Swords and Spindles – the next generation – a seventeenth century childhood


Occasionally younger folk wend their way through the world of Swords and Spindles – always helps to keep us on our toes. So portraits duly painted, may we present Master Robert, Mistress Martha and young Master Edward. Purists amongst our readers will acknowledge that Master Edward is incorrectly attired. At his tender age he would, of course, historically be dressed in shift and petticoat, what you modern folk would term ‘girls’ clothes’ but which we just consider to be appropriate for small children. Many theories as to why young boys were not ‘breeched’ until the age of seven – the age of reason. Shifts and petticoats are not outgrown as quickly as breeches, it is easier to toilet train a petticoat clad infant and then there are the witches. We believe in witches, witches are not daft, so if they try  to steal our children they will steal the important ones – the boys. So we disguise our boys as girls until they are old enough to look after themselves and fool the witches.

So what is life like for Master Edward? “Childhood was fairly restricted in the 1600s and most children were mini-adults, taking on tasks that contributed to the household as soon as they were able. Even in wealthy families, there was little opportunity for play. Toys were usually home-made, often from wood, or might be adapted from household objects. The metal rings that held the staves of barrels together became hoops and the laundry beetle became a bat. With the addition of a cock, a bat could be used to play paddy-whack, or paddle-whack. The cock, a cork with feathers inserted, was so called because it was thought to resemble a cockerel. This had to be hit successively without letting it fall to the floor, each hit scoring another point. Battledore, a forerunner of badminton that used similar equipment, required the shuttlecock to be hit from player to player. Nine-men’s morris and five stones, later known as jacks, required very little equipment. Basic woodworking skills could produce a top or a bilbo. The latter was a wooden cup, attached by string to a wooden ball. The aim was to swing the ball and get it to land in the cup. Quoits were played, not just by throwing rings over a pole on the ground but also by each player each holding a stick and throwing the rings from one to another. Dolls could be made in the home from cloth or wood. Wooden dolls were known as Bartholomew babies, because they were sold at the St Bartholomew’s Day Fair, which was held every August in Smithfield, London. Solitaire boards could also be hand made but the, more elaborate, chess sets were for the rich.” From Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors by Janet Few (aka Swords and Spindles’ Mistress Agnes).

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