Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


A Child’s Lot

Forced to marry at age of nine, Funerals of tots held after dark, New babies wrapped as tight as parcels
ONE of the alien notions prevalent in the seventeenth century concerning the bringing up of children was that of wrapping them up very tightly in layer after layer of swaddling material.

Far from being a custom associated only with Biblical times, swaddling persisted until well into the seventeenth century in Scotland and as late as 1167 the Duchess of Hamilton paid 1pound two shillings for a child’s swaddling band.
First swaddling began with the new born baby and involved two wrapping processes. The infant was lifted up and encased in a bag called a ‘bed’ consisting of a large, square band bound round his chest, down to and enclosing his feet then up again. This was fastened tightly round him with strips of cloth called rollers. He was next wrapped in a cover ing called a waistcoat, his arms being bound to his sides by more bands. He could then move only his head.
Hew Chamberlen’s translation of the ‘Traite des Maladies des Femmes Grosses’ contains an interesting set of instructions on how to swaddle a child:
“Let his arms and legs be wrapped in his ‘bed’ and stretched straight and swathed to keep them so, viz his arms along his sides and his legs equally both together with a little of the bed between them so that they may not be galled by rubbing one another: after all this the head must be kept steady and straight with a stay fastened on each side of the blanket, and then wrap the child up in mantles or blankets to keep it warm. He must be thus swaddled to give his little body a straight figure which is most decent and convenient for a man and to accustom him to keep upon the feet for else he would go upon all fours as most other animals do.’

After five or six weeks the outer set of wrappings was removed and the baby’s arms were left free and from the very start the swaddling bands were taken off from time to time during the day. Even so, the psychological as well as the physical effects of swaddling must have been considerable and in the seventeenth century itself the practice provoked a good deal of controversy.
Once swaddling was discarded entirely it was replaced by a long dress. Very often a long, lace-edged apron was worn over the dress and matched the two lace- edged caps worn on the child’s head. Small children appear thus clad in portraits, very often grasping in their hands a silver rattle. The rattle would some times have small bells attached, very often had a whistle at one end, and invariably had a stick of coral at the other. This the baby sucked when he was teething: in 1706 the Countess of Lauderdale purchased from an Edinburgh jewellers ‘a silver gumstick with bells and a piece of fine coral’ which cost her £1 eight shillings.
Rattles such as these occur in European portraits of children from as early as the sixteenth century and they remained unchanged in design until Victorian times.
The baby spent his earliest days in a wooden cradle. If he were the child of an important or a wealthy family the cradle would be carved with elaborate designs. Often cradles were made by a local craftsman and they would remain in a family for several generations. They altered little in design over the years so they could be used for each successive infant without becoming in any way unfashionable.
Also made of wood was another useful piece of nursery equipment, the walking frame or ‘go cart’. This was a three- legged structure on wheels. The baby was placed inside the frame and a leather belt was fastened round his waist. Thus supported, he could practice walking. Walking frames were very popular and they were imported into Scotland from London in considerable quantities.
Boys and girls alike continued to wear the same type of long dress with apron and cap until they were about six. One portrait actually shows a boy of eight in a long skirt but usually about the age of six the son of the family was breeched exchanging the dress or doublet and skirt for a doublet and breeches. At this age too, girls assumed the type of gown worn by their mothers and elder sisters.
Children engaged in a wide variety of sports. Nobleman’s sons went out with falcons from an early age and bowls, golf and archery were also popular. Cock- fighting was another favourite pursuit, particularly with schoolboys; the cocks were set down in the actual playground. Indoors, boys enjoyed cards and chess while small girls learned embroidery, tapestry and painting- Some had a literary turn of mind and composed poetry.
Due to a lack of medical knowledge and sometimes hygiene, there was a high mortality rate among children. Their funerals often took place at night by torchlight to ensure privacy and the guests were restricted to close family and friends. The corpse was simply wrapped in a plain wooden coffin. The father would write out the funeral invitation himself and these were brief and to the point. Sometimes a wake was held before the funeral took place but more often there was simply a gathering after the burial with the male relatives meet ing to have a meal, drink brandy and smoke pipes.
Christian resignation might be the desired response to death but it was not easy. Parents might say that they submitted to God’s will but their grief was very real.
All too often death took away the younger members of a family but the days of childhood were sometimes ended by another event, less final in character but almost as drastic – marriage.
However, the number of child brides was dwindling rapidly as a result of public disapproval and they usually involved I 4-year-olds marrying for significant political or financial reasons. There are examples of girls as young as nine marrying but in cases like that the couple usually parted after the ceremony to go their separate ways until physical maturity came about. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had expressly forbidden the ‘untimous marriage of young and tender persons before they come to age meet for marriage’ and had set the permissible age at fourteen for boys and twelve for girls.
Childhood merged into adult life much earlier in the seventeenth century than it does in the twentieth but there is no need to equate this tendency with a lack of feeling for the young. Our first reaction when looking at a portrait of a seventeenth century child may be one of curiosity, even surprise, and we may feel that surely the still little creature before us existed in a strange, formal world very unlike our own.
In fact, documents of the time testify that, beneath the surface differences of fashion and style, both children and parents experienced the same deep and varied emotions as their counterparts do nowadays.
Adapted with permission, including photographs from ‘Childhood in Seventeenth Century Scotland’ by Rosalind K. Marshall. © Scottish Memories with permission

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