Tudor Children by Nicholas Orme - review by Elizabeth Goldring

Elizabeth Goldring

Pop Goes the Cockerel

Tudor Children

By

Yale University Press 288pp £20
 

This is the first general study of childhood in England in the period between 1485, when Henry VII came to the throne, and 1603, when Elizabeth I died. Nicholas Orme’s preface modestly describes Tudor Children as ‘an introduction to the subject rather than a final definitive history’, but it is difficult to imagine that this erudite and entertaining book will be surpassed anytime soon.

An expert on late medieval and early modern English social and religious history, Orme has an encyclopedic knowledge of the primary sources, coupled with an eye for a memorable anecdote. Manuals on pregnancy and childbirth become, in Orme’s hands, tools for illuminating a range of superstitions of the period, from the belief that ‘a mother being startled by a hare or having a desire to eat hare’ while pregnant would result in her child having a cleft palate (‘harelip’) to the idea that seventh-born sons possessed the power – shared only with the monarch – to cure scrofula (known also as the ‘king’s evil’) with their touch. Household inventories bring to life the fixtures and fittings of aristocratic nurseries, while schoolboy attempts to translate everyday English phrases into Latin enable Orme to eavesdrop on the vernacular of the Tudor playground. ‘Thou stinkest’, ‘I shall kill thee with thine own knife’ and ‘He is the veriest coward that ever pissed’ seem to have been common rejoinders. Visual sources are mined, too: funerary brasses and tomb sculptures for the insights they offer into Tudor parents’ experiences of grief and loss; painted portraits of family groups for what they reveal about the clothing and (ideal) deportment of boys and girls of all ages.

Tudor Children overturns many casual assumptions about life in the period. Child marriage, though a reality for some, was not the experience of most. Orme – who has combed through surviving parish records of baptisms and marriages – calculates that in around 1600 the mean age of marriage in

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