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The Nursery - A Short History

From Bill Bryson's 'At Home':

"In the early 1960s, in a hugely influential book called 'Centuries of Childhood', a French author named Phillipe Aries made a startling claim. He declared that before the sixteenth century, at the very earliest, there was no such thing as childhood. There were small human beings, of course, but nothing in their lives made them meaningfully distinguishable from adults. "The idea of childhood did not exist," he pronounced with a certain finality. It was essentially a Victorian invention."

Barbara Tuchman, in 'A Distant Mirror' adds two years later: "Of all the characteristics in which the medieval age difers from the modern, none is so striking as the comparative absence of interest in children." Investing love in young children was so risky - "so unrewarding" - implying emotion as a pointless waste of energy. However, Bryson explains that these views, which became a standard view among historians explains this was a misreading of human nature. That, "there is no doubt that children died in great numbers and that parents had to adjust their expectations accordingly... The figures usually cited are that one-third of children died in their first year of life and half failed to reach their fifth birthdays." However, it is not to say "that parents were any less devastated by a loss than we would be today", says Bryson.

As told by Shakespeare, from 'King John', written soon after Shakespeare's son Hamnet died at the age of eleven in 1596:

"Grief fills the room up of my empty child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts ,
Stuffs out  his vacant garments with his form."

Bill Bryson's book 'At Home - A Short History of Private Life' came about when Bryson began wondering why, from a choice of hundreds of spices, we have settled on salt and pepper as our condiments of preference – why not salt and cardamom, he thought? Daily life, he realised, is not a matter of 'now’: it is centuries of history, piled up and making itself felt every moment of the day. 'Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.’ Using the floorplan of his own house, a Victorian country rectory, he traces the development of ideas, of discovery, of exploration and innovation, that makes 'home’ what it is today.

A funny and interesting read, Bryson shows how far western society has come.


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