On my first Sonne
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy ;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age !
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
In most modern societies childbirth and childhood are considered to be joyful parts of family life. It is very easy to forget that people once had cause to view things much differently. In Tudor times childbirth was a hazardous time for mother and child whilst infant mortality was high. Ben Jonson’s well known and touching lament (above) on the death of his son Benjamin who died in 1603 reminds us of the grief that was all too commonly experienced. Shakespeare too lost a son, Hamnet who died aged 11 in 1596. It is hard to imagine that the following verse from the play King John does not contain an insight into Shakespeare’s own feelings.
Childbirth was a dangerous time and contemporary medical science and midwifery was ill equipped to deal with complications. It is well known that Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour died of complications following the birth of Edward VI in 1537. Catherine of Aragon was pregnant on seven occasions, every child but her daughter Mary died either in or shortly after birth.
Because of the risks, children were baptised quickly as it was commonly believed that children who died without christening might be condemned to eternal damnation. There is a suggestion that christening came to be associated with superstitious beliefs. In Keith Thomas’ book Religion and the decline of magic he describes how the idea that children ‘came on better’ once christened in some places survived into the 20th century. The religious character of the midwife was also important because she would have to baptise the baby if there was a danger of it dying before it could be baptised.
In modern times we have mostly come to associate death with elderly people but for our Tudor ancestors it was something that confronted all ages far more commonly. Some estimates suggest that between a third and a half of children did not survive past the age of 5 years old. Life expectancy for most people was around 35 years and a person reaching their 40’s was considered to be aged.
Although Shakespeare and Ben Jonson’s writing serves to give us an idea how people must have felt when facing the prospect of death and disease it is still hard to imagine how people coped. In Keith Thomas’ book he describes how ordinary people developed a fatalistic attitude towards life. Parents were slower to recognise their children as individuals whilst husbands and wives accepted that they might have to marry again should their partner die. Apparently, middle class observers were shocked at the resigned attitude that ordinary people adopted towards their and their families fate. Would Ben Jonson or Shakespeare’s writing about loss and grief would have been different had they lived in less privileged circumstances?
See also free Podcast ‘Mortality & morbidity in early modern Europe” by Assistant Professor Brian Els from University of Portland ( iTunes link)