Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?

I’ve changed my blog’s URL so wanted to reblog one of my more popular posts for anyone looking for it. Thanks for reading!

Deviant Maternity

What is Culture?

If the past is to be understood as an enormous landscape that historians are charged with the task of exploring, then cultural historians are the academics gazing at every vista and examining every pebble asking the question, ‘but what does it mean?’

Influenced by anthropology in the 1970s, and building upon the new directions taken by social history in the 1960s, cultural history gained increasing momentum until reaching virtual domination as one of the leading methods of historical inquiry in the present day. This expansion has now reached a point of crisis where practitioners and critics alike argue that the field is so expansive as to encompass everything, and therefore mean nothing.

With this growth has come extensive theoretical debate about what constitutes ‘culture’ and whether it is even possible for historians to understand what something meant to individuals in the past. In the midst of such a crisis of…

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Tragedy in the Archives

A recent BBC news article made me think it high time to revive my blog, which has remained inactive since last summer due in part to me taking up a Wellcome Trust-funded doctoral post in the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter last September, which has kept me rather busy.

The story in question highlights the brutal, heartbreaking reality of infant and child mortality in Early Modern England as expressed in church graffiti from the sixteenth century when the south of England was ravaged by plague.

Although the period I’m looking at is two centuries later a similar tragic reality is just as apparent. In my research I’m looking at illegitimacy in Wales during the long eighteenth century. One of the many things I’m interested in is infant and maternal mortality and how it may have been influenced by factors such as illegitimacy and the different types of conjugal unions which may have led to the birth of an illegitimate child. For more on the different types of unions please see my 2013 article in Welsh History Review.

As an academic historian my job is to remain objective and professional, but while analysing parish burial records from Denbighshire, Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire (the latter two are both in modern day Powys) it was hard not to be moved by what must have been pretty devastating circumstances for some families.

For example, in the parish of Marchwiel in April 1699 a sixteen month old child named Elizabeth Clark was buried. Also buried that month were her brothers Frances, Jacob and Peter. Jacob and Peter were buried on the same day. The cause of death is not given, but a common contagious disease, or a water-borne illness such as dysentery, or the effects of undercooked meat or even poor harvests,* which all had a far worse prognosis for the very young and very old could have been responsible, but there is no way to be certain. The Clark children were the only burial entries for the month of April that year, and there were no more burials in 1699 than in the preceding years therefore an outbreak of an epidemic such as small pox is unlikely.

The fate of twins in particular appears to have been quite bleak. Every set of twins born in the parish of Glascwn, Radnorshire between 1680 and 1740 experienced the death of one if not both children within days or weeks of birth, such as the twin sons of David Bowen baptised on 15 October, 1681 and buried on 25 and 31 October, or James and Catherine the twin children of John and Catherine Gwyn baptised on 29 June, 1710 and buried on 15 and 16 July respectively. Illegitimate twins also fared as badly, such as Elizabeth and Jane, the twin daughters born to Jane Probert baptised on 2 August, 1733 and buried on 19 and 23 August respectively.

Baptism and burial records for Elizabeth and Jane Probert, illegitimate twin daughters of Jane Probert, August 1733.

Baptism and burial records for Elizabeth and Jane Probert, illegitimate twin daughters of Jane Probert (Glascwm, August 1733)

For other families their tragedies played out over a period of months or years rather than days and weeks. In Llanfihangel Nant Melan, Radnorshire on 3 May, 1761 Peter and Mary Thomas baptised their twin children Peter and Susannah. Five days later Peter was buried, and five days after that Susannah was buried. The couple had another child who was baptised on 27 November, 1762; he was buried the next day.

Also in Glascwn, in February 1705 Thomas Matthews and his wife Johan buried their three week old son James, and in September the following year they buried their five month old son Henry. In the same parish between 1699 and 1720 Thomas Parry and Elizabeth Lloyd, who were not married but were likely in a stable conjugal relationship, had six illegitimate children, three of whom died within three months of birth.

Less explicitly, the parish records of Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant, on the boundary between Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire, uniquely lists the cause of death for several of those interred in the parish grave yard in the latter half of the eighteenth century. This record provides rich evidence of understandings of disease and death at that time, and perhaps the most telling indication for the purposes here is the frequent absence of a cause of death for children, particularly under the age of one. Infant mortality for children in their first year of life was so common that it frequently required no medical explanation.

Perhaps most poignant is the case of Roger Tonman, a local gentleman, and his wife Theodosia.  In May 1708 the couple baptised their infant daughter, who they named Theodosia. She was buried less than one month later. In March 1711 they again had a daughter who they also christened Theodosia. She too did not live to see her first birthday, having died in November of that year aged only eight months. Finally, in December 1713 Roger and Theodosia had a third daughter who they named Theodosia and she does appear to have survived the precarious first year of life and reach adulthood, however her mother and namesake was not so lucky, as she succumbed to the physical perils of childbirth three days after giving birth, most likely from puerperal fever.

This final example is evidence that risks of childbirth and infancy were not the reserve of the lower orders alone. The risks associated with pregnancy, labour and the precarious period immediately following birth had the potential to be incredibly dangerous for both mother and child, and the first months and years of life carried almost as much risk for young children. In a modern setting with very low rates of infant mortality and ready access to pre and postnatal care for mothers, neonatal care for infants, early diagnostic techniques, antibiotics, specialists doctors, trained midwifes and so on it is difficult to imaging just how tragic family life could have been for some.

Although most historians now reject the theory that parents in the past did not form close bonds with their children due to high infant mortality rates these examples, and the countless others that exist in parish records and personal correspondences do raise interesting questions about how the imminent threat or actual experience of loss in childbirth and infancy must have shaped the emotional worlds of early modern families.

Further Reading:

Mary J. Dobson, Contours of Death and Disease in Early Modern England

Colin Heywood, A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times

Hannah Newton, The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720

Alun Withey, Physick and the Family (*see p. 22)