Valuable Assets: Children

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Valuable Assets: Children



Importance of Children. In all religious traditions, the procreation of children was viewed as one of the most important functions of marriage and childless couples were viewed with pity. Childlessness hit women particularly hard, because it was invariably seen as the woman’s fault. This unfortunate condition is one of the reasons that suggestions about how to promote fertility through diet, exercise, potions, and charms were extremely common in midwives’ manuals and advice books for women. Childless men could test their fertility outside of marriage with little public condemnation (though not officially condoned, adultery—if one’s wife was barren—was rarely punished), but childless wives did not have this opportunity.

Pregnancy. Determining whether one was pregnant was not an easy matter, however. The stopping of menstrual periods opened up the possibility, but midwives’ manuals and private medical guides cautioned women against regarding this as a clear sign, because it may also have been the result of other medical conditions. Nausea, breast enlargement, and thickening around the middle also pointed toward pregnancy, but only at quickening—that is, when the mother could feel the child move within her body, which usually happens during the fourth or fifth month—and only then was the mother regarded as verifi-ably pregnant. Until the late eighteenth century on the Continent and the nineteenth century in England, quickening was also viewed as the point at which a child gained a soul, so that charges of abortion could not be brought against a woman who had not yet quickened. This legal definition affected the way women thought about their own pregnancies, for they did not describe a miscarriage

before quickening as the end of a pregnancy or the death of a child, but as the expulsion of blood curds, leathery stuff, or wrong growths. Pregnancy was not a condition affirmed externally and visually, or with modern home pregnancy tests and ultrasound screening, but internally and tactilely, with only the mother able to confirm that quickening had happened.

Advice for Pregnancy. Once a woman suspected or knew she was pregnant, she received a great amount of advice. The first midwives’ manuals in most European languages, published in the sixteenth century, contained advice for prenatal care for the mother as well as the handling of deliveries. These manuals were reprinted for centuries, and new ones were published in the seventeenth century, but their advice for expectant mothers changed little. Much of what they recommended was common sense: pregnant women should eat moderately of nourishing foods, including a good amount of proteins, and avoid foods that make them nauseous or that are highly spiced; they should moderate their drinking and avoid strong liquors; they should get regular exercise but avoid strenuous lifting; and they should wear low-heeled shoes and loosen their lacing or corsets. The advisability of sexual intercourse during pregnancy was debated, as was the practice of letting blood from pregnant women. Many of their suggestions have to do with the mental, rather than strictly physical, well-being of the expectant mother and stem from a strong belief in the power of the maternal imagination. Both learned and uneducated people in Europe believed that what a woman saw or experienced during pregnancy could affect the child. The desire to drink red wine or eat strawberries might lead to children with red birthmarks; being frightened by a hare or longing to eat rabbit caused harelip; and sudden frights might cause a miscarriage or deform the fetus in some way. Birth defects were regularly attributed to bad experiences during pregnancy, or to a woman’s frequent contact with animals.

Nursing. The vast majority of women during this period nursed their own children, often until they were more than two years old and on demand rather than on a set schedule. Women who could not produce their own milk, as well as middle- and upper-class women in many parts of Europe, relied on wet nurses, the very wealthy hiring the nurse to come into their own homes, and the rest sending the child to the home of the wet nurse, often for two or three years. Though by the eighteenth century this practice came to be viewed as a sign of the heartlessness and decadence of wealthy women, it actually stemmed from the fact that nursing was incompatible with many of their familial and social duties. Wealthy women were pressured to produce many heirs, and people seem to have been aware of the contraceptive effects of lactation; they were advised that nursing would ruin their physical attractiveness; and they were taught that sexual intercourse would corrupt their milk and that their first duty was to their husbands.


Advice books for children and young people were common types of literature in the Renaissance and Reformation. The following selection comes from the advice book of Elizabeth Grymeston, written for her son and published in London about 1600.

To her loving son, Bernie Grymeston

My dearest son, there is nothing so strong as the force of love; there is nothing so forcible as the love of an affectionate mother to her natural child; then no mother can either more affectionately show her nature, or more naturally manifest her affection, than in advising her children out of her own experience to eschew evil and incline them to do that which is good... leave thee this portable veni mecum for thy counsellor m which thou maist see the true portraiture of thy mother’s mind, and find something either to resolve thee in thy doubts, or comfort thee in thy distress; hoping that, being my last speeches, they will be kept in the conservance of thy memories which I desire thou will make a register of heavenly meditations...

I have prayed for thee that thou mightest be fortunate in two hours of thy life time: in the hour of thy marriage, and at the hour of thy death. Marry in thine own rank, and seek especially in it thy contentment and preferment: let her neither be so beautiful as that every liking eye shall level at her; nor yet so brown as to bring thee to a loathed bed. Defer not thy marriage till thou comest to be saluted with a God speed you sir, as a man going out of the world after forty; neither yet to the time of God keep you $tr whilst thou art in they best strength after thirty; but marry in the time of you an welcome sir, while thou art coming into the world. For seldom sfaalt thou see a woman out of her own love to pull a rose that is full blown, deeming them always sweetesy at the first opening of the bud . . . Let thy life be formal, that thy death may be fortunate: for he seldom dies weE that liveth ill.

To this purpose as thou hast within thee reason as thy counsellor to persuade or dissuade thee, and thy will as an absolute prince with fiat vel evetetur; with a let it be done or neglected; yet make thy conscience thy cemor morum [censor of behavior] and chief commander in thy little world: let it call reason to account whether she have subjected herself against reason to sensual appetites. Let thy will be censured, whether her desires have been chaste or as a harlot she hath lusted after her own deEghts. Let thy thoughts be examined. If they be good, they are of the spirit (quench not the spirit), if bad, forbid them entrance: for once admitted, they straightways fortify and are expelled with more difficulty than not admitted.

My desire is that thou mightest be seasoned in these precepts in thy youth that the practice of thy age may have a taste of them. And because that is incident to quick spirits to commit rash attempts, as ever the love of a mother may challenge the performance of her demand for a dutiful child, be a bridle to thyself to restrain thee from doing that which indeed thou maist do: that thou maist the better forbear that which in truth thou oughtest not to do; for he seldom commits deadly sins, that makes a conscience of a venial scandal. Thou seest my love hath carried me beyond the list I resolved on, and my aching head and trembling hand have rather a will to offer, than ability to afford, further discourse. Wherefore with as many good wishes to thee, as good will can measure, I abruptly end, desiring God to bless thee with sorrow for thy sins, thankfulness for his benefits, fear of his judgment, love of his mercies, mindfulness of his presence: that living in his fear, thou maist die in his favour, rest in his peace, rise in his power, remain in his glory for ever and ever.

Thine assured loving mother, Elizabeth Grymeston

Source: Elizabeth Grymeston, Mtscelanm. Meditations, Memomtives (London: Melch, Bradwood for Felk Norton, 1604).

Wet Nurses. The decision to hire a wet nurse was often made not by the woman herself but by her husband, who made a contract with the wet nurse’s husband for her services. Wet nurses were chosen with great care; those from rural areas who had borne many healthy children were favored. Psychological and moral qualities were also taken into consideration, for it was thought that an infant gained these attributes through the nurse’s milk; after the Reformation, for example, parents inquired about the religious affiliation of any prospective nurse, for Catholic parents feared the corruption caused by Protestant milk, and vice versa. The wet nurse and her husband had to agree to refrain from sexual relations during the period of the contract, for it was thought that pregnancy tainted a woman’s milk.

Detrimental Effects. Along with the children of the wealthy, wet nurses also cared for the children of the poor; communities hired wet nurses to suckle foundlings and orphans. Many of these poor children died, as did many of the more privileged, some no doubt because of neglect or carelessness, but also because the wet nurses themselves were generally impoverished and took on more children than they had enough milk; in many cases these women had sent their own infant to an even poorer woman in order to take on children to nurse in the first place. Wet nurses often became fond of the children they suckled and were reluctant to return them to their parents, sometimes remaining with the children as servants or companions into adulthood. Some historians have speculated that children in Europe also suffered emotional distress because of the wet-nursing system; frequent changes in wet nurses, the absence of their biological mother, and permanent separation from the wet nurse at weaning could prevent small children from forming good relationships with women. Because infant feelings affect later psychological development, wet nursing has been seen as contributing to negative ideas about women, particularly their fickleness and changeability. The irony of these possible consequences is the fact that husbands made the decision about how a child would be nursed.

Deep Attachments. Being a parent is, of course, an emotional and intellectual experience as well as a physical one, and, though some historians have argued that parents were cold and uncaring, mothers and fathers generally became deeply attached to their children. The deaths or illnesses of their children often led people into depression or even suicidal despair, and those who showed no attachment to their offspring were viewed as mentally disturbed. Parents’ concern over their children became particularly acute during their own illnesses, leading several people to write advice books for their children in case they should die.


Valerie A. Fildes, Breasts, Bottles, and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986).

Fildes, ed., Women as Mothers in Pre-industrial England: Essays in Memory of Dorothy McLaren (London & New York: Routledge, 1990).

Richard C. Trexler, Power and Dependence in Renaissance Florence, volume 1: The Children of Renaissance Florence (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1993).