A dead Puritan? Hear me out! Rev. Ralph Josselin (1617-1683) is featured here for a couple of reasons. Josselin, a rural vicar and farmer, is one of many historical figures whom we know about today because he was a prolific diarist. In his diaries, Josselin wrote of his daily life as a husband, father and vicar, and his observations of his experiences have helped to flesh out what life looked like for rural commoners in seventeenth-century England. In addition to enriching non-urban and non-elite English history, Josselin’s diaries haved helped overturn modern myths about medieval and early modern people and societies. Most importantly, Josselin’s writings about his family have contributed to undermining the formerly commonplace idea that parents before the Victorian era were unfeeling toward their children because the odds that they would die were so great.
If you can, read some excerpts from Josselin’s diaries. Oh, and have something cheerful standing by as a counter-measure. Josselin, who suffered the early deaths of several of his beloved children, documented his feelings of heartbreak as he watched them suffer through hideous illnesses and, in the worst cases, death. Contrary to old tropes about pre-Victorian parents, Josselin was not indifferent to the deaths of his children. Indeed, his diary entries that deal with death reveal his intense sense of conflict between his emotions and his devout Puritanism; despite his belief that his departed children had been embraced by God and relieved of the suffering of this mortal coil, Josselin could not overcome his grief. This seems to have been a source of shame for him–a kind of failure to overcome worldly attachments. This augustinian conflict made Josselin something of an unwitting transgressor of the gender prescriptions of his day, when men, as the supposedly rational masters of their emotions, were thought to bounce back from grief more quickly than emotionally-charged women (sound familiar?). Josselin actually writes of his wife’s comparative ability to cope with loss, and her admonishments for his inability to shake off his continuous grief.
*No confirmed portrait of Josselin.
Macfarlane, Alan ed. The Diary of Ralph Josselin, 1616-1683. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.