Revisiting Children’s Literature, Childhood Death, and the Emotions 1500-1800


On December 5-6, 2013, a symposium focusing on the depiction of childhood death in history and in literature took place at the University of Western Australia. Over the course of these two days, several fascinating papers were presented, all of which provided the basis for a lot of intensive discussion and debates about how child-death was conceptualised and coped with in early modern Europe. Furthermore, in an exciting first for the Centre for Human Emotions, two papers were presented via video-link from Newcastle University during the second evening.

The symposium opened with a fascinating paper by Annemarieke Willemsen, from the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, who provided a wide-ranging multidisciplinary overview of how childhood and child-deaths were dealt with from ancient Greece to the Victorian period. Her talk provided an invaluable introduction to the topic of childhood and premature mortality, which was then built on by later papers. The primary evidence used throughout the paper was the archaeological record, which complemented perfectly the literature that was the basis of most discussions. Most importantly, it provided a reminder to everybody of the inherently disturbing physical reality of child-death. This provided the perfect complement to the primary focus of the symposium, literature written for and about children, the experience of childhood, and child mortality. A wide range of high quality papers were presented over the course of the two days.

Another paper which provided the basis of a lot of discussion was given by Kim Reynolds, from Newcastle University, who provided an intriguing introduction to an entire genre of children’s stories, about how to experience a ‘good death’. This genre was pioneered by James Janeway (whose name came up several times over the course of the symposium) in a collection entitled A Token for Children (1671-72), and became so popular that it was reprinted and expanded over the course of more than two centuries. These stories were written as eyewitness accounts of the drama surrounding the deaths of children, expounding on the idea that nobody was too young to be called to heaven and saved. There were even board games such as The Mansion of Bliss that emphasised this lesson, where the winner was the person who lived the shortest and most virtuous life. These ideas were later taken further by Asami Akiyama, from the University of Yamanashi in Japan, who examined in detail the conventions in these stories of child-death; specifically, how virtue was constructed and disseminated to a young audience.

Not only was there a range of fascinating papers, but we were also treated to a series of short readings of early modern poems written by parents about the deaths of their children, given by Bob White and Ciara Rawnsley. Although it cannot be forgotten that poems are constructed texts, and as such may not necessarily reflect accurately an immediate emotional reality, it was still striking to be able to listen to these texts where there was a clear struggle between grief and religious comfort.

It was interesting to see throughout the symposium, how each paper added some new insight into the multifaceted topic of childhood and child-death in the early modern period. Over the course of two days, discussions ranged from identifying trends in literary genres, to learning about the experiences of a single family, the Doddridges of Northampton, in a paper presented by Katie Barclay. For such an immense theme, the interplay of ideas was surprisingly focused, and this is bound to make the forthcoming publication of proceedings from this symposium a success. Certainly, by the end of the two days, every single participant emerged with a far greater awareness of early modern childhood.

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