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Reviewed by:
  • Childhood and Children’s Books in Early Modern Europe, 1550–1800
  • Ruth Carver Capasso (bio)
Childhood and Children’s Books in Early Modern Europe, 1550–1800. Eds. Andrea Immel and Michael Witmore. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.

The Routledge series Children's Literature and Culture is, in the words of series editor Jack Zipes, "particularly concerned with transformations in children's culture and how they have affected the representation and socialization of children" (vii). The series aims to encourage and publish innovative, interdisciplinary research. This collection of essays on the culture of children in early modern Europe fulfills that purpose admirably.

In their introduction, editors Andrea Immel and Michael Witmore present a thoughtful overview of current cultural studies, beginning with the fundamental premise of Philippe [End Page 387] Ariès that childhood is constructed by culture and that understanding the roles and representations of children in a given period can lead to an understanding of the broader culture (L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime, 1960). The essays collected all participate in the scholarly investigation of this premise, offering nuanced studies of the early modern child and connecting their specific subjects to wider societal or cultural issues. Underlying the various approaches is a common understanding of the child as "amphibious being" in the words of Immel and Witmore (5), a liminal figure whose ambiguous status can offer insights into the way a society defines itself.

In "Learning to Laugh," Erica Fudge draws on classical and early modern philosophy to answer the fundamental question, "What makes a child human?" Laughter, which implies self-awareness and discrimination, was, according to Fudge, a crucial factor in distinguishing the child from unreflecting animals and thus an essential part of education.

Michael Witmore's "'Oh that I had her!'" offers another study in which children at the limits of society help to define the norm. Witmore describes how episodes of sixteenth-century children supposedly suffering physical convulsions and involuntary speech under the influence of witchcraft shaped contemporary definitions of credible testimony—or truth itself. The ability of a child to convey religious truth and to impact her community is analyzed by Michael Mascuch in "The Godly Child's 'Power and Evidence' in the Word." Recounting the ministry of Sarah Wight, Mascuch argues that the spoken word and the "sympathetic gesture" of women and children still held religious authority during the Protestant Reformation, a period frequently described as "a story of reading and writing" (103).

Analyzing a different kind of speech and gesture, Claire M. Busse shows how professional acting troupes featuring children made use of the young actors' novelty to draw audiences, yet they also depicted the children as unstable elements capable of disrupting the author's purpose ("'Pretty Fictions' and 'Little Stories'"). At once the property of the company and an agent in direct contact with the audience, the child actor was perceived as an ambiguous being, and in his performance "the stage's jewel could steal the show" (96). The economic distinction between adult and child also blurred in the case of servants, argues Kristina Straub. In her study, "In the Posture of Children," Straub shows how adult servants in eighteenth-century Britain were equated with children in order to maintain the hierarchical order of master/servant and parent/child and the greater order of household/state.

A number of the chapters treat education and literacy in the early modern period. In "Curiosity, Science and Experiential Learning in the Eighteenth Century," Cynthia J. Koepp argues persuasively for a reconsideration of the work of l'Abbé Pluche, Spectacle de la nature. While critics have commonly dismissed the work as didactic, limited by its theology, and a mere popularization of scientific knowledge, Koepp demonstrates how Pluche made use of progressive [End Page 388] pedagogical principles, championed applied knowledge, and combated prejudices against manual and mechanical labor. William McCarthy's "Performance, Pedagogy, and Politics" argues for a broader understanding of the variety of aims and methods encompassed under the global term of "Enlightenment education." Similarly, Jill Shefrin's "Governesses to their Children" works to correct the assumption that aristocratic mothers were not engaged in the education of their daughters...


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pp. 387-389
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