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  • The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580–1720 by Hannah Newton
  • Olivia Weisser
Hannah Newton. The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580–1720. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 247 pp. Ill. $110.00 (978-0-19-965049-1).

A quarter to a third of children in early modern England died before the age of fifteen. In The Sick Child, Hannah Newton recovers the lives of this long-neglected segment of society. The book is elegantly divided into three sections, each offering a different perspective on the illnesses of children. The book opens by examining the views of medical authorities, the middle section analyzes the responses of families, and the book closes by taking the perspective of the children themselves. Newton finds that understandings and treatments of children’s illnesses did not change much from 1580 to 1720. Yet her findings recover the lost voices of sick children and revise long-held assumptions about early modern medical care. Newton shows that age was a key factor that shaped views and treatment of the ailing body. By examining the family’s emotional and spiritual responses to [End Page 285] sick children, she also suggests that parents were more affectionate toward their offspring than historians supposed. Finally, Newton argues that gender had little effect on children’s experiences of illness or their parents’ behaviors. Fathers, as well as mothers, nursed and cared for their children and were equally emotional in response to children’s illnesses and deaths. Likewise, both boys and girls received the same care and responded to illness in similar ways—a pattern that Newton attributes, in part, to the unifying influences of prevailing religious beliefs on narratives of illness.

The book begins by analyzing the medical theories that defined the physiology and treatment of children in early modern England, which Newton terms “children’s physic.” The primary distinction between adults and children was humoral: children were wetter and warmer than their adult counterparts, and therefore more vulnerable to disease. Newton captures this traditional Galenic view, as well as competing chemical theories, though she finds few distinctions between the two intellectual strands. Healers tailored their medicines and treatments to suit children’s physiology and disorders, many of which stemmed from processes that were specific to children, such as teething. In the middle section of the book, the author takes a broad approach to exploring the family’s response to sick children. Newton examines parents’ roles as nurses and providers, including the exhaustion, prayers, sympathy, and grief such roles entailed.

In the final section of the book, Newton focuses on illness through the eyes of children themselves. Here, too, she is careful to recover the broader experience of patienthood, including social visits and religious preparations for death. While some observations in The Sick Child may come as no surprise—for instance, parents grieving for their dying children or healers diluting and sweetening remedies for their tender patients—the final chapter introduces one of the book’s most compelling claims. Newton argues here that illness occupied an ambivalent position in early modern children’s minds. Illness was certainly frightening, painful, and guilt-inducing, as many pious children believed that God sent ill health as a punishment for sin. But the sickbed was also a place where children received comfort, love, and sympathy. Illness enabled children to reprimand their elders and make bold demands, tasting rare moments of power. The author recounts one illustrative story of a child interrupting a minister in the middle of a sermon. Ailing children were certainly frightened of death, but some viewed it as a safe, joyful journey toward heaven, where they could reunite with lost family members.

One of the strengths of this book is the broad array of voices on every page. Yet occasionally the reader can feel lost in the crowd, struggling to differentiate one patient from the next. I longed for more in-depth accounts of the patients’ lives in order to better understand how their words reflected particular backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences. This book’s value to historians of medicine is clear: Newton shows the important ways that age shaped patients’ experiences, and she recovers those experiences among a...


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pp. 285-286
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