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Far-reaching Love

A historian at Freie Universität Berlin studies families in the early modern period who lived in long-distance relationships.

Oct 09, 2018

Pieter Cnoll und seine Familie

Pieter Cnoll und seine Familie
Image Credit: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (CC0 1.0)

Anna Christina Bering has now come as far as the Pacific Ocean. She started her journey seven years ago, with her husband and their two small children – Anton, who was then two years old, and Anna Hedvig, just one year old – along with servants and five soldiers who escorted them starting in the town of Tobolsk. Her husband, Vitus Bering, is known as the “Columbus of the Tsar.” On his expedition, he is tasked with finding a sea route from Russia to the Americas and surveying the Russian Empire’s northern coasts.

Anna Christina experienced powerful snowstorms in Yakutsk, along with grueling cold. They left there two years ago to trek another 1800 kilometers to Okhotsk. They left two of their four children behind in Saint Petersburg: Jonas, who was eleven when they left, and his brother Thomas, who was nine. “If I had wings, I would surely fly to you to help me out of my torment,” she writes to her sister in faraway Europe on February 5, 1740.

“The Berings’ journey to eastern Siberia is a good example of the ideas of emotionality and family at the time,” says Professor Claudia Jarzebowski of the Friedrich Meinecke Institute of History at Freie Universität Berlin. Jarzebowski and Professor Margaret Hunt of Uppsala University, in Sweden, recently organized a conference in Berlin titled “Emotion in Motion – Frühmoderne Familien und Gemeinschaften aus transnationaler und weltgeschichtlicher Perspektive” (“Emotion in Motion – Early Modern Families and Communities from a Transnational and World History Perspective.” The history of the Bering family was one of the subjects dealt with at the conference.

“To us today, it seems inhumane to leave two small children behind to accompany your husband on an expedition to the other side of the world,” Jarzebowski says. “But from the perspective of the time, the Berings did everything right.” Back then, loving one’s children meant first and foremost giving them a chance to get an education. And that was practically impossible in remote Siberia.

When the Berings left, Jonas and Thomas were staying with Adolph Florian Sigismund, a professor, and his wife, and they were enrolled at a school in Tallinn. During their journey, the parents kept in touch with the children’s mentor by letter. A trusted friend sent them regular reports on how their sons were doing in their foster family.

Jarzebowski, a historian, has been studying the history of childhood during the period between 1450 and 1850 for several years now. Her approach is to study the broad outlines of people’s lives to glean information on what happened to children. “It’s hard to find children in the sources at all,” she says. And yet, she has succeeded in a number of cases.

For example, her habilitation thesis, titled “Kindheit und Emotion. Kinder und ihre Lebenswelten in der europäischen Frühen Neuzeit” (“Childhood and Emotion. Children and Their Living Environments in Early Modern Europe”), which is to be published as a book in September 2018, also describes the family history of Carl von Imhoff and his children. A colonial officer with the British East India Company and a portrait painter, von Imhoff spent his old age at the court in Weimar during Goethe’s era. Friedrich Schiller, another famed author, stayed at his home for a time as well.

As a young man, von Imhoff had an affair – a scandalous one by the standards of the day – with Anna Maria Chapuset de St. Valentin, with whom he had a child out of wedlock. After von Imhoff was discharged from the military, the couple took the opportunity to relocate to London – leaving their child, Carl August, who was then not quite eight months old, in the care of Anna Maria’s grandmother, in Stuttgart. In London, they posed as a married couple. They were granted entrée into the English court and had a second child together.

The parents sent for Carl August, who joined them in the British capital and accompanied them on a journey to the East Indies, while the second son was left behind in London with friends. “This case also shows that physical separation between parents and their children was viewed as being completely normal during the early modern era, or even as being a service to the children,” says Jarzebowski. “Imhoff even told his brother this was the only way he could leave anything to his children.”

But in Imhoff’s case, too, the desire to secure a good education for the children was of paramount concern: Just a few months after arriving in India, the officer was already planning for his son to return to England, since he could not learn enough in India. “Care and education are viewed as expressions of love at this time,” the historian explains: “Geographic distance does not correlate with emotional distance.”

Interestingly, Jarzebowski’s research often deals with life stories that would be viewed today as failures. The protagonists of her research try out alternative family practices in a bid to find their place in society.

Looking back at history might also help answer current questions today, Jarzebowski says. How does society deal with alternative family models between homosexual couples, for example? What about ideas about plural marriage held by some immigrants? The ideal of the nuclear family, where the mother waits at the dining table with the children until the father comes home from work, was not always reality even in past centuries, at any rate.

This text was originally published on Sep 06, 2018, as a press release