The Canon: Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life by Philippe Ariès

August 26, 2010

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Philippe Ariès' L'Enfant et la Vie Familiale sous l'Ancien Régime, translated into English two years later by Robert Baldick as Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Ariès' central argument - that childhood as we currently conceive of it is the product of centuries of culturally specific changes in attitude rather than a universal expression of essential human experience - caught the imagination of both an academic world seeking new ways of understanding history and a broader, post Dr Spock reading market fascinated with child-rearing practices. Though both celebrated and critiqued -indeed, occasionally vilified - over the intervening decades, few works of cultural history have offered a more provocative and enduring influence on subsequent scholarship.

It is perhaps difficult for a generation that takes cultural studies as a given to understand the revolutionary impact of an approach that placed society and everyday life rather than dynasties and political systems at the heart of historical inquiry, but the work of the Annales School in the latter half of the 20th century offered a new way to imagine engaging the past. As an undergraduate, my encounter with Fernand Braudel's Capitalism and Material Life on a history course was an eye-opener, but it wasn't until I read Ariès' book a decade later in preparation for teaching a course in the history of children's literature that I took the full measure of the implications of history as practised by Annales historians. Everywhere I looked, authors were citing Ariès and saying the most extraordinary and contradictory things.

Centuries of Childhood contained a number of provocative statements, but none did more to galvanise scholars than Ariès' assertion that high infant and child mortality rates before the 18th century had resulted in parents who were less emotionally invested in their offspring than parents in later centuries. Citing, in addition to devastating statistical evidence, Montesquieu's uncertain count of the precise number of children he had lost in infancy, Ariès pronounced that for the pre-industrial family, the child did not "matter" in the same way as children do in modern societies. Critical response was immediate and varied, and ranged from counter-arguments launched by historians documenting the profound grief produced by infant death in specific medieval and renaissance parents to the enthusiastic extension of Ariès' insights, especially by American sociologists and psychologists of the 1960s who found in his thesis a historical grounding for their own preoccupations with intergenerational family conflict.

Although it continues to be cited almost ritually by any scholar working in child studies, Centuries of Childhood has been superseded by more rigorous analyses. But for all its methodological flaws, it remains one of the most influential books of the latter half of the 20th century, important to fields as diverse as history, literature, psychology and child studies. "Ariès' book had," as Adrian Wilson commented in 1980, "at a stroke, historicised the family."

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