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Reviewed by:
  • Children and Youth in Premodern Scotland ed. by Janay Nugent and Elizabeth Ewan
  • Alexandra Shepard
Children and Youth in Premodern Scotland. Edited by Janay Nugent and Elizabeth Ewan (Rochester, N.Y., Boydell Press, 2015) 235 pp. $99.00

This book is a timely contribution to a field currently undergoing a burgeoning resurgence following the relatively dormant period between 1990 and 2010 when responses to the foundational work by Ariès and De Mause during the 1960s and 1970s had dwindled.1 The contributors’ brief is not only to show the possibilities of recovering the experiences of children and youth from a variety of backgrounds within a wide range of sources but also to illustrate how “the lens of age” can “further our understanding of broader historical issues” (3).

The range of sources and methodologies deployed within this single volume is prodigious, demonstrating that efforts to recover the agency of one of the most frustratingly inarticulate groups in the historical record can be richly repaid. The varied worlds of children and young people are glimpsed in royal archives, debt litigation, letters and diaries, archaeological finds, Gaelic song, lyric literature, family portraiture, newspapers, legal reports and inheritance disputes, and marriage negotiations. The contributors—all experts in the social and cultural history of late medieval and early modern Scotland—bring an impressive range of critical skills to these source materials, involving the interpretation of literary, legal, visual, and material archives. Efforts to include observations of children furthest removed from sites of privilege lay behind two of the collection’s highlights—Stuart Campbell’s chapter about the archaeological remains of children’s playthings, either mass-produced at a distance or locally forged for purchase by households with relatively limited resources, and Dolly MacKinnon’s unearthing of thirty-two slave children/youths in premodern Scotland, many of whom occupied a “liminal space that [End Page 230] was neither familial nor free” (124), particularly when they were the biological offspring of their masters. All contributors remain mindful of the variation in childhood experiences on the basis of social status, gender, race and ethnicity, familial circumstances, childhood phase, and regional custom, while also seeking to establish the common denominator between children of diverse origins and those within different settings.

The issue of children’s agency is, appropriately, central to the analysis of most of the chapters. The experiences of royal and aristocratic children revolve around their socialization and acculturation into the dynastic aspirations of their milieu. Nugent’s exploration of the fosterage of young Archie Campbell of Argyll between 1633 and 1639, Heather Fraser’s analysis of the fosterage ties celebrated in Gaelic song, and Heather Parker’s discussion of child betrothals during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries make clear that the children involved were far from mere pawns in their parents’ aspirations; instead, they served actively as “the glue” binding elite families together (48).

Privileged offspring, such as the Hunter Blairs (whose representation is covered insightfully in Nel Whiting’s chapter), and kings in waiting (discussed by Mairi Cowan, and Laura E. Walkling and Cynthia J. Neville) were not the only children who were able to negotiate the heavily freighted expectations pertaining to their class and gender. Cathryn Spence’s chapter about young women informally apprenticed to learn the craft of perling (lace making) exposes a source of economic agency in return for servitude—in contrast to the lyrics idealizing young women as future wives and mothers explored by Sarah M. Dunnigan. The complications and contradictions surrounding the relative opportunities for legitimate and illegitimate children, as represented in inheritance law and inheritance disputes (discussed by Katie Barclay), adds a further complicating factor to the dynamics of parental investment and understandings of “natural affection.”

This volume refreshingly situates children within a wide variety of contexts well beyond the parent–child dyad that has traditionally dominated the history of childhood. It alerts us to the multifaceted dimension of intergenerational relations, involving not just kin but also fictive kin and unrelated allies; to the mobility of premodern children; and to the rewards of recovering traces of childhood from as many sources as possible.

Alexandra Shepard
University of Glasgow


1. See, for example, Philippe Ariès (trans...


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pp. 230-231
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