- The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580–1720 by Hannah Newton
For many people, and even for academically minded people, to read about suffering, ill, and dying children is a painful prospect. Yet Hannah Newton’s The Sick Child in Early Modern England makes an important contribution to a heretofore understudied topic: the experiences of childhood illness in sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century England. It is an informative, thought provoking, and, ultimately, a very engaging book, which expertly explores this admittedly difficult topic.
Newton organizes her work into three parts, each of which provides a different perspective on pediatric illness. The first part offers a medical and scientific view. In early modern Europe, children were thought to be biologically different from adults; according to Galenic medical philosophies, all living creatures possessed the same four humors (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) but in varying proportions. Because children supposedly maintained different levels of these humors than did adults—children were imagined as warm and moist, with higher levels of the blood humor—they required special medical treatment. Using printed medical pamphlets as well as the manuscript case-books of physicians, apothecaries, and barber-surgeons, Newton shows how early modern practitioners worked to understand, and then to treat and cure, their youngest patients.
The second part of the book examines childhood illness from the perspective of families. In this period, child-care was entrusted to many different kinds of people, each of whom occupied a unique role in an individual child’s life: higher-status children were watched by family members as well as by foster parents, servants, and nurses; lower-status children had relatives, employers, and even state workers to care for them. Newton also examines the emotional responses of caregivers to sick children, describing how the care of a sick child was perceived and felt by the adults who were charged with the child’s safe recovery. The third portion of Newton’s book is devoted to the patient’s [End Page 531] perspective and asks how children themselves understood and experienced disease. It is this last section of the book that is the most ambitious and also the most exciting. Here, Newton discusses what it meant to be a child patient and in so doing draws upon fragmentary, but extremely revealing, documents authored, dictated, or influenced by early modern children themselves.
The Sick Child is attentive to many different historiographic traditions. The most significant scholarly contribution made by Newton’s book connects the histories of early modern medicine with those of childhood and youth. Bringing these two fields into dialogue with one another, the author argues that early modern people perceived childhood to be a special, liminal life stage. She decisively overturns older scholarship, which posits that early modern children were viewed ambivalently by their parents, and also convincingly challenges the idea that children were treated medically as adults. Newton works hard to pay attention, when possible, to the poor and lower-status members of English society through use of innovative primary sources such as ballads, cheap-print texts, and legal records from the Old Bailey. And in fact, The Sick Child is about much more than just “the child,” as it reveals fascinating details of the world of home medical care broadly, demonstrating the centrality of domestic health care to early modern experience.
All of these interventions make Newton’s book a necessary and timely text for scholars of many different fields and specialties. A particular strength of the book lies in its attention to intersections of early modern medicine and religion, as Newton explores the spiritual care provided by parents to their sick children. Her study of the ways that parents coached their children on righteous suffering and worked earnestly to prepare them for death is especially illuminating. Newton also questions whether sickness and disease were experienced wholly negatively, positing that illness provided “ambivalent” experiences for both children and parents. While disease often brought intense physical and emotional suffering, it also provided a special time of bonding and...