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Tudor Children by Nicholas Orme

09 June 2023

Gabriel Byng admires a historian’s creation of a composite picture

A SCHOOLBOY learning Latin in the years after 1500 might have been given some sentences like these to translate: “I am weary of study. Thou stinkest. [. . .] He is the veriest coward that ever pissed.” These exercises are notably different in tone from those imposed on me, and surely more stimulating than mastering “Caecilius is in the garden.” They are also, as Nicholas Orme points out in his new history of childhood in Tudor England, a rare insight into how young people might have spoken to one another, at least in the experience of their adult author.

Orme’s text is full of such absorbing vignettes: a boys’ football match in the 1540s, during which the teams called themselves after “the old religion” and “the new religion”; one man’s childhood memory of standing between his father’s legs at the theatre; and the exigencies of chasing down godparents in an age when babies were expected to be baptised on the day of their birth.

The study of the history of childhood began in the 1960s and 1970s, under the influence of both psychoanalytic theory and a new concern to address the experience of social groups that had been left out of traditional scholarly research. Orme’s own earlier study of medieval childhood (Yale, 2001) is an important example. In recent decades, works on early modern childhood have grown and diversified, bringing with them studies of race, gender, clothing, and demonic possession, to name only a few; but Orme’s is the first — and much overdue — survey of the period. His succinct and readable style and far-reaching scope will make the book an obvious choice for future undergraduate reading lists.

Orme’s approach is synthetic, drawing together evidence from an impressively broad range of sources to build up a vivid composite picture of many of the practices that characterised everyday life for Tudor children at school, home, or church, when playing, learning, or telling stories. His emphasis is thus on consistency rather than difference, although, in his conclusion, he acknowledges both the variety of early modern childhood experiences and the problems of bringing together texts from very different social and geographical worlds or that were written to very different purposes.

His vast array of primary sources is often collated rather than discussed, perhaps inevitably in a book of such ambitious range, but marking out countless avenues for future research.

Dr Gabriel Byng is a Fellow at the University of Vienna. He is the author of Church Building and Society in the Later Middle Ages (CUP, 2017).


Tudor Children
Nicholas Orme
Yale £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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