Centuries of Childhood  

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"ONE of the unwritten laws of contemporary morality, the strictest and best respected of all, requires adults to avoid any reference, above all any humorous reference, to sexual matters in the presence of children. This notion was entirely foreign to the society of old. The modern reader of the diary1 in which Henri IV’s physician, Heroard, recorded the details of the young Louis XIII’s life is astonished by the liberties which people took with children, by the coarseness of the jokes they made, and by the indecency of gestures made in public which shocked nobody and which were regarded as perfectly natural. 1No other document can give us a better idea of the non-existence of the modern idea of childhood at the beginning of the seventeenth century."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime (The Child and Family Life in the Old Régime) is a book on the history of childhood by French historian Philippe Ariès published in 1960 and known in English as its 1962 English translation, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. It is considered the most famous book on the subject, and known for its argument that the concept of "childhood" is a modern development.

This book stands pre-eminent in the history of childhood, as it was essentially the first book on the subject (although some antiquarian texts were in existence prior to this). Even today, Ariès remains the standard reference to the topic. Ariès is most famous for his statement that "in medieval society, the idea of childhood did not exist". The central thesis of Centuries of Childhood is that attitudes towards children were progressive, and evolved over time with economic change and social advancement, until childhood, as a concept and an accepted part of family life, came into being in the seventeenth century. It was thought that children were too weak to be counted and that they could disappear at any time. But these children were considered as an adult as soon as they could live without the help of their mothers, nanny, or someone else. Centuries of Childhood has had mixed fortunes. Ariès’ contribution was profoundly significant both in that it recognised childhood as a social construction rather than as a biological given, and in that it founded the history of childhood as a serious field of study. At the same time, his account of childhood has by now been widely criticised.

The theme was then taken up by Cunningham in his book the Invention of Childhood (2006) which looks at the historical aspects of childhood from the Middle Ages to what he refers to as the Post War Period of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Criticism of Centuries of Childhood

There has been widespread criticism of the methods that Ariès used to draw his conclusions about the role of childhood in early modern Europe. One of his most noted critics was the historian Geoffrey Elton. Elton's main criticism of Ariès is paraphrased in Richard J. Evans's book on historiography, In Defence of History: "in everyday life children were indeed dressed differently to adults; they were just put in adult clothes to have their portraits painted" (1997, 63).

That is to say that Ariès took early modern portraits as an accurate representation of the look of early modern families whereas a lot of the clients would use them to improve their status.

The assertion that the medieval world was ignorant of childhood has undergone considerable attack from other writers (for example, Kroll 1977, Shahar 1990).

Further criticism of Ariès is found in an article, available online, from 1992 by Harry Hendrick for the journal of the Economic History Society. Within the article, entitled Children and Childhood, Hendrick lists four criticisms of Ariès's work.

"Firstly that his data are either unrepresentative or unreliable. Secondly that he takes evidence out of context, confuses prescription with practice, and uses atypical examples. Thirdly, that he implicitly denies the immutability of the special needs of children, for food, clothing, shelter, affection and conversation. Fourthly, that he puts undue emphasis on the work of moralists and educationalists while saying little of economic and political factors"[1].





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Centuries of Childhood" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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