As the editors of Histoire de l’enfance en occident point out in their introduction, writing a history of childhood presents particular challenges. Indeed, children have to be glimpsed through the prism of adult records and initiatives, and sources available to the historian and historical approaches to childhood vary considerably from period to period. It is therefore not surprising that Becchi and Julia have not aimed to construct a continuous or comprehensive history of childhood in the West, but have instead collected diverse, interdisciplinary essays in an effort to explore important problems in the history of childhood and to present the state of current research in the field.
After starting with an introductory chapter that pivots around a discussion of the legacy of Philippe Ariès’ pioneering L’Enfant et la Vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime (Paris, 1960), this two-volume collection moves chronologically from antiquity to the twentieth century, combining synthetic chapters that explore important issues and themes within major historical periods with shorter, more focused studies of problems within those periods. For example, the chapter “Humanisme et Renaissance” is followed by two chapters exploring, first, the relationship of Florentine children to mortality and to (male) adult memory and, second, images of children in fifteenth-century pedagogical treatises.
The twenty-three chapters range widely in subject matter and methodology, and draw on approaches from a variety of academic disciplines—including art history, film studies, religion, and anthropology—and subfields of history—including the history of education, social history, family history, religious history, and intellectual history. Despite this diversity, certain issues structure the collection’s investigation of the history of childhood in the West: the ways in which social, cultural, and intellectual approaches to children, “childhood,” and life stages have varied at particular historical moments; the varying representations of children in religious, intellectual, educational, and scientific discourses and in different cultural forms; and the different experiences of children within such social settings as the family, the workplace, the school, and the city.
The collection is important because it suggests many of the major ways that the history of childhood has developed since Ariès’ work and [End Page 296] provides important information about, and analysis of, current problems and debates within the field. As is the case with similar Franco-Italian, edited histories of women and youth, however, it is not without its peculiarities. First, the coverage is not as sweeping as the title suggests. Although the two volumes purport to be a history of childhood in the West, the essays focus almost entirely on Western Europe, with Italy and France particularly well represented. Second, the essays vary in quality. Many are well constructed and representative of the latest scholarship; others are disappointing. That the discussion of child labor in the industrializing West consists largely of a footnote-free, narrative account of debates and legislation in France, for example, seems particularly lamentable.
The collection’s integration of recent scholarship on gender is also uneven. Although “the child” is no longer so unproblematically male as it once was, and girls figure in these discussions, few of the essays—the one by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber being a notable exception—make girls or approaches to gender central to their analysis. Finally, the collection would have been strengthened by a concluding chapter that attempted to pull together the major—and often overlapping—themes that emerge from the various essays. Nonetheless, it offers an important introduction to recent scholarship in the history of childhood, especially as it has been practiced by historians in France and Italy.