This chapter draws attention to the important but often overlooked role of portraits as sources for the early modern historian of both the family and religion. It offers a new close reading of the portrait known as Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his Wife (1635) by the artist John Souch. Portraits such as this one, commissioned in the generations after the English Reformation, lie at the intersection of the family, its life cycles and its social and confessional identity. It is argued that this portrait was simultaneously an expression of personal and private grief at multiple family deaths and a public affirmation of familial faith. It was intended both to bring comfort to the living while also inviting its audiences to engage in spiritual reflection and contemplation on their own mortality. While the focus of the chapter is on the portrait itself as a primary source, it is placed in the wider context of Sir Thomas Aston’s life, particularly his national role as a defender of traditional aspects of the Church of England and the part he played as an ardent royalist in the English civil war.
In 1656 Menasseh Ben Israel wrote a petition on behalf of ‘The Hebrews at Present Reziding in this citty of London’ which pleaded for, alongside the freedom to worship in their own houses, a place to bury their dead. The right to be buried according to their own faith, in a suitable environment set aside for the purpose, was central to the informal re-establishment of Jewish congregations in England, allowing the maintenance of communal identity and a strengthening of links to the wider diaspora. This chapter explores how the London Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities established the means to care for their dead and dying in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in turn how the dead, through the use of charitable bequests in their wills, and examples of pious lives lived, continued to care for the community left behind. By making use of institutional records, burial records, wills and gravestone inscriptions, it shows how appropriate management of the death of an individual was important to the religious identity of the collective and, by extension, that the establishment of distinct burial grounds and traditions for a congregation early in its own life cycle set concrete foundations for envisaged future generations.
One life cycle event – the wedding – is central to the structure of many Restoration comedies, so marriage is a theme that is rarely out of sight. Although the comedies have positive things to say about marriage, there is also a darker side. This reflects the unsettled attitudes to marriage in the late Stuart period, when changes in the political, religious and social spheres brought debates about authority and morality in their wake. Anticlericalism runs deep in these comedies and this chapter argues that the portrayals of clerical characters in the plays degrade not only the reputation of the clergy but also the institution of marriage itself. We see this degradation in what the clerics say about marriage, their inaction in the face of attacks on it by other characters, their acceptance of concepts such as adultery, bigamy and polygamy, and their portrayal as highly disreputable figures, some of whom strike at the heart of marriage by indulging in ‘stolen fruit’ with married women. This chapter sees the married folk in the plays entering an institution that is irretrievably tarnished, in part by the attitudes of the very people who will conduct the wedding ceremony.
On 29 August 1582, Richard Stonley, a civil servant in Westminster, noted in his diary that he had attended the christening of his grandson. After listing the guests at the event, he concluded the entry ‘with thankes to god for that Dayes worke’. Stonley’s description of the event as a type of work reveals the interconnected ways in which pre-modern individuals experienced their routine and spiritual lives. By examining Stonley’s everyday experiences, this chapter shows that life-cycle events and religious practices were not separate from, but rather deeply integrated within quotidian working life. Stonley’s diaries are peppered with references to religious and life-cycle events, including childbirth, deaths, burials, baptisms and weddings. The three surviving volumes of Stonley’s diaries date from the 1580s and 1590s, and they provide a detailed account of daily life in London and Essex in the late sixteenth century. This chapter examines the diaries as an important resource for scholars of the late sixteenth century. Drawing on anthropological methods of analysis and interpretation, it demonstrates how analysing archival sources for details of everyday life can enable a more nuanced understanding of how early modern individuals experienced the life-cycle events which took place within their social networks.
In eighteenth-century England an important part of mothering was preparing adolescent daughters for adult life, especially marriage and motherhood. Young women with the right social skills and upbringing would be more likely to make a good match. Mothers were encouraged to write letters to pass on their knowledge and experience to their daughters. These informal, familiar exchanges served a number of purposes, all contributing to the development of an ideal young woman. Formal schooling was increasingly seen as part of the process: here too mothers had a role to play in selecting the school and keeping an eye on progress. Opinion was divided on the kind of schooling appropriate for girls. For devout Catholic families wanting to secure the future of their faith, choices were constrained because of the continuing influence of penal laws against Catholicism. This chapter examines the rich correspondence surviving from the Jerningham family to examine decisions made for Charlotte, aged fourteen, who was sent to a convent school in Paris, and to study a mother–daughter relationship during the two years when they were separated, in order to consider the impact of religion on the adolescence of Charlotte Jerningham.
The introduction lays out the aim of the volume: to explore the intersections between religion and the passage of life in early modern England. The term ‘life cycle’ is interpreted broadly, to include rituals, sacraments and everyday observance; biological transition points such as birth and death; life stages such as childhood or adolescence; and the passage of time and the process of ageing. The interdisciplinary scope of the volume brings together chapters which examine how early modern people conceived of the relationship between faith and lived experience, and how religious practice both shaped and was influenced by the stages and passages of the life cycle in different textual and material forms. The book includes chapters on Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities, to encourage cross-confessional comparison between life stages and rites of passage which were of religious significance to those belonging to all faiths. In sum, it offers broader interpretations of the life cycle, religious practice and confessional identity than appear in existing studies in this area. At the same time, by positioning chapters from historians, art historians, and English literary scholars alongside each other, it consolidates a range of approaches and means of framing these events and practices.
Letters between friends are a rich source for developing our understanding of the ways in which religion was enmeshed with and yet apart from everyday life for people of strong faith. This chapter introduces three pairs of correspondents whose letters collectively span the 1720s to the earliest years of the nineteenth century. In some cases, the friends were from different Protestant denominations. Sharing life-cycle events was one way of reaffirming similarities and overcoming difference in doctrines or the institutions of religion. Religious and everyday topics are not necessarily distinct for these writers, who use what Susan Whyman calls ‘epistolary literacy’ to manage complex materials in order to sustain relationships and to articulate beliefs in ways that complicate Konstantin Dierks’s thesis that epistolary competence was prized primarily as a tool for displaying refinement and facilitating social mobility. Letter-writing was an important channel for the circulation of informal literature that thematised faith and domesticity. This chapter establishes and analyses widespread practices of letter-writing that enabled correspondents to position their faith within everyday life and extraordinary life-cycle events to enable prayer, comfort and community-building.
This chapter analyses attitudes towards maternal breastfeeding and wet-nursing in early modern sermons, domestic guidebooks and prescriptive literature printed between 1591 and 1622. It explores the commonalities across these texts, particularly in their representations of breastfeeding as a physiological, social and spiritual bond between mother and child, and also between child and God. It argues that ‘Puritan’ writers use biblical precedent and the theology of providence in order to characterise maternal breastfeeding as a ‘natural’ and divine practice. Providential language is also evident in their explanations about the formation of breast milk as well as their thinking about women’s capacity to breastfeed. The chapter explores how the Geneva Bible (1560) is crucial for their advocacy of maternal breastfeeding, evidenced in the way these writers draw upon certain verses and annotations to support their case. This is significant because they interpreted these verses as literally referring to breastfeeding and maternal nurture. The alternative, wet-nursing, is depicted as morally, physically and spiritually dangerous to the child through their receiving of ‘unnatural’ milk. Effectively, mothers who use wet-nurses are depicted as denying providence and risking their child’s spiritual development. These representations underscore a dichotomy between the godly breastfeeding mother and the immoral wet-nurse.
Claude Mellan’s engraving of the Holy Face and François Mauriceau’s engraving of the foetus in the uterine membranes might, initially, seem to have little in common beyond their use of the same spiralling engraving technique. However, by taking a closer look at the culture of image use in seventeenth-century Europe, this chapter shows how these two prints were interlinked through a shared engagement in the life-cycle event of pregnancy and childbirth. In the early modern period, the epistemologies of religion and medicine both held strong sway over understandings of generation, pregnancy and childbirth. While historians today tend to treat these different realms of knowledge separately, this chapter employs a close study of two prints, one from each side of the divide, to show how fundamentally interlinked they were. By exploring how each image pointed to the other, how each could inform the viewer’s understanding of the generative body, and how each could become an object of prayer, this chapter explores what wider conclusions we can draw about the medico-religious culture of early modern childbirth, and the role of the printed image in negotiating meaning and providing agency.
Religion and life cycles in early modern England examines intersections between religion and all stages of the life course. It considers rites of passage that shaped an individual’s life, such as birth, death, marriage and childbirth. It investigates everyday lived experiences including attending school and church, going to work, praying, writing letters and singing hymns. It sets examples from different contexts alongside each other and traces how different religious confessions were impacted by the religious and political changes that occurred in the two centuries following the Reformation. These approaches demonstrate the existence of multiple and overlapping understandings of the life cycle in early modern England. The collection is structured around three phases: birth, childhood and youth; adulthood and everyday life; and the dying and the dead. Coexisting with the bodily life cycle were experiences which formed the social life cycle such as schooling, joining a profession, embarking on travel abroad, marriage, parenthood and widowhood. Woven through these occurrences, an individual’s religious life cycle can be seen: the occasions when they were welcomed into a particular faith; when they were tempted to convert; when they joined the ministry or a convent. Early modern individuals often reflected on times they personally acknowledged to have transformed their life or events which instigated their spiritual awakening. They did so creatively in diaries, letters, plays, portraits, diagrams, sermons, poetry and hymns. In this interdisciplinary collection, the complex meanings of life-cycle events for early modern people are shown to be shaped by religious belief and experience.