Centuries of Childhood
A Social History of Family Life

by Phillipe Aries

This is a book report on Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, by Philippe Aries, translated from the French by Robert Baldick, Vintage Books, 1962, ISBN 0-394-70286-7.

The thesis of this book is simple but, to me at least, a little startling:

Until about the 17th century, the concept of childhood was quite different from our modern concept; in particular, it was much less important and much less separated from general adult life. Once a child could walk and talk, it mingled freely in all adult activities. It was not specially trained, protected, or disciplined in anything like the degree modern Western children are. It was amusing, or a nuissance, or slight assistance by turns, rather like a pet in a modern household. Childhood was an unimportant transitional period before adulthood, i.e. about age 14. There was no concept of adolescence as we know it; the word in medieval writing has another meaning.

I notice that this transition began along with the whole shift from medieval to modern. Right around 1500, we have Columbus, Guttenberg, Copernicus, and Luther, starting various revolutions in society; after about 100 years, the consequences of them have percolated down into the social structure. If there is a causal connection.

Sometimes, I feel the medieval (and, I presume, ancient) way was much more natural. Other times, I feel that it contains a large part of the explanation of why history is so screwed up. Either way, it's a fascinating book.

The following sections are a synopsis organized by the book's table of contents.

Part One: The Idea of Childhood

I. The Ages of Life

This chapter examines the medieval partitions of the lifespan, which had very little to do with physical or mental development. It also examines the confusion around terminology for different age group, and how that reflects medieval attitudes. Speaking of attitudes, we learn that the past was far from an unbroken stretch of respect for elders; old men are often characterized as disgusting and ridiculous (and, often, as well under 50).

II. The Discovery of Childhood

This chapter documents the increasing interest in childhood by the increasing frequency and accuracy of child images in art. In the Middle Ages, children were represented as miniature adults. Later, they were depicted realistically but not individually – e.g. to represent souls, or as the little ornamental cupids called "putti," or in religious figures like the infant Christ or Baptist. Finally, we get accurate images of particular contemporary children.

Aries points out that children increased in social importance despite the fact that they still died as readily as ever. "Thus, although demographic conditions did not greatly change between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, and although child mortality remained at a very high level, a new sensibility granted these fragile, threatened creatures a characteristic which the world had hitherto failed to recognize in them: as if it were only then that the common conscience had discovered that the child's soul too was immortal. There can be no doubt that the importance accorded to the child's personality was linked with the growing influence of Christianity on life and manners."

III. Children's Dress

In this chapter, once again largely through art survey, we learn that children used to be dressed in miniature versions of the adult costume of their sex and station. Only around the seventeenth century did distinctive child costumes begin to develop. Interestingly, their features were copied from adult costume that was old-fashioned, low-class, or military. This trend affected little boys much sooner and more strongly than little girls.

IV. A Modest Contribution to the History of Games and Pastimes

This chapter, largely through examination of diaries, shows that children and adults used to play the same games, and played them together. Children gambled for money, and gambled with adults. Adults played leapfrog, with each other and with children. (It also seems adults used to play much more, no doubt largely because of the absence of mass media. There were more festivals and amature theatricals. Entertainment was a cottage industry.)

As time went on, games become segregated by age groups (and by social class), and once again children tended to wind up with the ones that were passé or declassé with adults. This included the telling of fairy tales.

Churchmen and educators of the Middle Ages generally denounced all games, everywhere, period. Fun was bad. Fun was also practiced inexorably with complete indifference to the moralists' opinions and did, in fact, fairly often get out of hand, providing the moralists with some excuse. It looks as if, in some things, we actually have managed to find sensible middle grounds.

V. From Immodesty to Innocence

This is where the shock value really sets in. It appears that sexual language and teasing (including physical) with children was perfectly acceptable in the Middle Ages, in a degree that would unhesitatingly be called sexual child abuse today. It doesn't seem to have been nearly as abusive as such things would be today because of the low emotional temperature of this sexual play; in fact, it was generally done in public. Once again, this is documented from diaries, in particular the diary of Dr. Heroard, physician to the infant Louis XIII (c. 1600). Medieval children lacked nothing in terms of sex education.

Then, wham, they reached adulthood (about age 14) and were instantly under a strict code of sexual conduct – or two or three conflicting codes. Well, given the uninsulated nature of childhood then, they had at least seen it coming.

Once again, is this an ultra-natural Freudian libido-dream or is it no wonder people have always been so screwed up? Or both?

Once again, things change with the Renaissance. In both art and literature, children become an icon of innocence. Artists start depicting Christ blessing the children. Moralists start writing books on how to raise children – a whole new genre – and give particular attention to preserving innocence.

Conclusion: The Two Concepts of Childhood

Aries notes two different approaches to childhood in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first, replacing the indifference of the Middle Ages, is a "coddling" attitude. It merely extends the perennial attitude toward infants. Children are in vogue as sources of amusement; "cute" is at a high popularity.

The second follows a few decades later and is developed from the top down, not as a grass-roots movement. Moralists and educators pronounce childhood far too important to be merely cute. Child psychology springs up, and children are being targetted for a life of improvement, edification, and discipline, to mold them into rational, responsible people. (There was a lot to be said for being ignored...)

Part Two: Scholastic Life

I. Medieval Scholars Young and Old

It turns out that students were considered old enough to enter universities when they were about ten (and literate in Latin), and started taking courses in whatever subject the masters felt like teaching at a given time, with no gradation of subjects by intrinsic difficulty (though of course natural capacity required that only the elements could be picked up in a given subject at first). Medieval pedagogy relied a lot on repetition, and students simply wandered about through the curriculim, over and over, until perhaps the age of twenty (if funds and interest held out). In short, there was no particular correspondence between age and studies.

Academic masters rented a room for lecture (or used a street corner) and waited for students the way shopkeepers wait for customers. Once the students left, he had no more authority over them than would a shopkeeper. So ten-year-old boys (always boys) were living by themselves in rented rooms. (Or, more likely, a room, shared with several other kids.) A few lived with parents, if the parents lived in the school town. Several lived with clerics or academic masters, on terms similar to apprenticeship.

Rudyard Kipling's Kim would have been very much at home in such a schooling environment – much more so than in the 19th-century-style British boarding school that Kipling had to put him in and then hastily narrated over.

II. A New Institution: The College

This describes the development of our modern schooling from the medieval schools. It grew from the dormitory outward, so to speak. First, "colleges" were residences for students, period (but already showing more care to control the way children mingle with society). Then, the teachers moved in with the students. Then they began segregating the students and subjects according to age.

III. The Origins of the School Class

This chapter studies the ever-finer divisions of schooling, matching subjects to more and more carefully distinguished age groups, until now the class or form a child is in is (or "ought" to be) a near synonym for its age. The class as an academic entity was well realized by the beginning of the 17th century; it did not become a near-homogenous age grouping until the end of the 19th.

IV. The Pupil's Age

This is a highly statistical and demographic chapter, but also full of excerpts from diaries of people from several centuries. We learn that, at first, early academic development was not regarded as surprising and was rather admired. But, in the 18th century, child prodigies came to be regarded as a nuissance, to be made to stay in the "right" classes regardless of their skill level.

In the mid-17th century, boys were sent away to school at age seven. By the early 19th, this was delayed until age 10.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the age groups were not yet as finely segregated as they are now. 10–14 was the first group, the 15–18, then 19–25. But 10–18 was regarded socially as pretty homogenous.

V. The Progress of Discipline

To begin with, the only discipline on students – at least in the ten-to-twenty age range – was the discipline of an inner city gang, or, at best, a very rowdy frat house.

For the wealthier students, who could live in a "college" (essentially a boarding house), it was like a fraternity. Newcomers were ferociously ragged in initiation ceremonies to whet the appetite of any anthropologist.

For poorer students, there was a life of wandering bands, younger ones supporting their elders by begging and odd jobs and foraging; the elders both protecting and bullying the younger. There was no particular adult intervention in their affairs. These wanderers were a legitimate part of society (though not very respectable, of course, and people weren't above shooting at them if they looked like raiding the crops or chicken coop).

In between the frat-rats and the gangsters were prentices, whose apprenticeship terms included schooling, tuition paid by their master.

By the 15th century, though, the growing concept of childhood was eroding this near-tribal system. Schoolmasters began to take quasi-parental responsibility for the students instead of just treating them as customers or being the senior members of the gang. The masters' responsibilities grew as the children were increasingly recognized as "weak." The old, semi-democratic system of independent studentry was outlawed or absorbed into a more modern and authoritarian system; "This system was distinguished by three principal characteristics: constant supervision, informing raised to the level of an institution and a principle of government, and the extended application of corporal punishment."

"Informing" is, bluntly, spying and snitching, usually the assigned duties of specific people – usually older students. (The birth of the hall monitor.)

Corporal punishment was a (doubtless unwelcome) innovation. The life of a medieval student was rough, and he might be infomally beaten by senior students, but actual infractions of rules were punished by fines, or by strictures like being temporarily banned from the taverns. It was in the Renaissance that teachers began hitting students. A century after the practice started, school rules find it necessary to add that beatings should not cause injury. As time wore on, beating became more widely used, spreading up the age levels and replacing the old system of fine. (Lest I paint the Middle Ages too rosily, I'll add that medievals allowed the beating of servants and peasants quite commonly. Just not students.) By the 17th century, 20-year-olds were being whipped.

Little children were always spanked (until very recently). This extention of the birch rod up the age levels marks how those age levels were increasingly regarded as juvenile.

We don't think of the Middle Ages as highly democratic, but in fact, these changes in school structure were part of more general changes in Europe, from a more elastic and democratic system to the autocratic, absolute monarchies that developed over the Renaissance and peaked in the 18th century. It was about this same point in time that corporal punishment in schools peaked and began to recede, too, as did the monitor system.

VI. From Day School to Boarding School

This chapter traces the shift from relatively independent students living in rented lodgings near the school to semi-claustrated students living at the school. Along the way, it examines many variations and mixtures of these two themes.

The motive for confining children for longer and longer periods of their childhoods was to ensure they were in the right moral and academic atmosphere, which once again shows the growing awareness of childhood as a time when the individual is specially impressionable. Boarding schools began to decline in the latter half of the 19th century as they lost credibility as good child-molders. It wasn't that children went back on their own recognizance; it was that families were more and more unwilling to be separated from their children. (The classic misgiving about boarding schools now is that they are less nurturing than home.) And now we have the home schooling movement...

VII. The 'Little Schools'

This chapter examines the history of primary education; the previous ones have dealt with it only peripherally. In the Middle Ages, when children were taught to read (if they were taught to read), they were generally taught to read Latin, at the same time as they learned it, along with much Latin liturgy, all under ecclesiastical authority, though perhaps at one remove (e.g. by a schoolmaster hired or licensed by the church).

These kids were all slated to become clerics. Lay children learned by being out there in adult society, often in some form of apprenticeship. (Page boys, for instance, were apprentice gentry.)

Back at the school, writing was taught, but less urgently than reading. There were guilds of professional scribes who were the real writers. Clerics and scribes were the semi-competing literacy professions of the times. Even they relied on memory more than we do. Medievals regarded written matter somewhat as we regard(ed) calculators – under suspicion of being a crutch for those who don't really know their stuff.

Medieval arithmetic was a challenge, not only because it had to make do with Roman numerals, but because its chief use was commercial and all the monetary systems were as ragged as the pre-decimal English system. (It may have struck you that, between ignorance of Latin, literacy-drained mnemonic skills, and lack of arithmetic agility, a time-traveler from the 20th century might strike a medieval as not only a foreigner but a badly-educated one.)

In the Renaissance, more and more non-clerical students got sent to the village church schools, which evolved into village schoolhouses familiar to us in plays and books of the 19th century (and familiar to my late father-in-law from personal experience). As the schools became less clerical, the schoolmasters tended less and less often to be priests or monks, or hired by the church, and more and more to be scribes and hired by the town. (Scribes combined the modern functions of notaries, accountants, town clerks, and the kind of lawyer the British call a solicitor, as well as being schoolmasters and choirmasters, and, sometimes, cops.) Then the school- masters split off and became a rival guild. Somewhere in here, c1600, girls began getting primary education. I was interested to learn that secondary education for the lower classes declined in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, on the grounds that it "turned them against manual labor and made social misfits of them." Secondary education became a middle- and upper-class status marker. Aries interprets this as part of a growing alienation bewteen classes that culminated in the revolutions of the 19th century.

VIII. The Roughness of Schoolchildren

We are alarmed today about violence in the schools. It turns out to be the return of an old problem. 5-year-olds used to go armed. Students used to check their weapons at the door, like coats. "The judicial authorities of towns with colleges were for ever forbidding the pupils to wear swords" well into the 18th century. Armed revolts were a fairly common problem. Dueling was popular in 17th century French schools, when it was a general plague in society.

Conclusion: School and the Duration of Childhood

In this chapter, we learn a little about the status of girls and women. Because they were not sent away to schools, girls went on having a medieval-style childhood, entering adult life around age seven, getting married at twelve or thirteen, and so on. This began changing around 1700, when schools for girls, with the same age gradations as boys', began to appear.

Classwise, all this schooling applied only to the rising middle class. The poor and the gentry went on in the medieval fashion, at first. The churches set up schools for the poor, but many people, including educators, resisted the idea of educating the proles "beyond their station" and producing a labor shortage. Fortunately, they had very little success. (Or I wouldn't be here at a terminal, with my ancestry of farmers and factory workers.)

Part Three: The Family

I. Pictures of the Family

As he did with children, Aries uses popular art to document the rise of attention paid to the family. He notes an engraving from the late 1600s, captioned, "Happy is he who obeys the laws of Heaven and devotes the best years of his life to serving God, his family, and his king." He notes that family is now up there with God and king.

Aries links this rise of family firmly to the rise of childhood as an object of concern, since the family as it was becoming in this period is more and more centered on providing for the child. He compares this state of things in the Renaissance with the medieval situation, in which family groupings hardly ever appear in iconography.

In place of the modern "conjugal family" (of which the famous "nuclear family" is an example), the medieval concept of family was dominated by the idea of the bloodline. It begins to lose ground to the conjugal family in the 14th century, and, interestingly, women lose ground with it. Aries quotes a historian of medieval France named Petiot: "Starting in the fourteenth century, we see a slow and steady deterioration of the wife's position in the household. She loses the right to take the place of the husband in his absence or insanity... Finally, in the sixteenth century, the married woman is placed under a disability so that any acts she performs without the authority of her husband or the law are null and void. This development strengthens the powers of the husband, who is finally established as a sort of domestic monarch." ... "While lineal ties weakened, the husband's authority in the home became stronger, and his wife and children were more rigorously subject to it. This dual movement, in so far as it was the unconscious and spontaneous work of custom, undoubtedly reveals a change in social manners and conditions..."

II. From the Medieval Family to the Modern Family

Women weren't the only ones to suffer loss of status in the Renaissance.

Aries describes the medieval family as one in which the natural children did not hang around long. They were apprenticed out or fostered out around age seven to ten. Their place at home was taken by incoming fosterlings and apprentices. Or they hired out as servants. There was not, then, a lot of distinction between a child and a servant. ("Valet" and "varlet" both come from a word for "boy," as does "garcon.") But being a servant, then, was an honored position. Sons of the house would also be servants. This rule extended all the way up the social ladder, where, at the top, the king's butler was himself a high-ranking lord.

In the Renaissance, servants spiraled up in age and down in class, until they bottomed out in the types familiar to us from "Upstairs, Downstairs." At the same time, the children stopped being sent out to be someone else's servants, went to school instead, and were increasingly kept away from the increasingly low-class servants (except for special nannies) for fear these would be a bad influence. Medieval parents never gave a thought to social "influences" on the kids.

Aries gives an interesting snapshot of medieval domestic life. It was very indiscriminate. We all know that most medievals lived in hovels, right? Well, they slept in them, but they didn't live in them. Mostly, the lived in the marketplace and the street and the shop and the great houses. We suppose a great house to be very empty, with the fortunate few luxuriating in cavernous privacy. Not then. The family proper was garnished around with servants, many of them fosterlings, a large cast of visiting friends and relations, beggars who had wandered in to mooch, and various tradesmen (with their prentices) who all made housecalls and stayed for lunch. All different ages, sexes, and classes tumbled together.

Even the architecture reflected this. Except for the kitchen, there were no specialized rooms like bedrooms, dining rooms, or drawing rooms (originally "withdrawing" rooms). There were just rooms. The servants (i.e. your nephews, or your friends' sons, or students, etc.) set up tressel tables when there was a meal (at no very fixed time), or set up beds, quant. suff., when it got dark. There weren't many hallways and corridors; these are an invention to allow you to get from room to room without going through the intervening rooms – for privacy. There was no privacy. "The historians taught us long ago that the King was never left alone. But in fact, until the end of the seventheenth century, nobody was ever left alone."

No wonder introverts are a minority. It's natural selection.

Conclusion: The Family and Sociability

This indiscriminate medieval sociability was antithetical to the concept and values of the modern family. As the one grew, the other waned. Life in general split into private life, professional life, and social life, the three touching only through controlled diplomatic channels.

At the center of this all, according to Aries, is the figure of the child. This complex system of privacy, which we take for granted, exists primarily so parents can protect their children and control the way they are raised, for we now accept unquestioningly that raising children is an important and delicate process.

Comment from Jim Burrows:

I've heard it said that 19th century fromtier (US West) literacy was higher than today's. I don't know that this is accurate, but given the bits and pieces I know about people like Frank James (who likened one of Quantrel's raids in the War Between the States to Thermopolae – quick, tell me about THAT battle) and nearly homeless ruffians like Bill Bonny (who wroter a couple of letters to the governor, which I have read) and so forth, I wouldn't be all that surprised.

Hell, if you weren't lettered how could you read the penny dreadfuls or know about Lily Langtree and other important Western issues?

Reply from Jon Callas:

It depends a lot on what you consider literacy to be. There's a problem in the whole literacy debate that we keep changing the definitions of what it means to be literate. In those days, you were literate if you could read your own signature. These days, anything under an 8th grade reading level is illiteracy.

The person who mouthed out a penny dreadful over the course of weeks (because there's no other entertainment out on the farm) would be considered lettered. The same person would be unlettered today.

There's good reason for raising the bar, as it were. You need to read a lot more today than then. But by using the same word to mean different things, reality gets blurred.

Comment from Earl Wajenberg: Don't be adult; we have enough dults.

This week, a landlord in Manchester, NH, succeeded in evicting a tobacco shop on the main street that had turned into an "adult" book and video store. (Also selling "paraphernalia," which sounds very different in that context.) He and city hall are happy because this removes an obstacle in their efforts to revitalize the downtown (vampirically drained by malls). The store owner is, of course, not happy. (He may move to a mall.) But the label "adult" got me thinking.

Centuries of Childhood documents that, in the Middle Ages, children were in no way shielded from seamy behavior, and in fact participated in it to the physiological limit. Then the cultural elite of that time decided children should be cloistered away from seaminess and gradually enforced that view, especially on the rising middle class.

I don't think many people would advocate returning children to the laisser-faire medieval system, but the cloistering has had the unfortunate consequence that seaminess – pornography, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, etc. – is now specifically "adult." Any healthy child wants to be "all grown up" with the consequence that seamy stuff often becomes a goal to be achieved. This may be part of the current reason (there's always some reason) why "kids today are no damn' good."

Reply from Jamie Anderson:

When Amsterdam had a full sized flea market there was a stall that sold hard porn magazines and kids comics. The kids used to have a quick giggle at the porn on their way to the infinitely more interesting comics. I remember on several occasions watching American tourists having hissy fits when they saw kids near porn.

Currently the sole porn stall in that market sells no comics and is thus ignored by kids.

Basically kids ignore sex until they are old enough.

In a discussion about Michael Jackson in another conference it was suggested that adults taking showers with children constitutes sexual abuse of the child. Sooner or later changing diapers is going to become an chargeable offense.

When I first visited the USA in the 60s I was flabbergasted at the over-protection of the children, until they reached 18, then the males were sent out to get killed in Vietnam.

Return to Introduction to Essays
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop

Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011