The story of the very young is a subject that many historians seem to avoid. While most would acknowledge the truth behind Wordsworth’s assertion that “The Child is father of the Man,” that childhood experience is a significant factor in the later behaviour and attitudes of the adult, what that experience was like in the past —especially for the common folk— has not been adequately explored. This book is therefore something of a revelation, for it does not dwell on the early lives of the great and good but rather seeks to unpick the minutiae of everyday life for those who have remained largely ignored in Tudor histories.
The book charts its course from birth to adolescence, with separate sections on religion and education. The sources are varied and extensive and the author should be applauded for the vast range of material that he has unearthed. As might be expected of such a carefully-researched study, the conclusions challenge many commonly-held assumptions about the nature of childhood long ago. The result is that we are presented with a more rounded picture of the challenges faced by the Tudor child, and the parental decisions made to combat circumstances which might threaten its well-being.
An erroneous impression regarding children in this period is that they were less valued or cared for because their chances of survival were much slimmer. Orme is able to completely refute this view with numerous examples. Families were often large, contraception was non-existent, and infant mortality was high, but none of this means that parents felt these losses any less keenly than we would today. Orme states that at the end of the sixteenth century, seventeen per cent of babies would die in their first year. However, towards the end of the chapter on birth and infancy, he provides clear evidence that in almost all circumstances, each newborn child was valued and welcomed, and infant deaths were regarded in the same way as any other. He quotes a schoolboy exercise from the 1490s in Oxford in which a young boy writes of the death of a younger sibling: “A great while after my brother died, my mother was wont to sit weeping all day. I trow (think) that there is nobody which would not be sorry if he had seen her weeping.”
One fundamental issue addressed throughout this study is that of class and the problems therefore associated with any attempt to draw generalised conclusions. The case of child mortality is perhaps the only one in which it might be possible to claim equality of experience between rich and poor. In other areas, however, the question of economic factors comes into play: it is not possible to identify any kind of universal truth regarding the diet of Tudor children, which was totally dependent upon the family’s financial well-being and food’s seasonal availability. Within these constraints, however, the author is able to present a coherent picture of the everyday diet available to children in the widely differing classes.
Perhaps the one common factor to all the social groups was that there was little variation in the kind of food offered to children, irrespective of class. They were expected to eat the same food as adults, although some concessions were made for the very young. For the well off this might mean a diet of bread, dairy products, various meats and fish, and vegetables according to season, all washed down with ‘small’ beer, the favoured drink for upper and middle-class families because the water quality was so variable. One source used by Orme provides evidence of the food commonly given to children at a private school in London: bread, butter and fruit (in season) for breakfast; perhaps a pottage made with wheat, barley, turnips, cabbage, and eggs for lunch; supper could be a salad, with oiled salt, roast mutton, prunes, root vegetables, and chopped herbs. At each meal some kind of bread would also be eaten. In contrast to the evidence for this somewhat varied diet, sources for the food consumed by the poorest families are virtually non-existent. However, it is certain that children in this group would be given what the adults ate with little concession to age. Orme uses the poem Piers Plowman to emphasise how local conditions would dictate the diet of the very poorest, with the example of what a peasant farmer could provide for his family in early summer when the previous year’s grain had been consumed. This food consisted of curds, unripe cheese, leeks, cabbage, and bread made with oats or even beans and bran. What is clear is that, unlike the society in which we live now, the variety and, crucially, availability of food were driving forces in daily life. People were forced to be concerned with food and they probably thought about it much more often than people today, with the very poorest often facing a real threat of starvation.
Shakespeare’s famous speech about the seven ages of man was an accurate description of the age divisions commonly believed in at the time. The three which concern us here are the ‘mewling’ infant, the ‘whining’ schoolboy, and the ‘lover’ or adolescent. There were quite different expectations for the behaviours of each group. The period of infancy lasted until around seven, and up to that age the child was encouraged to play and to copy adults. From seven to puberty the child could be subjected to quite brutal treatment with the intention of moulding it into an adult suited to a specific social and familial position. At seven years old the child might begin school. Orme uses several contemporary sources to outline the kind of regime that a schoolchild might be expected to follow, rising at five or six o’clock for prayers, followed by school from six or seven in the morning till as late as six in the evening. However, economic factors meant that school was not an option for many families. In less well-off homes children were expected to contribute to the well-being of the family, whether by carrying out menial tasks around the home or with useful (and paid) work outside it. Whichever class a child was born into, discipline and obedience were central to their childhood experience. Physical punishments were, by our standards, cruel and vicious. Thomas Tusser describes, for example, how he was beaten by Nicholas Udall, a master at Eton: “Fifty-three stripes given to me/ At once I had,/ For fault but small or none.” Clearly the resentment over such unfair treatment continued into adulthood. Orme’s chapter on school life is long, describing not only the harshness involved but also the day-to-day rituals that surrounded learning itself. Religion was a central feature, with Biblical texts and commentaries being the main source of material. This served two purposes. It provided moral instruction for the child, while reinforcing the concept of authority. The Bible taught respect for the Church and its institutions and, by implication, the men who imposed them. The same applied within the school: respect and obedience to those who held positions of authority was paramount, be it the master or his appointed deputies and prefects.
While middle and upper-class children suffered the ordeals of what could be a harsh school life, children at the two extremes of society had quite different experiences. The fascinating section on royal children shows that by the time of Henry VIII their education was both wide-ranging and rigorous. Edward VI, his eldest son, was fluent in Greek and Latin and had a tutor specifically for learning French. He also had access to the most prominent religious reformers, who naturally influenced his outlook so that he became a very devout advocate of the new Protestant religion. His half-sister Elizabeth was even more capable: besides her proficiency in Greek and Latin, by the age of eleven she was writing in Italian to Katherine Parr, and a year later translated a French religious work, “The Glasse of the Synneful Soul,” into English for her. It was recognised that to occupy a position of power in Tudor England required a level of learning equal or superior to the education of those over whom you held authority.
Among the gentry, it was quite common for children of ten and upward who did not attend school to be placed within a household of equal or greater rank. Private tutors might be employed to educate this elite group. This ensured both that the children avoided mixing with those of lower rank at a grammar school, and that they had social contact with highly-placed statesmen — often an important stepping-stone in the progression to adulthood. For those lower down the social scale a similar, but different, fate might await: an apprenticeship, or a placement as a servant in another household. The rules governing apprenticeships were strict and involved commitments on both parties, who received a written indenture outlining their legal responsibilities. The apprentice agreed to serve seven years with his master. He would be required to live in the same household, be employed by and learn the trade of the master, and also undertake reasonable household duties, such as bringing water from a nearby well. In return the master agreed to teach the boy his trade, feed, clothe, and house him appropriately, and even give him small financial payments. However, the typical apprentice was a young man on the threshold between childhood and the adult world, an age at which it is natural to want new and exciting experiences and push boundaries. With that in mind, Orme has found an indenture from 1566 which includes all the usual requirements on both parties, but also states that the apprentice is not allowed to play dice, cards, and other unsuitable games, visit taverns, ale-houses, and brothels without permission, engage in fornication with any of the household staff, or marry without consent.
However, the exuberance of youth could still spill over. In 1517 a riot took place in London when apprentices attacked the homes and workplaces of ‘strangers,’ i. e. foreigners —mostly French and Flemish cloth and shoe makers. Houses were looted and set on fire, and prisoners awaiting trial for attacking foreigners were freed from jail. After the mayhem had been brought under control by troops, more than 500 apprentices were arrested and seven were subsequently executed. There were other disturbances throughout the Tudor period, most notably in 1595, when more than 1,000 apprentices rioted on Tower Hill in London to draw attention to their poor conditions. At the time there was rampant inflation and a poor harvest had led to a food shortage. These factors, combined with a lack of empathy from the Mayor and mistreatment of those who had protested earlier, provided the spark for this outburst, after which five of the rioters were convicted of treason and hanged, drawn, and quartered on Tower Hill.
Overall the book paints a fascinating and detailed account of Tudor childhood, in all its complexities and variety. This is perhaps its most significant achievement. The available sources are biased towards the wealthy and privileged, with the unsung poor rarely mentioned. To piece together a coherent account of what might have passed as the life experience of the very young in, for example, the home of a village farmworker is clearly a challenge. All kinds of assumptions must be made. Nevertheless, the author has unearthed source material that provides a much better understanding of the nuanced nature of Tudor childhood than the previous interpretations. The assumption of significant commonalities is revealed as unsustainable, due to the huge disparities of economic and social standing at the time. What Orme pieces together is much richer for its accuracy, bringing to life the hardships, pleasures, and everyday activities that made up the early experiences of Tudor people. The battle between tradition and change is not a modern phenomenon but one which has probably preoccupied all societies since their beginnings. Within the Tudor period this conflict was especially fraught, with the transition to a new religion and the opening-up of new trade routes and naval exploration. As Orme correctly states in his conclusion, so much of our written history concerns adults, and yet children are an integral and vital part of any prospering society. Their story is just as important, if not more so in some respects, for it provides a glimpse of the future.--Paul Flux