Professor Stone may be the boldest historian alive. Certainly he seems almost recklessly brave by the timid standards of the profession. He can write large books or short ones, but he cannot write a book about a trivial theme. His first large book, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641, analyzed by dexterous use of social as well as economic history the collapse of the English aristocracy before the Civil War. It is an immense book, crowded with detail; here and there it may be faulted on minor matters, but it has established itself as a classic and its major thesis concerning the “rise of the gentry” is universally accepted.
Stone brought to bear the same qualities of rapid assimilation, analytical skill, and clarity of exposition to the causes of the Civil War in England, to the origins of the Industrial Revolution, to the questions of literacy, and to the history of the universities, in books of great power and vigor. He has also written with authority on medieval sculpture and eighteenth-century architecture. In all of his work one senses an almost feverish desire to master more and more fresh material. So a new major book by Lawrence Stone is always awaited with the most lively anticipation.
During the last decade, a new social history—one undreamed of by Trevelyan—has grown prodigiously: a history of birth, marriage, death, sex; of family relationships; of the role of the aged and the young within communities great and small. A multitude of subjects rarely touched on by historians of previous generations are now cluttered with active young historians. They delve into such arcane matters as homosexuality in Switzerland, breast-feeding in New England, coitus interruptus in Old England, swaddling in France, death not only in Venice but anywhere and everywhere. It is all fresh and exciting, and already the literature is immense.
Furthermore, immense sums are being poured into lavish computerized projects in the hope of settling statistically the problems of family size, age of marriage, the frequency of births, the age at death of children and adults, and the numbers in a household in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century England. For this at least, there is evidence of a kind in bulk. But for the way the members of these families felt about each other or about their own fate, and about their hopes, their aspirations, their satisfactions and frustrations, the evidence is thin, slippery in nature, and scattered here, there, and everywhere in autobiographies, diaries, prayers, confessions, household books, and family correspondence.
Imaginative literature—plays, novels, and poetry—is another source, plentiful in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and a flood in the eighteenth. And finally there are medical treatises, the handbooks of etiquette and advice, sermons, the propagandists of educational theory or of political philosophy. Yet the more voluminous the evidence becomes, the less reliable it is, particularly when it derives from the world of the imagination or the realms of theory and exhortation. Probably family correspondence is one of the surer guides to discovering the nature of family affection, but even here there are grave problems. Letters are usually written for a purpose, and fashion is often more responsible for modes of address than the dictates of the heart. And during most of the period that concerns Professor Stone writing was a difficult art for most men and women.
Professor Stone has read and digested vast quantities of such evidence for the three centuries with which he is concerned, and yet, even so, great quantities of family correspondence and accounts, let alone printed materials, have by the very nature of these sources eluded him. No human being, even if he lived as long as Enos, could ever cover them all. Professor Stone is well aware of this—and equally aware of all the dangers and pitfalls of the source material which he is using (except perhaps not quite as skeptical of some of the demographic statistics as he might be). He stresses in the first pages of his book that he faces formidable methodological problems in the data that he uses. “For one thing, many of the most…intimate habits of thought…do not usually find their way on to paper. One is therefore often obliged to infer hidden attitudes from overt actions, or even from gross statistical trends…a risky procedure.” From time to time Professor Stone reminds his readers of the need for caution, but I expect that many of his colleagues will concentrate on the boldness of his speculations rather than on his plea to take care.
Basically Professor Stone presents two themes: one concerns the nuclear family, which he finds was established by 1500—the family, that is, of mother, father, children, and (if rich enough), servants living in their own household. Newly married couples did not live with their parents; there were, in fact, no extended families in early modern Britain. The evidence for this is overwhelming and acceptable. Families were, however, held together in larger groups by kinship or clientage which became of less and less importance: strong in the sixteenth century, they are weak or have vanished by the eighteenth.
Stone then discusses the demographic structure of the nuclear family: the age of marriage, the number of children, their spacing, their survival rate, the age of death of parents. Here we enter more troubled waters. The evidence for his demographical data are the parish records. These probably ignore large quantities of births—maybe deliberately, since a pauper’s child, or even a poor person’s child, when registered, could claim settlement by birth and therefore be a potential burden on the poor-rate. Also many a poverty-stricken cottager might hesitate to pay the baptismal fees for a sickly child. There is also increasing evidence that a very considerable number of the poor failed to register their weddings. By the end of the seventeenth century it was very expensive for a poor person to be married in church, whereas he or she could get a piece of paper from a hedge-priest for as little as five shillings, or, if they could walk to London, and thousands did, they could get married in the Fleet by a parson in debt for more or less the same fee.
Professor Stone’s figures are, however, probably fairly reliable for the well-to-do: They demonstrate that men and women were married in their late twenties and that births were fewer than one might expect, and were carefully spaced. Hence one can infer widespread coitus interruptus or other forms of nonreproductive sexual activity in marriage. Also bastardy rates were surprisingly low, leading Professor Stone to speculate—I think wrongly—that the huge gap between sexual maturity and marriage was a period of deep sexual frustration for males, leading to quick tempers, social aggression, violence, and apprentice riots. After all, one cannot believe that punk rockers and teddy-boys are overwhelmingly chaste any more than most youth groups of today, yet adolescent violence and mayhem is still rife.
However—to return to Professor Stone’s main argument—the two outstanding facts of the nuclear family in the early modern period were that most marriages which involved property no matter how small were usually arranged marriages based on family and property needs, not on choice by affection. And secondly, these marriages were riddled with death to a degree which we find difficult to imagine. Children died as frequently, in towns certainly more frequently, than they survived. Parents often died before their children married. The number of aged people was comparatively small. The nonaffectionate marriage, the overwhelming authority of the husband, and the constant loss of infants led to a bleak family atmosphere—little affection between spouses, more discipline, beating, and subordination of children than love and tenderness for them.
These arguments of Professor Stone are richly illustrated in a wealth of anecdotal evidence that makes this very long book a pleasure to read. His evidence is drawn from a vast range of source material of every kind. Cold hearts, bleak mothers, formidable fathers, ever-present deaths, a decade or more of sexual frustration, arranged marriage—not much fun, it would seem, being an adolescent in seventeenth-century England, or in New England, where the pattern was largely the same.
Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Professor Stone, as well as many other tillers of his vineyard, discovers a change of attitude within the family. This is his second major theme. Parents, or rather some parents, ceased to beat their children as regularly and as savagely as their own parents had done them; swaddling clothes were given up, allowing the baby to be active; breast-feeding replaced wet-nursing so that motherly love was now directed to the child; more marriages were made on grounds of affection; a new world of family warmth was slowly being born.
The affectionate family became more permissive about sexuality, about self-indulgence, and was an easy target for the romantic conceptions of love. Professor Stone sees a connection—slight, maybe—with this new family attitude and the increasing survival of children after 1750. There was also at this time a greater attempt to keep them alive in all classes but the poorest. The rise in bastardy rates, too, he sees connected with new concepts of love, affection, and permissiveness. However, the permissive age of the late eighteenth century was quickly obliterated in the nineteenth century when the patriarchal family reasserted itself and puritan attitudes toward sexuality were given a new lease of life.
Professor Stone maintains that the “affective individualism” which grew up during the eighteenth century has little to do with the economic revolution in industry or the demographic changes that took place in the late eighteenth century, because it antedated both, even though both may have nurtured its growth. Once more, Professor Stone illustrates his theme of affective individualism with a fascinating display of erudition. Sometimes, as in the discussion of Pepys’s sexual life and of Boswell’s, he goes on too long about what is well known. Indeed, this long section on the case histories of gentlemanly sexual behavior, amusing and fascinating as it is to read, illustrates the difficulties and dangers besetting Professor Stone. Professor Stone uses six diaries or memoirs that exist between 1500 and 1800 which explicitly deal with the sexual activity of those who wrote them. He could have added a few more—William Hickey’s memoirs for example—but even so the complete evidence would have remained slight—a dozen men or so in nearly 300 years! Even the outspoken Lord Hervey who had eight children by his wife but also was an active homosexual is never specific about his activities.*
For the tens of thousands of married or unmarried men, indifferent to self-expression or revelation, we know absolutely nothing. We are totally ignorant of the activities of the illiterate poor who were the bulk of the population. What we do know from the experience of the last few generations is that sexuality is infinitely malleable; that public ideology, whether repressive or permissive, is a poor indication of actuality; that the long, curiously long, period between puberty and marriage does not make for chronic sexual frustration and deprivation, whether copulation is practiced or not.
One of the most dubious arguments of this book, and of most writers on demography, is that puberty at fourteen or fifteen and marriage at twenty-eight or twenty-nine means more than a decade of sexual deprivation. Equally dubious is the attempt made by many to quantify sexual activity from the records of ecclesiastical courts charged with the supervision of morals. One might as well judge the extent of homosexuality in nineteenth- and twentieth-century English boarding schools by the number of people sacked for it. I suspect that villages were more like the public schools described by Dr. Royston—some dominated by snooping prefects bent on routing out the mildest deviation, others rioting in lust, and most betwixt and between, moving in either direction according to the interests and will of a few powerful personalities. Speculate we may, but what we can be sure about is that we shall never now know. Alas, the more intimate problems of social history are far more insoluble than those of political history and, of course, far less important.
This does not mean that the attempt should not be made. Professor Stone’s book presents a coherent picture of a social process that can be easily discerned. There is no doubt that there was a great change in social mood between 1600 and 1800, but whether this was caused primarily by changes in the emotional bonding of families is at the best merely speculative.
I wish Professor Stone had studied children’s literature more closely: far from negligible before 1750, it rapidly proliferated in the late eighteenth century. This literature became from 1780 increasingly moralistic (not that it is very permissive before this date), and its burden was that children must obey their parents and honor them. It preached obedience, industry, honesty, avoidance of luxury and of sin. On the other hand, it stressed the need for compassion—particularly to the poor, to slaves, and to animals. But no one could discern in this torrent of literature, certainly after 1780, the slightest encouragement of permissiveness. Indeed, the ethic was very similar to that of the seventeenth century, even though its goal was different—success in life rather than avoidance of Hell.
Furthermore, I would argue that the change in family attitudes—in attitudes to women, children, marriage, and to romantic love—is much more closely connected with the commercial prosperity of England which began to develop in the last decades of the seventeenth century. The growing wealth and security of the gentry and pseudo gentry after 1700 led them to indulge a passion for things, for earthly delights in ways that were neither available nor possible in the early seventeenth century except for a few very rich families. Affluence can create an atmosphere of relaxation, of self-indulgence, more quickly than any other social process: certainly it influenced the spread of a less terrifying theology and encouraged the pursuit of happiness on earth rather than in Heaven. And love and affection are surely central to material happiness.
As always, Professor Stone raises vast issues, settles them provocatively, and underpins his solutions with a wealth of illustration. Yet his book, by the very nature of his subject, must remain highly personal and in many places highly speculative. But it will be endlessly drawn on and will be endlessly discussed, which I am sure is what Professor Stone would expect.
November 24, 1977
Professor Stone misses a very early reference to the sale of condoms in St. James’s Street in Hervey’s letters—and their use was intended to prevent birth, not disease. Hervey calculates that his friend Fox would need two a week—for use with his wife. ↩