- Childhood and Children's Books in Early Modern Europe, 1550–1800
The title of this collection of essays is somewhat misleading. First, although most of the thirteen essays can make claims to add to a broader European perspective on childhood, nine of them deal primarily with British subjects and sources. Second, only three of the essays treat children's literature explicitly. Two authors successfully rehabilitate eighteenth-century texts once dismissed as overly moralistic: The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765) and the Abbé Pluche's Spectacle de la nature (1732–1751). Patricia Crain provides a fascinating look at changing views of literacy and property through her analysis of Goody Two-Shoes, demonstrating that when individuals could no longer rely on property ownership to cement their status in society, they could look to literacy to perform a similar function, even though literacy did not automatically guarantee monetary wealth. Cynthia J. Koepp convincingly argues that Pluche's illustrated encyclopedia for children anticipated the Encyclopédie and promoted bourgeois, Enlightenment thought as well as innovative pedagogical methods. Finally, Jan Fergus's persuasive essay comments on the reading habits of eighteenth-century schoolboys through a bookseller's ledgers. In contrast to scholars who argue that children had to be forced to read didactic literature, Fergus shows that schoolboys living in a state of "licensed war" often made unexpected choices and willingly read books like Goody Two-Shoes because they served as reminders that a rosier future awaited them if they could withstand the trials of childhood. [End Page 183]
The remaining essays provide valuable contributions to the literature on children and childhood. Recently, Nicholas Orme has demonstrated the richness of material on children in the Middle Ages, and the authors in this collection have made similar claims for the early modern period. Through careful readings of texts, the authors show the nuances that a study of children can bring to a wide variety of themes, including knowledge and learning, gender, family, religion, power, agency, print culture, and the Enlightenment. Erica Fudge uses Aristotelian logic to analyze one of the primary characteristics that made an infant human: laughter. Yet children had to be taught to laugh properly, and the writers who offered instruction on this matter provide details on the early modern educational system as well as contemporary ideas about knowledge and learning for both children and adults. Michael Witmore explains further in his essay that the story of the demonic possession of several young English girls can highlight the shifting ideas of knowledge, evidence, and demonstration in the sixteenth century. The fact that those suffering from possession were children was a key reason authorities believed their accounts. The two essays by William McCarthy and Jill Shefrin address knowledge and learning in the Enlightenment period; Shefrin examines the pedagogical theories of a group of English aristocratic mothers and their desires to teach Enlightenment values to their daughters; and McCarthy presents case studies of three different teachers to show the conflict over what learning actually was in the eighteenth century—and who was capable of learning.
Children in Shakespeare's plays illustrate another theme: nature versus nurture. Marianne Novy's analysis of characters who lost their parents at a young age and were subsequently reunited with them as adults exposes contradictory beliefs about the relative importance of heredity and environment. Kristina Straub explores the juxtaposition of servants and children in eighteenth-century Britain—authors of conduct manuals portrayed servants as children so that they would then be subordinate to the family hierarchy. Religion is the central theme in Michael Mascuch's essay about a popular adolescent spiritual minister, Sarah Wight. Mascuch believes that Wight's popularity was the result of the comfort her physical presence brought to the women to whom she ministered. Like them, she was frustrated by her inability to participate in Protestantism's print culture and sought a more tangible avenue for religious belief. Although Mascuch thus argues against those scholars who have claimed that Wight's popularity was the result...