‘Tudor Children’ Review: Thou Art A Blab, He Said

'Tudor Children' Review: Thou Art A Blab, He Said

© The J Paul Getty Museum

"A son is a male father," wrote Wordsworth, echoing the old notion that the first years of life represented the last. There is a corollary to the idea that adults can understand themselves by seeing themselves as children. This kind of introspection is something modern people do almost reflexively; No biography published today can be considered complete without a few chapters on the subject's childhood. However, what strikes us as a logical way of understanding one another is not always the dominant one, judging by Nicholas Orme's The Tudor Children, a tale of the turbulent English childhood between a medieval king and the Stuarts. In some of the biographies and biographies from this period, according to Mr Orm, there is little reflection on childhood which allows historians to work backwards.

Mr Orme, Emeritus Professor at the University of Exeter, wrote in the case of the Tudor youth, a skilled crumb hunter, that the children's adult records were "equally poor". England 1485-1603 experienced painful cultural changes, the upheavals that children and parents had to go through, as well as the usual problems of old life. But that's how it is for him – well, that's where the breadcrumb hunt begins.

Pak Ormi follows historical records and fills in some of the gaps with the compass between art, music and literature of the time. By deduction and induction he gathered all kinds of plausible information about the lives of Tudor children: how they were born and how they got their names; What did they learn and how did they worship? What do they eat, sing and wear? How adults expect them to behave. Maldivian Tudor parents apparently worried their children would hear swear words from the servants, but as any 16th century child would have told, there is no text. "The closest we come," writes the author, "is looking at the early Tudor texts used by teachers" to teach boys to understand Latin by translating everyday words and phrases. A textbook from the 1500s makes us, as the author puts it, "listen in" to youth statements like "You're a playboy" and "He's a coward at worst."

Mr Orme has found abundant evidence of interactions between Tudor events, although again many historical references are superficial or indirect. Young children appear to have played with rattles, dolls, spinnerets, horses, and stamped metal figures. Children throw, hit and kick tennis balls. They threw knives in a magic game called Mumble-the-Big and threw cherry pits in a game called the Cherry Stone. The game later, writes Mr. Orme, expanded to include activities that, by modern standards, "contain a degree of insensitivity to birds and animals that is difficult to elicit sympathy for today," such as bear baiting, cockfighting, and gore. Amusement is burying the chicken half way in the ground and using it as a target.

By examining aspects of Tudor childhood, Mr. Orme reveals rather than explains the seismic change in English life that occurred during the Tudor dynasty: namely the separation of the Crown from Rome. In 1485 England was a Catholic country with ornate churches, wealthy monks and abbeys, and large church houses. Children memorized their prayers in Latin; Church is not obligatory for them. Schools are suspended on holidays; Dairy products are prohibited during Lent. By 1559 the state had confiscated church property, stripped it of church ornaments, and outlawed Catholic rituals. Children memorize their prayers in English; Religious studies are mandatory; Holidays have been shortened. The post is less strict.

These changes and others, such as the disappearance of altar boys, certainly affected the lives of Tudor children and youth, but we do not know whether young people understood and responded to the Reformation. Mr Orme notes that the Protestant nobility "preserved the medieval practice of chanting at home and … reciting divine teachings". Children from these homes must participate. Family members who remained Catholic, who were called ascetics, practiced their religion in secret and, if they were wealthy, could send their children to France, Spain, or Italy to study abroad.

Tudor boys and girls were not to eat like the barbarians, or waste their time in idleness. When meeting adults, the young man had to take off his hat, perhaps putting it on with both hands, to "check the code." Children are also required to remain silent while eating (unless spoken to directly), though at this distance we have no way of measuring the distance between a parent's wishes and reality.

Even the size and composition of the family is still a mystery. Wealthier families tended to be older than others because men and women of higher rank married earlier than those of lower class; Wealthier couples are also more likely to outsource the feeding of their newborns to wet nurses, shortening the intervals between births. In 1538 Henry VIII, as head of the New Anglican Church, ordered parish priests to record all births, marriages, and deaths. Mr Orme wrote regretfully: "There are not many documents left today from this very early period, and even those that are newer are often not very well preserved."

There's something inherently disappointing about a book that humbly admits that it couldn't achieve what it set out to achieve, but it's hard to blame Mr. Orme for failing to do so. Tudor children were the first public study of this subject. Crisp and realistic, with so many vivid illustrations (sculpts, portraits, illustrated manuscript pages) that are a joy to look at. During his long career, Mr Orme wrote many books on British history. He does a yeoman here, looking for details of a childhood from when they didn't seem too interested in recording.

Miss Gordon, Magazine Editor, Author of The Magic Hour: The Wonderful Power of Reading Aloud in an Age of Absentmindness.

The Black Tudors: Three Untold Stories

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