The 18th century in Europe was a dynamic center for changes in daily life. The prior centuries saw the decline in the social status of women and Renaissance ideals hoping to keep them in the home. It also was witness to the church’s dominion in education and the social gap between the privileged children who could afford an education and the mainly illiterate masses. The denial that childhood was a distinct period in a person’s life, the lack of hands-on parenting and concern for children, and the proclivity of wet nurses also were an integral part of how this sector of culture was viewed in this time period.
However, in the 18th century, the education system experienced changes in patronage and attitudes toward children changed, while the status of women remained largely stagnant. The fluid education system during this period included the invention of new types of schools and new philosophies on how education should be approached. Education for the poor also became a priority and literacy rates as a whole increased in some countries. The idea that schooling could benefit the poor is expressed in Document 2, where a French bishop is expounding on the notion that teaching arithmetic and writing could help lift people out of poverty.
His view as a bishop in the church, one of the main schooling institutions of the time, may influence his opinion because he may support his employer more heartily than he would any other body attempting to educate the poor. However, the church was losing its monopoly on education in the 18th century as the Enlightenment views on a secular education began to impact governments to sponsor schools. This shift is evident in Germany with the new gymnasiums and the Spanish and French collage, which, ompared to the monastic religious education a learned person was likely to get in centuries before, represent a significant change. This change is well described in the context of the Enlightenment which contended that education should be natural and secular. Education in the 18th century represents a significant change in culture. Attitudes toward children were also changing in the 18th century. As Document 1 explains, children were beginning to be seen as more than the miniature adults of years past. In fact, the child in this letter has no responsibility besides ringing the bell at church.
This image of idyllic childhood may be slightly exaggerated, however, because it is a letter from this boy’s caretaker to his parents. The child would not be described as unhappy even if he was because the man wishes to keep his job and the esteem of his employers. Love of children was encouraged, as shown by Document 4, a portrait of mother and daughter embracing. Since it is a painting, the commissioners may have wished to portray more tenderness than typically expressed to advance the idea that this woman loves her child and is a successful mother.
These pressures to be a good mother and pay more attention to the lives of children came from the Enlightenment. Some of this came from direct instructions from famous philosophes. In Document 3, the philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau explains that the exploration of discomfort is better for the future of the child than an excess of either molly-coddling or suffering. Children should not be beaten, but they also should not be kept sequestered away in fragile innocence.
Although influential, Rousseau was not the best father and abandoned most of his children in foundling homes, which shows a lack of experience in rearing actual children, making this advice not at practically sound as it could have been otherwise. Something to consider about all of these documents is that most of these changes were made in the upper classes, those who were literate and could afford to have their portraits painted. The lives of lower-class children did not change much at all during this time, so the extent of these changes only reached the upper class.
Another aspect of daily life that didn’t change was the status of women. The land register in Document 6 shows that women worked both alongside men in the fields and in the home preparing meals. This is the same role that women played in earlier centuries. This document worthy of a second glance because it is a government document, most likely written by a bureaucrat. It may not be truly representative of the work schedules of women because it is written by a upper class man looking down on the lives of the lower class. This same information from the diary of a peasant, for example, would be more reliable.
However, that isn’t a realistic hope because the majority of peasant woman remained uneducated, partly due to their social station and partially due to the stigma attached to the education of women. The opinions of women in the upper class remained the same as well, as evidenced by Document 5, where the article concedes that a woman who is highly educated is most likely neurotic and incapable of excelling at both being an elegant woman and a scholar. This article, although praising one particular woman, is singling her out as an exception to the rule. The status of women was incredibly rigid during this time period.
As is evidenced by primary source documents, women’s place in society remained fixed from the period before while ideas on childhood and the institution of education were very dynamic during this period. The switch from religious education to more state sponsored schooling could be due to the doubt Enlightenment philosophers shed on organized religion. It began to be a more private affair than in centuries previous, leaving the state to take on some of the church’s public functions, such as education. In conclusion, the 18th century differed culturally from the centuries before, but only in some ways some of the time.