‘How can you study such a depressing topic?’ I am often asked this question. The subject of my research – children’s illness in the early modern period – doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs. It brings to mind images of bloodthirsty doctors, armed with lancets and leeches, and strict parents, indifferent to the deaths of their young. Fortunately, as I researched for my book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England (OUP, 2012; 2014), a rather different picture emerged. I realised that many of the negative ideas which surround the history of childhood are based more on myth than reality; three particular myths stand out.
Myth 1: Children were miniature adults
The first myth is that there was no concept of ‘childhood’ in the past. In old paintings, children resemble little adults, dressed in the style of their elders. This view has largely fallen out of favour amongst historians of childhood, but in medical history, it lives on, with scholars continuing to assert that before the nineteenth century, children and adults were treated with identical medicines. A foray into early modern medical literature shows that this was not the case. ‘A special regard’, declared the Sussex physician John Pechey in 1697, ‘is to be had to the Methods and Medicines, for Children by reason of the weakness of their bodies, cannot undergo severe methods or strong Medicines’. Instead of using the usual remedies of the time – vomits, purges, and bloodletting – children were usually treated with milder medicines, such as topical ointments, and non-evacuating internal medicines. The reason children required gentler medicines was that their bodies were thought to abound with moisture, a quality which made them weak. Various adaptations were taken to make medicines suitable: doses were lessened, powerful ingredients omitted, and pain-relief prioritized. Mary Poppins’ technique of ‘adding a spoonful of sugar’, was another common practice.
Myth 2: Parents did not love their children
The second myth is that high rates of death in the early modern period discouraged parents from investing too much affection in their children. Fathers in particular, have been depicted as aloof figures, who spent little time with their children, and rarely grieved their deaths. Diaries and letters from the period shed doubt on these assumptions. During illness, mothers and fathers tended their children with devoted care, bestowing earnest prayers, and nursing their offspring day and night. In 1678, the East Anglian clergyman Isaac Archer recorded that he ‘sate by’ his five-year-old daughter Frances all night, and ‘cryed to God…and pleaded…that he would recover the child’. Even more powerful proof of parental affection, is their anguish upon their offspring’s illnesses and deaths. In 1647, the Yorkshire gentleman Ralph Verney wrote to his uncle about the severe illness of his eight-year-old daughter Pegg. He concluded his letter, ‘oh Dr I am so full of affliction that I can say noe more but pray for us’. When death finally arrived, the grief of parents was often so intense that they found it difficult to express. When Ralph Verney’s wife Mary realised that Pegg had died, she told him, ‘I am nott able to say one word more but that at this time there is nott a sadder creature in the world’.
Myth 3: It is impossible to access the child’s experience
The third myth is that we can never view history through the child’s eyes because children rarely left written records. However, there is one context in which their voices do survive: illness. Acutely aware of the likelihood of death, parents recorded the thoughts, words, and actions of their sick children in detail, conscious that these might soon be cherished as last memories. The resulting evidence provides rare and intimate insights into what it was like to be a child in the past. At bedtime in 1625, three-year-old Elizabeth Wallington from London, ‘then being merry’, said to her father, ‘Father I goe abroode tomorrow and bye you a plomee pie’. The reason this everyday sentence was recorded by Elizabeth’s father in his diary was that, ‘These were the last words that I did heere my sweete child speeke’, for the very next day, she died. Children’s words provide insights into their feelings about parents, as well as their thoughts about illness and death. In the 1670s, six-year-old Jason Whitrow took his mother ‘by the hand, and said, “Mother, I shall dye, oh that you might dye with me, that we might both go to the Lord together”’. Children derived much comfort from their parents’ affection and the prospect of heavenly reunion, and sometimes even expressed happiness about death because they were so convinced of their salvation.
In short, although children’s illness is a challenging subject for study, the overwhelming evidence of love and care shown to children is life-affirming.