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9-08-2015, 14:55

The life cycle: childhood and youth

Interest in the body as a historical subject is quite a new development, though as one delves into the sources of early modern history it is hard to see how it could have been avoided for so long, for early modern Europeans were clearly very concerned about the body, and left countless medical, legal, religious, and intellectual texts and images about it. The same is true of the life cycle; historians became interested in childhood only about thirty years ago, and in the aging process and old age only within the past decade, despite the many written and visual sources about the “ages of man.” The earliest studies of early modern childhood painted a grim picture. Because half of children died before they were ten, and because child-rearing manuals advocated strict discipline and warned against coddling or showing too much affection, historians concluded that children were raised harshly or regarded with indifference. Parents, they reasoned, must have guarded themselves against becoming too emotionally invested in children. This bleak view has been relieved somewhat in the past several decades by scholars using archival sources about the way children were actually treated; they have discovered that many parents showed great affection for their children and were very disturbed when they died young. Parents tried to protect their children with religious amulets and pilgrimages to special shrines, made toys for them, and sang them lullabies. Even practices which to us may seem cruel, such as tight swaddling, were motivated by a concern for the child’s safety and health at a time when most households had open fi res, domestic animals wandered freely, and mothers and older siblings engaged in productive work which prevented them from continually watching an infant or a toddler. Children began their training for adult life at the age of four or fi ve. Girls of all classes throughout Europe were taught skills that they would use in running a household– spinning, sewing, cooking, care of domestic animals. Peasant girls were also taught some types of agricultural tasks, and urban girls tasks that would help their father in his occupation. Boys were taught tasks appropriate to their station in life, and were more likely than girls to be taught to read or to receive at least a little formal schooling; the depictions of the ages of man that show both sexes often portray the female in the second age spinning, and the male reading. Just as they disputed whether the early modern period had a clear concept of childhood, historians have also disagreed about whether there was a notion of adolescence. Once again, the trend has been to fi nd more and more evidence that there was, although this varied across space and time. Some authors divided adolescentia from juventus (youth), seeing the former – for boys – as a time of raging lusts and wild behavior and the latter as a subsequent stage, when young men learned to control their actions and carried out their fi nal preparations for adult responsibilities, including marriage. Physical maturing occurred in stages for men, as did maturing in legal and political terms; boys who were fourteen could generally marry, make contracts of apprenticeship for themselves, or enter universities, though they could not inherit land, unless they were a territorial ruler. A number of different rituals served to mark these passages into masculine adulthood. Urban boys who had been apprentices and journeymen in a craft guild might get permission to make a masterpiece and become a master, with a ceremony marking their entrance into the guild. New students at universities ( beani in Latin) went through initiation rituals and periods of hazing, in which they wore distinctive hats and were required to serve older students. Noble boys might participate in tournaments and chivalric rituals marking their entrance into knighthood; gunpowder and more effective bows were lessening the importance of mounted knights in actual combat, but tournaments continued to be important avenues for young men to gain prestige and maintain their family’s honor and status. At a certain age, rural or urban boys would be asked to join the gangs of young men (termed abbeyes de jeunesse in French) that carried out rituals of shaming, taunting, and harassing those whose actions they disapproved of, such as men who married older women or husbands whose wives were suspected of having extramarital affairs. Gangs of young men frequently roamed the streets of many towns in the evening, fi ghting with one another, threatening young women, and drinking until they passed out; in university towns these groups might be made up of students. Such activities were largely tolerated and viewed as a normal part of achieving manhood, though occasionally city authorities intervened if they became too wild. For girls, physical maturity was marked by the onset of menstruation, termed menarche in modern English and “the fl owers” or similar terms in the sixteenth century. Because of poorer nutrition levels, menarche probably occurred on average somewhat later than it does today. Menstruation carried a great many religious and popular taboos, for though all bodily fl uids were seen as related, menstrual blood was still generally viewed as somehow different and dangerous. Hebrew Scripture held that menstruation made a woman ritually impure, so that everything she touched was unclean and her presence was to be avoided by all. By the early modern period in Jewish communities, this taboo was limited to sexual relations and a few other contacts between wife and husband for the seven days of her period and seven days afterwards. At the end of this time, a woman was expected to take a ritual bath ( mikvah ) before beginning sexual relations again. Among the Orthodox Slavs in eastern Europe, menstruating women could not enter churches or take communion. Western Christian churches were somewhat milder, but canon lawyers and other Catholic and Protestant commentators advised against sexual relations during menstruation. This was originally based strictly on the religious notion that women were unclean during this period, though during the sixteenth century the idea spread that sex during menstruation was medically unwise as it would result in deformed or leprous children. Menstruation was used to symbolize religious practices with which one did not agree, with English Protestants, for example, calling the soul of the pope a “menstruous rag.” According to popular beliefs, menstruating women could by their touch, glance, or mere presence rust iron, turn wine sour, spoil meat, or dull knives, though how effective these ideas were at shaping the actual work in any household is diffi cult to say.