(p. 404) There is no doubt that children once died in great numbers and that parents had to adjust their expectations accordingly. The world before the modern era was overwhelmingly a place of tiny coffins. The figures usually cited are that one-third of children died in their first year of life and half failed to reach their fifth birthdays. Even in the best homes death was a regular visitor. Stephen Inwood notes that the future historian Edward Gibbon, growing up rich in healthy Putney, lost all six of his siblings in early childhood. But that isn’t to say that parents were any less devastated by a loss than we would be today. The diarist John Evelyn and his wife had eight children and lost six of them in childhood, and were clearly heartbroken each time. ‘Here ends the joy of my life,’ Evelyn wrote simply after his oldest child died three days after his fifth birthday in 1658. The writer William Brownlow lost a child each year for four years, a chain of misfortune that ‘hast broken me asunder and shaken me to pieces’, he wrote, but in fact he and his wife had still more to endure: the tragic pattern of annual deaths continued for three years more until they had no children left to yield.
Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.