In Shakespeare’s time, middle class boys (and sometimes girls) who survived infancy—by no means a certainty—were enrolled in school by about age six. Education was increasingly important in the early modern period with the rise of social mobility; schooling was seen as a way of emulating the bookish gentry and ultimately bettering one’s moral and financial standing.
It was also a way of getting the kids out of the house, both to keep from spoiling them and to keep them from causing trouble. “If any are sent to school so early,” wrote educator John Brinsley, “they are rather sent to the school from troubling the house at home, and from danger, and shrewd turns, than from any great hope and desire that their friends should learn anything in effect.”
Children in the early modern period were put to work, at least with minor household tasks, as soon as they were big enough to hold a broom or ply a needle. Many were also apprenticed. Even among the highborn, aristocratic children were tasked with learning the good manners that defined their social roles, often by being placed in other wealthy households, a practice called “fostering out.”
Since the majority of people in England at this time made their living through manual labor, most children were apprenticed to craftsmen, farmers, tradesmen, or others who could teach them a marketable skill.
Apprenticeships were such a part of early modern life that the system was overhauled in 1563 as a matter of national policy, making the term a standard seven years and, in 1598, an attempt was made to regulate the welfare of the children, although, as scholar M.J. Tucker notes, there was no “promise that a master would treat his apprentice with justice, kindness, or love.”
In fact, whether they went to school or work, children could seldom avoid the results of the frequently-invoked biblical adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Despite the advice manuals that admonished against physical abuse, Tucker notes that “common usage decreed that parents who love their children will beat them.”
Restraint and control were considered admirable qualities in both adults and children—and corporal punishment was seen as a way to enforce the self-discipline necessary to mold a child into a responsible adult.
One notable exception was Thomas More, who could not stand to hear his children cry; when discipline was required, “My whip was invariably a peacock’s tail. Even this I wielded hesitantly and gently so that sorry welts might not disfigure your tender seats.”
This text is excerpted from an article that first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Folger Magazine.