- Centuries of Childhood:An Anniversary—and an Epitaph?
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[Begin Page 343]
L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime was born in obscurity in 1960, but, to pursue a metaphor beloved by historians, it quickly strode into the limelight for a brilliant though controversial youth.2 There followed a remarkably long career during adulthood, but it has now reached old age. The time is surely ripe for it to retire from active life. Few scholars paid much attention to the book when it first appeared, not surprisingly when most learned journals ignored its publication.3 However, it soon became clear that the work was both startlingly original and right for its time. Its interest in the history of mentalités coincided with a growing interest in cultural history during the 1960s, and, in demonstrating that a history of childhood and youth was possible, it came at a time when age relations loomed large in popular consciousness. This did not mean that it was bathed in uncritical admiration. If some scholars were inspired by its radical new approach to the history of childhood and the family, others were remarkably hostile. What amounted to a "hatchet job" from the British historian Adrian Wilson criticized it, inter alia, for the limitations of its research effort among primary sources; for the "methodological catastrophes" apparent in its interpretation of these sources; and for its "present-centeredness," that is to say, the sin of "viewing the past exclusively from point of view of the present." The best he could manage for the book was to say that its very weaknesses were part-and-parcel of its pioneering status: it provided, "with its own naïve honesty," a starting point in sketchy form for other historians to follow up with more detailed research.4
Wilson was certainly right in thinking that the work would provoke historians to pursue its ideas further—and that most of this new research would tend to reject the initial hypotheses. Questions about whether medieval society had an idea of childhood, what one can glean from visual evidence at various periods, whether the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries "discovered" childhood, [End Page 343] the influence of high infant mortality on parent-child relations, the impact of the schools on the institutionalization of childhood, how far the young have benefited from a child-centerd family, the influence of class and gender, and other issues familiar to readers of this journal proved stimulating for historians in various branches of the discipline. A whole tide of publications started with an outline of what Ariès had to say on a topic and then proceeded to argue their case around it. At the same time, the book has proved to have "legs" that kept it in the forefront of childhood history for far longer than any of the early commentators predicted. In 1982, for example, Richard T. Vann wondered whether Centuries of Childhood would be reprinted and read in the twenty-first century. He concluded: "I would guess not, except as a document in the history of historiography." Hindsight shows that he could not have been more wrong. Historians have continued to use Ariès as a source of insight, as well as an obvious Aunt Sally to knock down. Perhaps more importantly, scholars in other disciplines have held tenaciously to the idea that medieval society had no concept of childhood. Social scientists have found that a quick reference to Ariès helps set the historical context for their work. In 2001, for example, the sociologist Nick Lee followed a well-worn path by citing Ariès without any hint of his controversial reputation in Children and Society:
Ariès (1962) argued that before the sixteenth century, there was no conception of childhood as a period of life distinct from adulthood. He argues that the categorical division "adult/child" was simply not available.5
The work of Ariès also featured prominently in the "new paradigm" for childhood studies that emerged in sociology...