did all he could with his connections to restore her health, sending forth ‘many harty sighes’ when preachers gathered to pray for Mary. [8] The concerns that prompted parents to seek advice or reflect upon in diaries were largely generated by health and prosperity, unsurprisingly interlinked with the religiosity of the era.

Considered by many to have been taking advantage of their enhanced position as demoniacs, the Throckmorton children enjoyed playing with others whilst out of their fits. [9] In fact, play was one of the only things that could temporarily restore Elizabeth Throckmorton:

‘she was never out of her fit within doores…she would be merrie and lightsome, finding many things wherein she would take delight, as playing with her cosens’ [10]

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game (1555).

By looking at private and extraordinary sources, the presence of children is found, and they are not projected as neglected little adults at all, clearly ‘children pastime themselves’ with ‘light and childish sportes’. [11] These snippets rather suggest a strong, emotional connection between the early modern parent and child.

References:

[1] Paul Griffiths, Youth and Authority (New York, 1996).

[2] Alan Macfarlane (ed.), The Diary of Ralph Josselin: 1616 – 1683 (Oxford, 1976).

[3] K. Lowther to Hans Sloane, 1739-05-02, Sloane MS 4076, f. 48, British Library, London.

[4] Tothill to Hans Sloane, 172-08-14, Sloane MS 4046, ff. 282 – 283, British Library, London,

 f. 283r.

[5] Phillipe Aries, Centuries of Childhood (1962).

[6] John Lyster, A rule how to bring vp children (London, 1588).

[7] Stephen Bradwell, Mary Glovers Late and Woefull Case, Together with her Joyfull Deliverance (1603), British Library, Sloane MS 831, f. 4v.

[8] John Swan, A True and Breife Report, of Mary Glovers Vexation (1603), p.8.

[9] D. P. Walker, Unclean Spirits, (London, 1981).

[10] Unknown, The most strange and admirable discouerie of the three witches of Warboys, 1593,pp. 10 – 12.

[11] Ibid.

Further reading:

Ben-Amos, Ilana Krausman, Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England (New Haven, 1994).

French, Anna, Children of Wrath: Possession, Prophecy and the Young in Early Modern England (Farnham, 2015).

Sharpe, J. A., ‘Disruption in the Well-Ordered Household: bAfe, Authority and Possessed Young people’ in Paul Griffiths, Adam Fox and Steve Hindle (eds), The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 1996).


6 thoughts on “‘Little Adults’?: The Presence of Children in the Early Modern Household

  1. I enjoyed how you have shown children were important to their parents and they were not irrelevant.
    You have shown the early modern connection between parent and child were emotive. To further this, is there any evidence for a difference in the emotional relationship between mothers and children and fathers and children?

  2. This is very insightful, I have always wondered about the lives of early modern children.
    If more literature were available detailing the lives of the poorest families and their children, do you think it would tell a different story in comparison to the image you have used above?

    1. Unfortunately we have the major obstacle of the lost voices of the peasantry and the lost voices of children in early modern studies making the study of early modern peasant children an incredibly difficult feat! Although the peasantry undoubtedly through circumstance would have had to send their children off to work at an early age to subsist, I don’t think generally that this would have been in any way a representation of neglect or a disregard for childhood.

  3. I enjoyed your variety of sources implemented to give an insight into childhood life in the early modern period. As you mentioned that children were expected to ‘adult’ as quickly as possible, were there any signs of frustration in your sources rather than compassion over recurring sickness that potentially slowed the maturing process?

    1. Thanks Sam! Not so much in regards to the maturing process as I actually think that early modern children were given the space to learn and grow through childhood and weren’t necessarily rushed into adulthood as Phillipe Aries has argued. Unsurprisingly there is parental frustration projected in the child demoniac cases, some of these possessed children were in and out of their fits for years. The Throckmorton family of Warboys in particular had 5 possessed young daughters, at their wits end they dispersed them by sending them off to live separately with friends and family in the hope that separation would cure them (or just to give them a break!)
      For reference: The most strange and admirable discouerie of the three witches of Warboys (1593), sigs. A4r – v, B.3.r, E2r – v; Phillip C. Almond, The Witches of Warboys, pp. 47, 75, 79.

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