Friday, April 13, 2012

Bad years, good years... for crops and offspring

From time to time, in the context of my family-history research, I've come upon the case of a child receiving the name of a baby sibling who did not survive. One can well understand the attitude of bereaved parents who must imagine in a fuzzy way that giving the name of the deceased child to a new baby attenuates their loss. Although they wouldn't normally say so explicitly, it's a little as if the second child were a replacement for the one that died. There would appear to be some kind of spiritual continuity between the deceased child and his/her new sibling. Put another way, it's as if some kind of mistake had occurred in the case of the first offspring, and it is hoped that this anomaly might be corrected in the case of the new baby. So, why not look upon the second child as a healthy substitute for the child that died? And why not therefore use exactly the same given names?

Personally, although I can understand this way of looking at things, I find it rather cruel to name a child after a deceased sibling, since the second child is likely to grow up seeing himself/herself as a mere replacement, whose basic raison d'être stems from the death of the sibling, and consists of assuming the role of a substitute for the other. It's not a particularly enviable situation for a child whose natural desire is to affirm his/her unique personality and individuality. The worst situation of all is when a baby boy replaces his deceased sister, and is looked upon by his mother as an ersatz female.

I discovered recently, at the level of my paternal great-great-grandparents, the case of two male offspring whose given names were Robert. The first Robert died at the age of two, and a second child, born two years later, was given the same name. The second Robert, born on 1 February 1860, received a weird second name: Tillage.

In old farming terminology, tillage was the end-of-winter operation that prepared land for the sowing of new crops. I hardly need to explain that the baby's parents were indeed agricultural laborers in the Dorset village of Iwerne Courtney.

Happily, 1860 turned out to be a good year for offspring, since Robert Tillage Skivington survived and grew up to be a healthy male, who married and raised a family. Was 1860 an equally good year for crops in Iwerne Courtney?

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