Death, Emotion and Childhood in Premodern Europe
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Death, Emotion and Childhood in Premodern Europe

Katie Barclay, Kimberley Reynolds, Ciara Rawnsley, Katie Barclay, Kimberley Reynolds, Ciara Rawnsley

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Death, Emotion and Childhood in Premodern Europe

Katie Barclay, Kimberley Reynolds, Ciara Rawnsley, Katie Barclay, Kimberley Reynolds, Ciara Rawnsley

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This book draws on original material and approaches from the developing fields of the history of emotions and childhood studies and brings together scholars from history, literature and cultural studies, to reappraise how the early modern world reacted to the deaths of children. Child death was the great equaliser of the early modern period, affecting people of all ages and conditions. It is well recognised that the deaths of children struck at the heart of early modern families, yet less known is the variety of ways that not only parents, but siblings, communities and even nations, responded to childhood death. The contributors to this volume ask what emotional responses to child death tell us about childhood and the place of children in society. Placing children and their voices at the heart of this investigation, they track how emotional norms, values, and practices shifted across the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries through different religious, legal and national traditions. This collection demonstrates that child death was not just a family matter, but integral to how communities and societies defined themselves. Chapter 5 of this book is available open access under a CC BY 4.0 license at

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© The Author(s) 2016
Katie Barclay, Kimberley Reynolds and Ciara Rawnsley (eds.)Death, Emotion and Childhood in Premodern EuropePalgrave Studies in the History of Childhood10.1057/978-1-137-57199-1_1
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction: Small Graves: Histories of Childhood, Death and Emotion

Katie Barclay1 and Kimberley Reynolds2
ARC Centre for the History of Emotion, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA, Australia
School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne and Wear, UK
Katie Barclay
End Abstract
In 1677 in Perth, Scotland, James Brown, in his capacity as a town officer, searched a brewhouse for an infant, whom it was suspected a local woman, Margaret Black, had given birth to and murdered. In his later testimony to the court at her trial for infanticide, Brown described how he ‘found her child in ane bing of small coals and wrapt in a cloak and he […] caused the pannall wrape the child in a cleaner cloak and […] brought the child to the tolbuith’. 1 His testimony captured an important piece of his evidence, the discovery of a murdered newborn male child hidden in a pile of coal, but also, if briefly, Brown’s emotional response to what he uncovered. Perhaps startling to a modern reader primed to preserve physical evidence for legal proceedings, when Brown found the body, he insisted that the mother, who accompanied him, re-dress the baby, removing the dirty and bloodied cloth he was wrapped in and replacing it with a new cloak. Brown does not explain his actions here and the surviving depositions do not suggest that anybody thought this behaviour was remarkable or his motivations worth recording in the limited space available in a court minute book. It may be that Brown had encouraged the mother to re-dress the child to incriminate her. It was commonly held across much of early modern Europe that a corpse bled when handled by the murderer and this child seemingly performed to custom, the prosecutor explicitly noting that the child’s body bled when she picked it up. 2 Yet, typically, it was enough for a murderer to touch an exposed part of the body for this phenomenon to result. Instead, it appears that Brown’s reaction was driven by his emotional response to finding a dead child and his desire that this infant’s body receive some semblance of respect and care—a care that should have been given by the child’s mother and which Brown attempted to force from her through his demand that she replace the baby’s covering. In not changing the baby’s wrap himself, Brown may have also been distancing himself from accusations of paternity or responsibility that caring for a child might suggest.
While the exact nature of Brown’s emotion cannot be known—did he feel anger, pain, sadness, horror, a combination of these?—his response is redolent of the way late seventeenth-century Scottish culture felt about children and child death. Even illegitimate children who were evidence of their parents’ ‘wickedness’, as the court described it, were entitled to care by their mothers. 3 And however Brown felt on finding the child, it provoked him to demand that care on the baby’s behalf, indicating the importance of ensuring care within this community. Prosecutions for infanticide during the early modern period have been subject to considerable analysis, yet most of this has focused on the mother’s motivations and treatment. 4 The evidence such cases provide for a society’s care for its children has aroused little comment. 5 As the legal proforma that began indictments for infanticide in seventeenth-century Scotland explained, such convictions were necessary to protect ‘childrene’ from ‘a cruell and barbarous murder’. Women were required to call for help during their labour, as without aid ‘a new borne child may be easily stifled or being left exposed in the condition it comes to the world it must quickly perish’. 6 Deaths of ‘innocent infants’ were ‘abhorred & prohibited and punished’ noted the indictment. 7
In Scotland, and possibly much of the rest of Europe where similar legislation operated, the public were expected to feel strongly about infanticide, to ‘abhor’ the occurrence of such crime, and murderers were to be warned not only of its illegal nature, but of the community’s expected collective feelings on this subject. ‘Abhor’ in early modern Scots meant to feel ‘repugnance’ and to ‘shrink back from’, a seemingly visceral emotion of disgust and distancing. 8 A focus on ‘innocent babes’ ignored the social disabilities that faced both mothers and their illegitimate children in many early modern communities and may have done little to improve their social position. 9 Yet, such language is telling for the special status it accorded newborn infants, their perceived vulnerability and the need for society to act together to ensure their survival. Here community emotion was enjoined by the state to give weight to the criminal indictment and to invest the public in the care and survival of young children.
How people in Western Europe have historically felt about child death, particularly the deaths of their own children, has been a topic of lively and ongoing historical debate for some considerable time. Initial claims by scholars following in the tradition that rapidly grew up around the work of Philippe Ariès (1962) suggested that before the eighteenth century, and perhaps even later, parents displayed low levels of emotion on the death of their children. 10 This was explained by the assumption that a high level of emotional investment in children during a period of high child mortality would have been psychologically difficult. Accordingly, people protected themselves through curbing their feelings. In the years after Ariès’ publication, historians increasingly disputed these claims. They reread the wide array of fine art representations of royal and religious children that Ariès used as evidence for this topic, as well as using new sources, including literature, personal letters and diaries and court records to name a few, that displayed the social, economic and emotional investments that parents have had in their children across time. In doing so, they demonstrated both that parents loved their children and that funerary and commemoration practices marking that love were widespread across time and place. 11
Over time, the historiography has become more sophisticated, moving from simple claims that ‘parents loved’ to recognition that displays of emotion are informed by culture. Studies of grief, much more than parental love, have been at the heart of this discussion, as the multiple ways that people have grieved across time and space have been explored, most recently influenced by new trends in the history of emotion. 12 This has been accompanied by a wide literature on portrayals of death in various forms of art and literature, sources that since Ariès have been used to provide useful insights into social practice. 13 In an early modern European context, considerable discussion has been devoted to the impact of the Reformation on funerary and mourning practices and how this was refracted differently across nations. 14 Such studies have highlighted the importance of nationality, region, and change over time, as well as marking differences in how men and women were allowed to express emotion. 15
Given the earlier concern with parental grief, how people have responded to the death of children has been an important theme in certain strands of this literature, with some variation across national contexts. Regions with developed historiographies of family life and childhood, such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain, have sought to explicate commemorations of child death within this context. 16 In other areas, where those historiographies have been slower to develop, interest in child death has been motivated by particular commemorative practices, such as statuary devoted to children or funeral orations designed for them. 17 Accounts of children dying ‘good deaths’, which were often circulated widely, particularly in Reformed Europe, have also been scrutinised. 18 However, it is only recently that children’s own responses to death have become a topic of interest. 19
It may appear that there is little left to be said on the relationship between childhood, death and emotion. However, in the last decade, two major and interconnected theoretical interventions have rejuvenated this topic: childhood studies and methodologies from the history of emotion. Drawing together scholars working at the intersection of these fields, this volume applies new methodologies to re-examine this discussion and to finally move forward a field that has implicitly and indeed often explicitly sat in Ariès’ shadow. 20 Whether parents loved their children is no longer the question. What it means to love opens up a new set of priorities for the field. Focusing on north-west Europe, this collection highlights how rethinking the relationship between childhood, death and emotion through these methodologies turns attention away from families to communities and nations. Children are no longer viewed as the private concern of individuals, but central to how communities defined themselves, negotiated their relationship with the divine and articulated emotional norms and values. The relationship between children and death provides a prism through which the emotional practices of individuals and communities can be explicated, and in turn, understanding the workings of emotion helps to place children in the world.

Histories of Emotion and Childhood

The history of emotions, as a methodological approach, operates on the premise that emotion is a social phenomenon, a product of particular historical moments and cultures. As such, not only how people express feeling, but what they feel, differs over time and space, allowing emotion to be studied and explained. 21 In many respects, much of the early work on grief has provided the foundations for a history of emotion to build on, particularly that which has focused on its cultural dimensions. Yet, much of this early work has operated on a number of assumptions that are now open to question.
Grief, perhaps more than most emotions, is frequently articulated in terms of a ‘natural’ or ‘biological’ outpouring that people manage through cultural forms. Elizabeth Clarke’s otherwise fascinating discussion of seventeenth-century mothers’ writings, published in Avery and Reynolds (eds), Representations of Childhood Death (2000), situates their grief as something they learned to control through religious rhetoric, ‘that voice, which tends to silence the utterance of grief’. 22 Similarly, Ralph Houlbrooke’s (1998) very sensitive rendering of how expressions of grief and grieving practices evolved over a long early modern period, ultimately locates grief as fundamentally ahistorical, allowing him to assess the later sixteenth century as promoting ‘a more compassionate attitude to grief’ than previous eras. 23 Grief, particularly of parents, is also associated closely with love, so that overt outpourings of grief are often uncomplicatedly used as a measure of affection for the deceased. 24 Yet, while most historians would caution against measuring an absence of evidence of grief as an absence of love, the relationship between grief and love has not been explored. Does all loss require love and, if so, what form does such love take? Does it differ between different people?
Historians of emotion emphasise that it is not only how people express grief—how they attempt to direct their emotions and their mourning practices—that is historically specific, but emotion itself. Current, psychoanalytically informed understandings of grief as an overwhelming sense of loss that requires ‘grief work’, as a process of emotion management, overlooks the extent to which grief—the bodily experience of emotion felt during periods of loss—is a product of culture, reflected in the extraordinary range of grieving practices around the worl...

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APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2017). Death, Emotion and Childhood in Premodern Europe ([edition unavailable]). Palgrave Macmillan UK. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2017) 2017. Death, Emotion and Childhood in Premodern Europe. [Edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK.
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[author missing] (2017) Death, Emotion and Childhood in Premodern Europe. [edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Death, Emotion and Childhood in Premodern Europe. [edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2017. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.