Uncovering Childhood in the Early Modern World
Americas, Ottomans, Qing China, and Pirates
In this article, we’re talking about childhood in the Early Modern period, which followed the Middle Ages — or Medieval — period. It began roughly around 1450 CE and lasted to about 1815. Like other times, the Early Modern was experienced in a variety of ways based on where and who you were. The common threads are the rise of modern states, exploration and colonization of the Americas by European nations, the transition to industrialization, and various intellectual and religious movements such as the Scientific Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, and the Enlightenment.
Yeah, that’s a lot for 350 years — and that’s just the main threads from Europe. Today, we’re going to venture beyond Europe and ask the question: “What was childhood like in the rest of the Early Modern world?”
Our first stop is the Americas, where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492.
Honestly, big friggin deal. Let’s get real for a second: Columbus wasn’t the first European to step foot in the Americas (that honor currently belongs to the Vikings), and he didn’t discover anything other than the fact that other people lived in previously ignored parts of the world. Getting into it would be a whole module in itself, so suffice to say: When Columbus landed in 1492, his biggest achievement was setting off the largest migrations and mass murders — or, more accurately, genocides — of entire peoples that the world has probably ever seen. We’re talking catastrophic change, and the people most impacted were those indigenous to the Americas.
What Europeans encountered were civilizations as large, rich, and various as their own. Since the end of the Ice Age, the Americas had been home to more civilizations than we will probably ever know — from the more well-known Maya and Aztec to the great commercial centers of Cahokia in what is now Illinois. This language map shows the main languages around the time of contact — but it’s an incomplete picture, as these larger “families” of languages contained many dialects — and hence tribes, cities, and civilizations. As the Early Modern period began, the Spanish and Portuguese radically changed Central and South America — decimating the Indigenous populations through disease, warfare, and conquest. They were followed by the Dutch, French, and English, mostly in North America.
Colonizers didn’t document Indigenous reactions — or even cultures — without incredible bias. For example, this engraving by Jacques Le Moyne de Morges, published in 1591 to introduce Europeans to the Americas, supposedly shows a “Queen-Elect” being brought to the King of the Timucuas for their wedding.
Oh, lawdy. Where do we start? Le Moyne’s sketches — along with just about any European-produced sketches — are problematic because (1) many of them were done without fully understanding the cultures they were trying to represent, and (2) in the case of Le Moyne, this is actually sketched from memory because his originals were destroyed when the French colony was attacked by the Spanish. It was also published two years after Le Moyne died, so we didn’t even have the artist to talk about it!
Notably, this depiction does not match later accounts of the Timucua, and many scholars now believed that the publisher — Theodor de Bry — altered the sketches before publication. Rather, sketches like these tell us more about Europeans’ attitudes than they do about Indigenous peoples. No voices of the Timucua — or many of the Indigenous tribes present during colonization — survive, except for in the oral histories of their descendants and the grains of salt we take with European accounts. But their legacy is felt to this day.
Such harmful depictions — which made the Timucua seem more like the patriarchal jerks of England than the matrilineal, sometimes female-ruled tribes they were — has led to what we now call Indigenous Historical Trauma. This is trauma that has accumulated across generations as the result of the historical ramifications of colonization. This trauma is manifest in a variety of mental and physical health hardships experienced by Indigenous peoples today, as well as ongoing violence and discrimination.
In the case of this Timucua girl, she would be the last generation to know anything resembling peace and a traditional Timucua upbringing. After the Spanish took control of Florida in the mid-1500s, the Timucua, including children, were enslaved and the population fell from 200,000 to less than 2,500. The Timucua tried to rebel, but failed and were forced to relocate to southern Florida. In less than 150 years after first meeting Europeans, the Timucua had disappeared entirely. Their reality is pieced together from fragments that remain — and their childhoods will likely never be known to us.
Another massive shift was occurring in what is now the Middle East, as the Ottoman Empire underwent numerous political, social, and economic changes. From 1550 to 1700, the previously patrimonial state became a bureaucratic empire that stretched from what is now Southeastern Europe to Northern Africa and Western Asia. Notably, the Ottomans had a vibrant religious and intellectual life, which were informed by adherence to Sunni Islam.
Similar to what was happening in Europe during the Enlightenment, the Ottoman Empire also emphasized rational thought and the sciences by emphasizing “verification” rather than “imitation” and a slew of new works in mathematics, logic, and dialects emerged. Education flourished in this environment, with maktabs — elementary schools — and madrasas — higher education institutions attached to mosques – flourishing. Students of both genders, aged 5 to 12, attended maktabs to learn reading, writing, grammar, and physical education, and some later attended madrasas to learn specific subjects such as history, logic, ethics, medicine and astronomy. Unlike in Europe, education remained firmly attached to religious institutions.
This is likely the background to this painting, The First Day of School, by Jean Baptiste Vanmour, painted in the early 1700s. Vanmour was working with the French ambassador to Constantinople, and painted many scenes of Ottoman life. It allows us a glimpse into the life of a wealthy Turkish Muslim family. How is it possible to know the financial status and religion of the people depicted in the painting? The colorful clothing worn by the women tells their religion, as laws at the time allowed only Muslims to wear that type of garment. The painting also shows the wealth of the family since they have a servant carrying the embroidery frame that the young girl will use at school. These details help us to understand more about the life of the girl at the center of the painting.
But why did he choose to capture this image? It is possible that the painting was commissioned because the girl was the daughter of an important official and the family wanted a record of the event. Other possibilities include that this was a large community celebration to be documented or that Vanmour was simply curious and intrigued by the procession to school. The painting leaves many questions unanswered, but after comparing several Vanmour’s paintings, it is clear that this was an important event — a young girl going to school for the very first time really meant something.
Yet not all girls of the Early Modern period were becoming empowered. In Qing dynasty China, which began in 1644, girls were expected to be silent. Though educated, it was only so that she could teach her sons how to behave and properly manage her husband’s household. She was expected to dwell inside her home, morally uphold her family, and instill moral values into her children.
Yet it was her home — a complexity of extended relations, nurses, and servants — as well as the education she was afforded that would ultimately help her find her voice. Family life wasn’t rigid — it was fun and loving, much like many girls experience today. While a girl’s mother oversaw the household and taught her the skills she would need to become a wife, her mother would also encourage her to memorize poetry and primers. Her father also had some role in her education, and many accounts describe fathers playing with their children each day. So, a Qing girl would have grown up in a loving, nurturing home — where her role and education were valued.
This complexity is what led Qing girls to ultimately become complex women. Expected to be silent, they were never truly quiet. Their place in society was under constant scrutiny during the Qing dynasty. The more scholars studied classical teachings, the more women’s roles were challenged in society. Eventually, many came to believe that girls could be educated purely to be creative, and that societal standards should be ignored when a girl showed exceptional promise in her studies or creativity. “Child prodigy” was now a viable career choice for girls.
This new standard helped liberate girls who were not child prodigies as well. The Qing dynasty quickly came to believe that once a girl had done her duty as a wife and mother, she was free to pursue her own interests. Qing girls grew into independent, creative women who indulged in poetry, art, and music.
The Pirate Child
Finally, we’re going to end with a childhood experience that’s…unexpected.
This fibula bone, silk stocking, and shoe are all that remain of 11-year-old John King, who lived and died…a pirate. That’s right: a child pirate. Though records on pirates are haphazard at best, we do know that child and teenage pirates existed, and John King’s story helps us understand parts of their lives. According to a deposition written by Commander Abijah Savage in 1716, the commander’s ship had been attacked by the Whydah, whose captain was Black Sam Bellamy. Onboard Savage’s ship was John King, an “Indian boy” sailing with his mother as a passenger from Jamaica to Antigua. Apparently, John loved his days at sea and was so enraptured with the pirates that he decided to leave his mother, declaring that he would “kill himself” if he was not allowed to go with Captain Black Sam and his pirate crew. But John’s days at sea were numbered: just three months later, the Whydah sank off the coast of Cape Cod — and John with it. His stocking — woven of French silk — and shoe are typical of upper-class design and craftsmanship, suggesting that King either came from the upper classes or had garnered these belongings as loot. They were found next to a concretion of artifacts — which occur when iron objects electrolyze in sea water — that contains what X-rays show may be other bones, possibly a skull, and hundreds of artifacts.
How many child pirates existed is still an open question. Unfortunately, pirate history is a complicated web of sources — often leading to dead ends and questions more than actual dates and ages. What appealed to John King and other children who became pirates is the very freedom, adventure, and mystery that keeps piracy — and childhood in it — shrouded from full view.