Historians from The University of Western Australia and Frei Universitat in Berlin are undertaking research into childhood centuries ago to better understand the foundations of today's child-rearing.
Winthrop Professor Philippa Maddern said how we best nurture and socialise the next generation was a matter of critical debate. Her project, Living as a child: children's experiences in England c.1400-1750, with Dr Stephanie Tarbin from UWA and Dr Claudia Jarzebowski from Berlin, has attracted an Australian Research Council grant of almost $400,000.
"Modern Australian attitudes to child-rearing were formed in the crucible of pre-modern Europe. Our research will enable us to distinguish universal features of child-rearing from those which change over time," Professor Maddern said.
The team will delve into coroners' and household records, parish registers, chancery petitions, letters, autobiographical writing and even scrawls in the margins of school-books for clues about pre-modern childhood. Most of these texts are hand-written in Latin or middle-English, a language different even in its alphabet from today's English.
"We know astoundingly little about how children actually lived during the period we're studying. For many years there's been an orthodoxy that nuclear families have been the norm for 700 years but increasingly historians are discovering that it's not that simple.
"Children lived in dispersed families. In one in five families, one or both parents had died before the eldest child was 12 years old. Child death rates were also extremely high. Our best calculations suggest that from 1350 to 1550 up to 50 per cent of each cohort of children died, meaning practically every child had experienced a sibling's death. We want to find out how they felt about that, and how they saw their lives as a whole.
"Children were often expected to work from a very young age. In the 17th century, a child of three was sent to herd geese. From the age of six a girl might be sent out to work as a knitter or stocking-maker. Although the legal age of inheritance was 21, boys could be married at 14 and girls at 12.
"We want to know how children felt during this period. Why do they seem to be so resilient? We know that people felt grief very deeply but were they taught to cope with grief? Although children went to work very young it doesn't seem to have had a bad effect on them. They become very competent very early. What can we learn from this?"