Childhood, Memory and Autobiography in Holland: From the Golden Age to Romanticism.
Did our early modern ancestors have a different emotional attitude towards children than we do? For years this question has been at the center of a debate about the (absence of) emotional ties in the early modern family. Perhaps in the knowledge that there are no simple answers, Rudolf Dekker at first explicitly refuses to enter the debate (p.4). But for a historian who uses diaries and autobiographies as main sources to study early modern childhood, there is no way out: time and again, the question pops up in Dekker's book like an annoying insect that refuses to go away.
The book starts with two introductory chapters, one on the history of childhood and one on the development of autobiographical writing in what Dutch historians have come to call, 'egodocuments'. They are followed by six chapters, each describing an exemplary diary or autobiography selected from Dutch archives between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The examples are well chosen: we are introduced to the thoughts and personalities of a courtier, an artisan, a farmer, a boy, an adolescent and an entrepreneur. Then follow six thematic chapters focussing on the attitudes (found in these and many other sources from the period) toward, respectively, children's play, punishing, wet-nursing and mothering, independence, childhood memories, and the death of children. Unfortunately, there is no conclusion that brings the different lines together.
Officially the author's ambition is to describe "how ideals and the practice of bringing up children have changed, and how these changes were related to changes in the practice of autobiographical writing" (p.11). This, however, is not very well phrased. What Dekker actually does, is describe the shifts he finds in private texts and explain them by linking them with two separate developments: first, the changing ideas about children and child-rearing with a major turning point in the 18th century, and secondly, the changing focus of the autobiographical genre in general that initially merely registered important events but later also recorded thoughts, feelings, and 'trivial' experiences. It is only in the penultimate chapter that Dekker directly connects both developments and reveals an unexpected link: after 1800 a new and more positive concept of childhood stimulated attempts to remember this early period of life and affected the working of human memory itself. It eventually led to the birth of a new autob iographical genre, that of childhood memories.
Dekker knows how to do historical research: he is familiar with most of the literature, masters the sources, is conscious of the difference between ideals and practices, and always takes the influence of social differences into account. This results in a nuanced account of what it was to be a child before the 18th century: too much playing was considered potentially harmful, bogeymen were commonly used to warn children not to go too far, corporal punishments were widespread practice, one was sent to work or boarding school at an early age, and fathers always had to be obeyed. Nevertheless, most children did have simple toys to play with and parents took pleasure in their company and followed their development with interest. Funerary and condolence poems furthermore reveal the feelings of grief about the death of a child that are still absent in the diaries of the time. In addition, Dekker argues convincingly that the hiring of wet-nurses had little do with indifference but was motivated by the wish to take go od care of the child.
In the course of the 18th century new views were to be found in the pedagogical literature and new practices were documented in diaries and autobiographies from about 1800 onwards. Bogeymen, rods, and wet-nurses lost ground, parents kept children at home for a longer period, paternal authority gradually weakened and sons began to claim more freedom in the choice of their career.
Unfortunately, with the exception of some scattered (though interesting) remarks, the perspective of mothers and daughters is practically absent in the book. The author, who previously published on the field of women's history, ascribes this to the silence of the sources. This definitely is a tremendous problem. But the gender bias of the book cannot entirely be blaimed to the sources. It is also a matter of selection. Thus the suggestion that women rarely wrote egodocuments (p.14) is not correct. Women did write letters, and letters do belong to the genre of egodocuments, defined as all those "texts in which an author writes about his or her own acts, thoughts and feelings" (p.12). Letters were, however, for pragmatic reasons excluded from the national inventory project that started in the early eighties and set the foundation of Dekker's research, a fact he fails to mention. The choice to restrict the selection to diaries and autobiographies should have been taken into account as a factor that affected the gender balance of the source material. In a similar way, the selection of the subthemes has inadvertently resulted in an unbalanced approach. If the author had decided to study not only the choice of a career but also the choice of a marriage partner as an entry to independence, one could have learned more about what independence meant for daughters.
Except for the insight that remembering one's childhood was considerably easier in the nineteenth than in the seventeenth century, Dekker's findings in general do not strike me as new. The text is informative and sometimes moving when passages are quoted from diaries, but it does not hold many exciting or theoretically innovating views. Although the author incidentally refers to anthropological and other models of interpretation, his approach remains predominantly descriptive. In this respect reading Childhood, Memory and Autobiography might very well end in a disappointment for expert colleagues. However, for those who are just beginning to explore the subject, the book can be recommended as a nice example of the state of the art.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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