BOOK REVIEw / Lazy losels and luskish youths: 'Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England' - Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos: Yale, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
AUTHOR doesn't quote the Old Shepherd from The Winter's Tale: 'I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest, for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.'

That quotation is admittedly a little hackneyed, being generally used to imply that teenagers, with their raves and gigantic phone bills, have always been like that. But far from being a stable, ahistorical entity, the teenager is now seen as a post-war invention, defined by a specific popular culture and by a new commercial status as a consumer of that culture. Phillippe Aries went so far as to abolish the concept of youth for the early modern period entirely, claiming that until the 19th century children were absorbed into the adult world at the age of five or six.

Having read this book, whose boundaries are approximately 1500-1700, I'm still not absolutely sure whether or not Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos believes there to be a distinct, normative identity for the English Renaissance adolescent. But it certainly contains riveting images and vignettes of the life of the young in this period. John Coggs, in 1703, a dandyish London printer's apprentice, eagerly records in his diary spending pounds 7 on a silk handkerchief, a wig, a silk cap, a pair of silver buckles, a head for his cane, a clasp knife with a tortoiseshell handle and six pairs of shoes 'all probably paid for by his mother', as Dr Ben- Amos says drily.

But what emerges overwhelmingly is the harshness, and the sadness, of being young in early modern England. Lower life-expectancies meant that far more children knew the pain of losing one, or perhaps both, parents. They had to walk miles to find work, or apprenticeship - the Poor Laws of 1598 and 1603 meant there was no minimum age for this. There is great pathos in little seven-year-old Adam Martindale having to walk the two miles to school in St Helens: 'A great way for a little fat short-legged lad (as I was) to travel twice a day.' What is also startling is the awe and wonder of the young on seeing London for the first time. When the teenage Edward Barlow arrived from Prestwych in Lancashire, he didn't know what to make of some very strange objects in the Thames 'with long poles standing up in them and a great deal of ropes about them'. They were ships.

Elsewhere, Ben-Amos is cautious about the significance of youth in English Renaissance culture. There was the dancing and general loose behaviour pursued by 'many lazy losels and luskish youths', and youth played a distinct role in the Protestant, dissenting zeal of the period. One young sectarian was 'in the flower of his age, and his blood boileth in his veins, and his great strength which hath brought him to his Frenzy'. Each time, however, the author is careful to concede that there is an equally significant adult dimension to these areas of life.

This is a book of great scholarship and even greater sobriety: the kind of social history which shows a reassuring grounding in primary sources and archive records, but a taste for rather spurious quantification evidently imported from sociology. Dr Ben-Amos tells us earnestly: 'The proportion of apprentices arriving in London from villages in four separate counties ranged between 73.8 and 83.5 per cent.' Some of the insights this laborious statistical work yields seem a little obvious. (Ben-Amos on sexuality, for example: 'Young people appear then to have been more promiscuous and less rigid in their morals than married adults.') Indeed, Dr Ben-Amos's concentration on the life of apprentices seems excessive, and led mostly by the abundance of source material: court and parish records, and many evocative autobiographies of self-betterment. There isn't much on how youth is represented in literature, nothing on education and the grammar schools, and hardly anything on young people's experience in the armed services. But despite this, Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England is an important book, pregnant with insight into what it was like to be young in the English Renaissance.