The Human Continuum

One of the hardest thing about studying the life of Henry VIII is the enormous amount of infant/child deaths I have had to read about. It is a horrible thing to contemplate. Contrary to what some people believe, people in eras of high child mortality grieved with the same intensity as modern parents. Just as they do today, most people who lived during the times of the Tudor dynasty loved their offspring fiercely. Diaries and letters are full of the profound  anguish that those who lost a child or grandchild experienced. Just because men and women knew that they were almost certainly doomed to bury at least one child did not make it hurt less when it happened.

I recently got word that a cousin of a friend lost a neonate to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome; called cot death in the UK). Even though I don’t know the parents or infant involved, I was deeply saddened to hear of the tragedy. I have children and when I try to fathom the unholy amount of bereavement …

*deep breath*

News of the loss made me pensive, as the enormity of death often does. It left me pondering on how men and women of the past dealt with trauma and how their stoicism or customs can create a false impression that their humanity was somehow unsimilar to ours. It wasn’t, though.  For example, there is the letter sent two thousand years ago from the Greco-Roman writer Plutarch to his wife in order to console and support her after the death of their toddler. Although the “appropriate” way to grieve has changed over time the letter remains proof of the universality of human love and as a testament to the continuum of parental devotion.

People in the past undoubtedly looked at things ‘differently’ than we do. The French coined an excellent phrase to describe the “mindset” of peoples within a historic/social/community context: histoire des mentalités. English has borrowed the concept and shortened it to the word mentalité (pronounced men·ta·li·té). The mentalité of those in each time period or social group is markedly alien to the outlook of others in different times or different cultures. Nevertheless, as Amy License explains in the introduction of her book Elizabeth of York, “Basic human emotions do not change across time”; people may have had alternative explanations for their feelings and incommensurable ways of expressing/dealing with their emotions than the modern reader, but they nevertheless felt the same love and hate and fear and anger and sadness that we feel.

The history of humanity should encompass what makes us human.

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