- Through the Keyhole: Dutch Child-Rearing Practices in the 17th and 18th Century
This is a book that begins with lofty ambitions but ultimately disappoints. It raises a number of large and important questions about the history of childhood in early-modern Europe. It also undertakes a line of inquiry that well complements much of the local-elite history that has been flourishing in the Netherlands for more than a decade. Yet, it is so plagued by the problem of poor writing (and presumably the problem of poor editing), coupled with a conventional use of source materials, that its potential impact in this field is largely muted.
Roberts situates his study of early-modern Dutch child-rearing practices among the urban patriciate in the context of the ongoing debate about the treatment of children in the premodern past spawned by the publication of Philipe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood in 1960 (English trans. New York, 1962), and fueled by the later work of Stone, Shorter, Macfarlane, and Pollock, to name just a few on both sides of the issue. 1 He begins his study by adopting Dekker’s metaphor of the “black legend” and the “white legend.” 2 The former hypothesizes a sharp discontinuity in the nature of childhood with the advent of modern, industrial society: Prior to the advances in medical care in particular, [End Page 332] which brought down (to us) unthinkably high infant and child mortality rates, parents did not have affective and nurturing relationships with their offspring. The white legend, however, stresses the continuity of childhood experience: Premodern parents were as just as capable of loving and nurturing their children as are modern parents.
Roberts’ research agenda is to test the validity of these legends by examining the personal papers of several generations of three elite Dutch families—the Huijdecopers of Amsterdam, the De la Courts of Leiden, and the Van der Muelens of Utrecht—for evidence of the “physical, cognitive, affective, and moral child-rearing practices” that prevailed in them (14). He reaches his conclusion—as he puts it, “white with a tint of gray” (187)—in part because of the concern for children’s health and education that he found in the family papers at his disposal, but more important, because of the scant evidence of change in child-rearing practices from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. It is not clear, however, that even if Ariès et al. are correct, we should expect to find the discontinuity hypothesized for these two centuries in the Dutch Republic, since significant improvements in child health did not materialize there until the nineteenth century. The Netherlands was industrialized much later than Britain, or even France, presumably delaying accompanying social changes as well.
Unfortunately, any evidence of affective and nurturing relationships between these elite parents and their children that Roberts discovered in the correspondence of his families is overshadowed by his almost unreadable prose. One example will have to suffice, but similar sentences can be found on virtually every page. In his discussion of smallpox inoculation, he writes, “In England, inoculation which had been introduced in 1718 yet was received with evasiveness primarily by the church which in 1760 was still conceived to be evil and artificial” (26). Though in this case, his meaning may be decipherable, on numerous other occasions, it is not. Even more disconcerting is that such uncertainties show up in the translations of his source material. For example, he quotes one letter of fatherly advice to a son, regarding the anticipated maternal grief following the death of an infant granddaughter, “You’ll have plenty of opportunity to condone her with the pain she has suffered” (149).Without the benefit of the Dutch original, the case remains uncertain whether “console,” rather than “condone,” is the appropriate verb. The frequency of problems in the text casts a shadow over the reliability of the author’s conclusions and makes for disjointed reading. Thus, despite the interesting subject at hand, and the potential usefulness...