Centuries of Childhood

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Centuries of Childhood
Centuries of Childhood.jpg
Author Philippe Ariès
Original title L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime

L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime (English: The Child and Family Life in the Ancien Régime[1]) is a 1960 book on the history of childhood by French historian Philippe Ariès known in English by its 1962 translation, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life.[2] It is considered the most famous book on the subject,[2] and it is known for its argument that the concept of "childhood" is a modern development.


The book argues that childhood as an idea has changed over time.[2] It covers the concepts of childhood, adult–child relations, and childhood experience across cultures and time periods.[2] His most well-known sources are medieval paintings that show children as small adults.[3] Ariès argues that childhood was not understood as a separate stage of life until the 15th century, and children were seen as little adults who shared the same traditions, games, and clothes.[3]

Its most famous conclusions are that "childhood" is a recent idea,[3][4] and that parenting in the Middle Ages was largely detached.[4] Ariès claims the following: Nuclear family bonds of love and concern did not exist in the era, and children died too often to become emotionally attached.[3][4] Children weren't treated as delicate or protected from sexuality.[3] They spent time with adults outside of family structures, and were not always segregated to school and family structures.[2] Often they would be fostered to others as domestic servants.[3]

Despite the book's fame for its thesis, Centuries of Childhood focuses more on the beginnings of systematized schooling and the decline of a common public sociability.[3] This focus extends from the author's greater criticism of modern life and its schism of social elements he saw to be once united: "friendship, religion, [and] profession".[3] In this way, Ariès did not believe modern families adequately replace the role of common public community.[3]


"... in medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist."
Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood[2]

Writing for the American Historical Review in 1998, Hugh Cunningham states that the book's influence "remains profound" after forty years, especially with respect to medieval childhood.[2] He added that Ariès successfully persuaded his readers that the experience of childhood and its treatment as a stage of life had evolved across time and place.[2] The book began the study of the history of childhood, which led to monographs on histories of individual aspects of childhood.[5] A misleading translation of the French sentiment(feeling) into "idea" became one of the translation's best known lines, "In medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist", and led to a "mini-industry" of medieval scholars rebutting this false thesis.[2]

"It cannot be over-emphasized that there is nothing to be said for Aries's view of childhood in the middle ages. ... Aries's views were mistaken: not simply in detail but in substance. It is time to lay them to rest."
Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children[3]

The popular view of Ariès thesis was dismantled over the coming decades.[4] Slate's Stephen Metcalf describes an "anti-Arièsist" cottage industry whose most notable practitioners include historians Steven Ozment and Nicholas Orme.[3] Orme wrote Medieval Children, a book dedicated to refuting the Ariès thesis,[3] which reviewers agree it did.[3][4] Orme concluded that "medieval children were ourselves, five hundred or a thousand years ago" and that their parents genuinely cherished and grieved for their children, similar to modern parents.[4] Despite these decades of refutation, the Ariès thesis persists in non-academics, who associate medieval children with "miniature adults".[3]

The book had considerable academic influence[3] and began a trend in the humanities where studied ideas are seen as caused by culture rather than by nature, biology, or self.[3] Metcalf described Centuries of Childhood as a book "that, virtually on contact, sets the mind on fire" for its imagination, especially as written in 1960, a time of childhood's expansion.[3] Metcalf asserted that Ariès' method of cultural causes influenced Michel Foucault's thinking, which has since touched most academic disciplines.[3]


  1. ^ Weintraub, Jeff (March 15, 1997). "The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction". In Weintraub, Jeff; Kumar, Krishan. Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy. University of Chicago Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-226-88624-4. Retrieved October 22, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Cunningham 1998, p. 1197.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Metcalf, Stephen (March 11, 2002). "Farewell to Mini-Me: The fight over when childhood began". Slate. The Washington Post Company. Archived from the original on October 12, 2013. Retrieved October 11, 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Schwarz, Benjamin (March 2002). "New & Noteworthy". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on October 12, 2013. Retrieved October 11, 2013. 
  5. ^ Schwarz, Benjamin (October 2004). "The Glass of Fashion". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on October 12, 2013. Retrieved October 12, 2013. 


  • Cunningham, Hugh (1998). "Histories of Childhood". The American Historical Review. Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association. 103 (4): 1195–1208. doi:10.2307/2651207. ISSN 0002-8762. JSTOR 2651207.