The troubles of old teenagers

Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England

April 7, 1995

This lively and enjoyable study draws heavily on more than 70 diaries and autobiographies penned in the early modern period. Most of these sources derive from the 17th century, whose social, economic and religious circumstances and political upheavals stimulated self-analysis and criticism no less than self-assurance. Edward Barlow, Richard Baxter, Simonds d'Ewes, Adam Martindale, and John Shaw are among the texts of this kind that the author uses to good effect. Isolated earlier examples from the 16th century - such as Simon Forman's autobiography - and later ones like John Clare's from the early 19th century are drawn into the discussion. Archival material from the Bristol Record Office has been systematically trawled. More impressionistically, chapbooks and city comedies of the period reinforce the major points.

Though the book's subject is "the experience of growing up" in early modern England and aspects of the "rites of passage" from adolescence to adulthood are considered, Ilana Ben-Amos's approach is not overtly sociological and theory plays little part in defining the author's framework and agenda. Neither is the methodology severely chronological, however, and the author hops - sometimes disconcertingly - between centuries. Debate with other historians - Ari s, Kussmaul, and Stone, for example - is not entirely absent, though clearly it is not a prominent feature of the book's plan and style. Chiefly Ben-Amos goes in for an accumulation of instances; significantly this study is launched and concluded with the minutely recorded specifics of an individual episode.

The case histories are processed and presented in a broadly thematic way. The book begins with images - self images of the young people themselves and those constructed and projected more visibly and influentially by their elders - and then devotes a chapter to the characteristics of pre-adolescence. Chapters follow on rural/urban contrasts. Young women get a chapter to themselves, though the available evidence is hard pressed to provide it. Later sections of the book address the social ties of youth, the concept of "youth culture", and the transitions to adulthood.

Ben-Amos is not convinced that this period witnessed something which could be described specifically as an authentic "youth culture". Even the noisy London apprentices, she argues, functioned principally as a component of the capital's crowds and need to be discussed within that kind of socio-political context rather than any other. It is difficult, too, to make a case which places young people at the forefront of the new religious ideas of the 16th and 17th centuries. Promiscuity, the author concedes, was more conspicuous in the young than spirituality. Ben-Amos is surely right to suggest that "the mobility of youths undermined the potential for strong and durable alliances between young people themselves and it also tended to encourage conduct and habits of mind more closely associated with adults and adult life". Postponement of marriage was one expression of this trend but there were many others. "Adolescents in their teens were expected not only to work hard, but to stand on their own and prepare for a future in which they would have to fend for themselves".

Apprenticeship is by far the most prominent single topic of this book, partly on account of the sheer numbers of those who passed through its systems. Apprentices accounted for about a tenth of mid-16th-century London's population. Though the proportion fell thereafter it is estimated that there were 30,000 metropolitan apprentices at the beginning of the 18th century. The subject is important and interesting for the ways in which its structures reveal the operational and attitudinal links between the generations. Ben-Amos has much to say about the age patterns of apprenticeships, about premiums paid, migration distances, variations in length of term, completion rates and promotion prospects. She looks at relations between masters and mistresses and apprentices and their parents and moves towards an assessment of the utility of apprenticeship as a method of training. The growth in the number of pauper apprenticeships in the late 17th century is noted as is the rise of domestic service apprenticeships for females.

It is the social history of apprenticeship which most interests this author and she is not blind to the harshness of its conditions. But neither does she underplay the extent to which apprentices could maximise their advantages, grow in confidence and seize their chances. Simon Forman, for one, "told his master flat that he had not performed his covenants according to his promise". Ben-Amos's case studies show many apprentices shouldering significant commercial responsibilities well before the end of their term.

From this point of view, as the author concludes, the apprenticeship system exposed a major tension in early modern English society. On the one hand it was an ostensibly patriarchal socio-economic arrangement which upheld the need for deference and submission. On the other hand, apprenticeship was a high road which led young people away from parental homes and acted as a staging post on the way to self reliance and independence. Contemporary apprehensions about the unruliness of apprentices paid unwitting testimony to the ineffectiveness of the system in which they were placed as a means of social control. Generalisations of this kind, however, are only tentatively introduced in Ben-Amos's book. She is more interested in the specific details of Edward Barlow's departure from his native Prestwich in Lancashire in March 1657 and all such other individual case histories which are so painstakingly rehearsed. This book suffers as well as benefits from its author's magpie instincts.

R. C. Richardson is head of history, King Alfred's College of Higher Education, Winchester.

Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England

Author - Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos
ISBN - 0 300 05597 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 335pp

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