So, I have assembled the following primer on how to do early modern social history for anyone interested:
- First, we must examine parish marriage and death records. Why them? Because they're the only records we've got! What do we learn from our looking? Why, that everyone always dies! They die young! They die in childbirth! They die from rampant disease! (Cue long section on the prevalence of worms in 16th century England.) And if they escape disease, they die from blows to the head sustained at the ale-house!
- Second, let's do statistics with these records. What do we learn? A large percentage of people die before 40, but if they don't die before 40, they have a pretty good chance of living past 40, although then they too will die!
- Now we are prepared to draw conclusions from this rigorous empirical work, and they are these: Due to all the death surrounding them and their own high chances of dying any day, People of the Past had no emotions. They didn't care if their children died, they barely noticed their spouses' deaths, and indeed, they typically looked forward to them so that they wouldn't have to be stuck with the same tedious person after the children had grown. ("Modern divorce is little more than a functional substitute for death.") They had no friends and trusted no one. The specter of death governed their every decision.
The picture of the early modern European we get from these studies is that he was a consummate actuary, and it’s a wonder that he even bothered to go through the motions of living when he was so likely to drop dead at any moment. There is obviously a certain logic to the argument that being surrounded by death makes you less emotionally concerned with it, both your own death and others' deaths. I think that's something like Aries's position, but it's not quite Stone's. Stone seems to conclude instead that People of the Past were very concerned about their own deaths, and it's this concern that made them so wary of forming intimate and affectionate social ties with others, since all such ties were likely to be severed almost immediately. This suggests a very strong regard for one's preservation, not quite the devil-may-care ease of people really inured to death and living for the moment. So, in this respect, People of the Past sound a lot like People of the Present. And our response to the knowledge of the imminence of our demise (and I don't think that the conquest of intestinal worms since then has really put a huge dent in our fear of death) is not uniform coldness and "psychic numbing" (Stone's term). So why should we assume this of the infamous People of the Past? Certainly we know of many individuals who appeared to have loved their families and had affectionate friendships - Thomas More? More and Erasmus? The Erasmian circle more broadly?
Some of the evidence Stone draws on to demonstrate the supposed barbarism of the 16th and 17th centuries - personal accounts from travelers and church officials visiting French and English country towns - demonstrates that revulsion towards this sort of behavior existed at the same time, in the very people who described it as barbaric. And what about the growth of politeness that has made people who don't feel too aggrieved by their relatives' deaths today quieter about their apathy or even pleasure? It's not nice to express relief or pleasure at someone's death, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to feel it, just as the reverse may have been true in an England not concerned with forms of politeness, where grievers had to suffer quietly. In other words, it may not be human emotion that has changed since the 17th century so much as which emotions become acceptable or desirable to express. The relative proximity or ubiquity of death doesn't control that.
Fundamentally, I'm simply unpersuaded that the psychological consequences of death's imminence have changed since 1660 just because statistical trends in dying have. Loving one's family and friends intensely and not loving them at all are both equally plausible responses to the same constant fear of death that plagued people subject to smallpox and highway brigands, and those subject to bicycle accidents and cancers. The Greco-Roman and the Christian traditions in Europe at this time offered accounts of both kinds of responses as well, and people pondered death as obsessively then as they do now. If both are equally plausible, equally grounded in traditional possibilities, then I don't see how we can decisively conclude for coldness over warmth based simply on death's greater statistical probability. If a calculation of the statistical probability of people's deaths actually determined how involved we got with them, wouldn't we be requesting such calculations more often now than ever, given the improved accuracy of actuarial science since 1660?
Stone often concedes that it's difficult to reconstruct the history of "affect" from the sources available. We know from diaries what a handful of particularly logorrheic individuals felt (and it turns out that those people usually did demonstrate substantial "affect"), but we have little idea of what anyone else felt about such events as the deaths of their spouses and children, the significance of their marriages, and so on. But immediately after admitting that, Stone proceeds to make sweeping and authoritative claims about just how the early moderns did perceive these things. "The Elizabethan village was a place filled with malice and hatred, its only unifying bond being the occasional episode of mass hysteria." Or, my favorite so far:
It is reasonable to assume that for many young men this delay involved considerable sexual denial at a time of optimum male sexual drive, despite the usual non-procreative outlets. If one follows Freudian theory, this could...help to explain the high level of group aggression, which lay behind the extraordinary expansionist violence of western nation states at this time.This is basically how Stone squares his own circle - assuming that all of history is a progress of, in this case, emotional delicacy from nonexistent to highly sensitive (old Rousseauian story wearing big fancy Freudian coat), such that each age is an unpeeling of the calloused outer layers of the human self to reveal the more refined emotions underneath, until we arrive at our present, perfectly-developed humanity, whose fine elements form a beautiful aesthetic harmony under illumination. Only the technological-political conditions of the present have permitted us to properly express our so-long repressed psychology in its full glory.
How else to make sense of all this stuff about how People of the Past all walked about mentally ill because of the parental abuse and violence they'd endured, which contradicts entirely the thesis about the emotional inoculation that pervasive deathy-ness brings about? How could you be suffering from feelings of abandonment and alienation when all this death everywhere supposedly made self-alienation the only means of not suffering?
Anyway, it's a pretty entertaining book when you get past all this annoying Mortality Math, and so I conclude with this fine poem Stone has inserted:
'Come soon, O Death, and Alice take.'
He loudly groan'd and cry'd;
Death came - but made a sad mistake,
For Richard 'twas that died.