Life Cyles in England 1560-1720: Cradle to Grave.
Mary Abbott has compiled a fascinating grab-bag of information about living and dying in Elizabethan and Stuart England. She introduces a variety of people, mostly of the middling and better sort, and traces their experience "from the cradle to the grave." We meet godly mothers as well as women hanged for infanticide, young people who played with gunpowder as well as servants who knew their duty, and households which upheld the community as well as those that troubled it by carousing and swearing. The book is organized around "the human career" with short but lively sections on conception, birth, infancy, childhood, youth, love, marriage, householding, aging and death.
The author has a good ear for quotations and a good eye for the arresting vignette. She has based her book on printed sources and provides generous extracts from edited personal papers, diaries, autobiographies, and wills. The second half of the book comprises lengthier extracts from contemporary handbooks, treatises and tracts, followed by plates of portraits, engravings, and photographs. This is not a report from the archives but rather a compendium assembled in the rare book room at Cambridge University Library. Life Cycles makes no argument, promotes no thesis, and is shy of historiographical debate, but skillful students may use this medley of information to sharpen their understanding of mainstream history or of early modern literature. Though written for students in Britain, who are encouraged to supplement their reading by taking to "the heritage trail," this book is readily adaptable for use in America, where ancient churches and Elizabethan monuments are found less readily to hand. Suggestions for further reading that follow each chapter include the most important recent studies in social and cultural history.
Most of the material that Abbot presents is normative, prescriptive, commonplace, or routine. There is very little here to suggest that any of the life-cycle experiences or rites of passage were sites of conflict or controversy. England between 1560 and 1720 was wracked by religious disagreement, civil war and revolution, yet Mary Abbott's people seem to have been immune from its troubles. This is not the place to learn about the contested meaning and conduct of baptism, controversies about the churching of women, ambiguities in the making of marriage, or post-Reformation arguments about the bodies and souls of the dead.
DAVID CRESSY California State University, Long Beach
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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