Birth and Education - Part 2 of 4
Being historical background for portrayals in camp to the public
By Clive & Lynn Simpson ('ECW Notes & Queries' - Caliver Books/Partizan Press)

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This four part series of articles are for use as knowledge about your living history background. This is especially important for campfollowers as it does concern giving birth and raising children. While the articles will mainly contain information about those who were quite well-off in the period, and therefore able to put information down on paper, it must have been very similar, but not as comfortable, for those of lower social standing (the so called 'lower Orders').

Still, these articles should be a great help when talking to various public about the period in general. Therefore, you may want to save these articles for future reference.

The Early Years

There were four possible attitudes towards the newborn in the seventeenth century:
  1. That the child is born with original sin. That the only hope of holding it in check is by the most ruthless suppression of its will, and by its total subordination to parents, schoolmasters, and others in authority.
  2. That the child is born with a propensity towards neither good nor evil, but that it is a 'clean page', malleable and open to being molded by experience. John Earle observed in 1628 that the "child is the best copy of Adam before he tasted of Eve or the apple...His soul is yet a white paper unscribbled with the observations of the world...he knows no evil."
  3. The character and potentialities of the child are genetically determined at conception. That there is little that subsequent environment and educational efforts can do, except to reinforce good habits and restrain the bad. This was of course, fundamental to astrological theory, according to which both character and fate are largely determined by the position of the planets at the moment of birth. In practice, seventeenth century parents do not seem to have accepted this assumption, despite a general faith in astrology. They continued to attempt to break the will of the child in the hope of remolding its character.
  4. That the child is born good, and is only corrupted by its experience in society; in other words - Utopia.

In England, the earliest evidence of greater attention being paid to infants and children by parents was to record upon tombs children who died in infancy. This began in the late sixteenth century, very often on monuments erected decades later. Infants were represented by tiny images wrapped in swaddling clothes, while youth were children holding skulls. At Tettenhall in Staffordshire, there is an Elizabethan tomb surrounded by images of no fewer than ten dead babies.

There is also evidence that for the first time parents were beginning to recognize that each child, even if it lived for a few hours or days, had its own individuality. During the Middle Ages it had been common practice to give a new born infant the same name as an elder sibling, especially if it was the traditional name for the head of the family. In the seventeenth century this developed into the more frequent custom of substitution - giving new born the same name as one whom recently died. Even this had almost stopped by the late eighteenth century, indicating a recognition that names were highly personal, and could not be readily transferred from child to child.


Indications of a trend towards a more child-orientated society can be found in many different areas. Special clothing, however, does not seem to be one of them.

At birth the baby was swaddled. This goes back to Roman times, but was beginning to die out in the late eighteenth century. Locke says of the practice:

"The child has hardly left the mother's womb, it has hardly begun to move and stretch its limbs when it is deprived of its freedom. It is wrapped swaddling bands, laid down with its head fixed, its legs stretched out and its arms by its sides. It is wound round and round with linen and bandages of all sorts so that it cannot move!"

One of the most significant results of swaddling is that it prevents the mother or wet nurse from cuddling, hugging, and caressing the child. Recent research has shown that swaddled children are indeed more tranquil - sleeping a lot, crying little, with reduced respiratory rates, and there is little evidence of later physical or mental retardation due to the lack of early stimuli. However, in 1769, Doctor Cadogan wrote to a mother on how her child was being treated in her absence by the wet nurse:

"At the least annoyance which arises, he is hung from a nail like a bundle of old clothes and while, without hurrying, the nurse attends to her business, the unfortunate one remains thus crucified. All who have been found in this situation had a purple face, the violently compressed chest not allowing the blood to circulate...the patient was believed to be tranquil because he did not have the strength to cry out."


Although doctors had always advised against, it had long been the custom of upper-class mothers to put their children out to paid wet nurses. There were many reasons for this.

One being that many mothers were unable to produce an adequate supply of milk, either due to exhaustion and sickness after child birth, or because of some congenital defect. For others, breast-feeding was a painful experience, and in any case was seen as a nuisance, interfering with sleep and the normal round of social engagements.

It was a task entirely without social prestige, and many mothers were afraid it would spoil their figures, and therefore their sexual attractiveness. Other tender mothers were prevented by the misplaced authority of the husband. Partly so that the child would be less of a competitor for his wife's attentions, but mainly so that he could have access to her sexual services. According to Galen, who was followed by many seventeenth century doctors, "husbands ought not to sleep with nursing wives since 'Carnal Copulation' troubleth the blood and so in consequence the milk."

The Puritans, however, strongly reinforced the traditional advice of the medical profession, and told mothers to feed their own children. They used the functional argument that nature provided women with breasts to supply milk; the medical argument that mother's milk was best; and the ancient superstitious argument that by absorbing the milk of the wet nurse, babies would also pick up their Lower Class (probably evil) character traits.

It is significant to note that those mothers who fed their own children regarded it as something to boast about, as if it were an unusual occurrence. Benjamin Brand, who died in 1636, boasted that his wife bore him twelve children, "all nursed with her unborrowed milk" - this being inscribed on his tombstone.

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