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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The ubiquitous deathy-ness of the past

There was a comment thread awhile back on A & J about whether the People of the Past experienced death as a tragedy or were, by virtue of its ubiquity, inured to its psychological effects. The issue re-appeared in Withywindle's post about finishing Anne of Green Gables, which happens this time to coincide with my reading Lawrence Stone's Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, a book which seriously suffers from precisely this kind of reliance on mortality rates to explain practically the entire structure of the early modern psyche. Since this is book number two or three of this sort that I've read (the other being Centuries of Childhood and The Disappearance of Childhood), I'm getting increasingly annoyed by this tic. 

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.

8 comments:

Withywindle said...

Well, this is much more fun than obsessing about elections!

My memory from when I read the Stone book about a decade ago is that the Historical Profession's take is: "It's interestingly wrongheaded, but pathbreaking, and we'd never know where he was wrong in detail or in large if Stone hadn't inspired/irritated a generation of scholars to go and do research to contradict him." So some charity to him was advised, even in his mistakes. I would say that the current take of the field (at least as of a decade ago) is roughly yours.

I have mixed feelings about the love of statistics he exhibits. On the one hand, I do think that it is a bit crippling to rely on them, and you've heard me bray in an anti-quantitative manner over the years. On the other hand, there's been (I think) a shift in interest by historians away from the quantifying and toward the cultural, and a corresponding shift in training, such that what an awful lot of historians could and did do in the 1970s, I'm not sure their successors in the 2010s could do if they wanted to. I have mixed feelings, as I say, but I think I'd like a more vigorous school of quantifying historians around, even if I don't want them to have the last word on the nature of history.

Aries, as I recollect, at some distance, was more that people were on intimate terms with death than that they were inured to death--would that be a fair summary? That struck me as plausible.

"And in the parish of Logan's Run, curiously enough, everyone died precisely at the age of forty."

Miss Self-Important said...

I think Stone is too confused about the nature of his data to be trusted in his statistics if they're based on coding he's done himself. He often seems to think he's giving examples of early modern non-emotion when the actual examples either exemplify or presume emotion. He'll quote a father saying, for example, that he's consoled in the loss of his son by the prospect of his being in Heaven, and conclude that this is an example of paternal cold-heartedness. Well, is it? If the father really didn't give a damn, then why should he seek such consolations? Or he'll begin with the generalization that because women sent their infants off to wet-nurses, there was no opportunity to develop maternal love, but then cite 10 examples of women who grieved the loss of their infants and admit quite nonchalantly that this was common. So, was it common or not? In addition, the very quantity of data that he was working with seems to have dissuaded him from overly careful consideration of any given piece, since when he's drawing on writers I've actually read (Locke), he says sort of outrageous things about what they wrote. Locke apparently thought infants were animals? So ok, marriage age statistics - fine. I'm pretty sure any modern student could perform the low-level mathematical operation required to cull data from church registers and determine the average age of marriage in the parish. What great feat has Stone performed in that department?

I'm annoyed because this question matters a lot for my dissertation - certainly family arrangements are malleable, and to some extent, the psychology of family life must be so as well. But malleable doesn't mean that the whole world was upside down in whatever year one selects as the beginning of one's historical consideration, and conveniently righted itself by the date of one's writing. Europeans did not radically evolve from having no emotions to mawkish sentimentality, nor were they all always mawkishly sentimental but w/o a social outlet for it - both of which Stone argues simultaneously. Stoics and mawkish sentimentalists and everyone in between are always milling about waiting to be activated, so what kind of psychology was being activated and why?

I haven't read Aries's death book yet, but in Centuries of Childhood, his account of the effects of high mortality rates was that pre-17th C. people were more fatalistic about death, including their own deaths, and so lived more dangerously themselves in addition to being indifferent to the deaths of infants. He doesn't suggest there that they had no emotions though, or that all their emotions were channeled into violence and hatred. The nuclear family may not have been the locus of love and affection, but there is no shortage of these in his account. His image of the late medieval open household is pretty convivial, and he suggests that the rise of privacy and autonomy destroyed a free, raucous, and fun-loving world. I think that is a more plausible reading of deathy-ness than Stone's, or at least a more consistent one.

Withywindle said...

I think data wrangling is a bit more difficult to do than all that. At any rate, no matter how easy it might be, I don't think most historians my generation are up to it.

My main historical thought is that by the time you get to early modern England, you have to be really granular about occupational group, religion, decade, etc.

Flavia said...

It's been a very long time since I read Stone, but I share your skepticism. Nearly all the Early Moderns who talk about the death of a child or spouse (in poems, letters, etc.) seems to have been pretty profoundly affected, at least as far as we can read emotions into those references--but as you/Stone note, the ones who speak about it at all may be the hypersensitive ones.

What most profoundly convinced ME that living with the nearness & frequency of death doesn't make one indifferent to it was some random news program I saw on English-language Dutch t.v. several years ago (it was late; I was jet-legged). It was about some epidemic or other in the developing world, and one segment featured a poor Indian family with eight kids, one of whom got sick--and the parents' desperate, unstinting efforts to get him treated. He died anyway, and the parents, interviewed a year or two later, were just inconsolable.

I think of that every time my students suggest that, well, having a lot of kids, and having people around you die all the time, must mean you're inured to the death of any one of them.

That could be true. . . but why should it be?

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: Mebbe. I'm not that convinced. Political science is all data wrangling, and it doesn't give me much greater confidence that anyone knows anything. Stone does try to account for different classes and the rural/urban divide separately, but he concedes that he's short of data on the lower classes.

Flavia: So doesn't the prevalence of hypersensitive writers and relatively silent presumed insensates give you the impression that early modern England was just as mixed a place as modern England or America in terms of experience of "affect"?

Flavia said...

I lean toward thinking that the people of the past are much like the people of the present, yes (not in terms of their worldviews and social structures and that sort of thing--but in their basic emotions and affective responses).

But I suppose I wouldn't phrase it quite as you do, as I don't actually presume that the silent ones are less sensitive--just less articulate, or less inclined toward outward expressions of grief. Sure, there are cold and callous people in all ages. But I generally think that most people are more, rather than less, emotionally sensitive, though their expressions/suppressions of that sensitivity vary widely.

(As the above suggest, I have no real basis for this belief--other than my perhaps totally idiosyncratic experience/observation of the world and my interpretation of Early Modern texts. But I believe my beliefs all the same!)

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, the insensates can only be presumed, not confirmed, by their silence.

But I guess I do lean further in thinking that long-term emotional trauma can be minimized by certain sorts of widespread social pressures and assumptions, but that we are less malleable in our immediate reactions of grief or sadness.

For example, one ubiquitous deathyness claim I think I could be convinced by is that most people did not regard the deaths of infants younger than a year or in utero as anywhere near the kind of tragedy that we now take them to be. But I wonder if that's not because these children died too easily to matter, but if it's not for much the same reason that there are now many people who easily say that a fetus is not a person - because it's actually quite difficult to determine when being a person begins? If that's the difficulty, it's not that implausible that people may have dithered about whether a two-week old infant was a person in any important sense in the same way we're not unanimous about whether a second trimester fetus is one. By contrast, we now have a much more expansive conception of the person infused with ideas about equality, and view even a miscarriage as a kind of permanent loss worth considering in someone's emotional biography. That seems to me like a shift in what justifies long-term trauma that comes about from a change in mores and doesn't rely on changes or evolution in emotions or affective response.

Stone thinks precisely the opposite though - that all these children were deeply traumatized in the long term by their upbringings, but somehow never noticed or manifested the slightest outward or self-acknowledged sign of dissatisfaction with them. I guess this view makes more sense if you believe in sublimation and the possibility that all politics is just a collective expression of many individual psychic repressions.

Anonymous said...

The scholarship has kinda moved on from there. You might look at the social history chapters of the Handbook on European History, 1400-1600, ed. Brady et al., for the updated mid-1990s views on this question. Also a lot of the literature on funeral sermons from early modern Germany takes on this question with interesting results.