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The Massacre of the Innocents

The Changing Nature of Man: Introduction to a Historical Psychology (Metabletica) John Holt)

by J.H. van den Berg, translated by H.F. Croes
Dell (new edition scheduled for Spring, 1975, with an introduction by

Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life

by Philippe Ariès, translated by Robert Baldick
Vintage Books, 447 pp., $3.25 (paper)

Parents and Children in History: The Psychology of Family Life in Early Modern France

by David Hunt
Basic Books, 229 pp., $6.95

The History of Childhood

edited by Lloyd deMause
Psychohistory Press, 450 pp., $12.50

In the year 1974 one does not have to be a historian to sense that things are getting worse. Indeed, for the first time it is possible to see the face of Doomsday peering out just around the next corner, whether it takes the form of World Government by Universal Torture, or The Bomb, or Demographic Explosion, or just Running Out of Everything. But now comes Mr. deMause with some good news at last. With all the fervor and conviction of a nineteenth-century believer in the March of Progress, he tells us that in one aspect of human life, which he is confident is the key to all others, things have been getting better and better for the last two thousand years: this is the way we treat our children. He demonstrates this in Table 3—a graph of childhood felicity in which the curve turns upward after 1300, sharply upward after 1700, and is now rising almost vertically under the influence of books like A. S. Neill’s The Free Child and R. D. Laing’s The Politics of the Family.

DeMause’s basic thesis is set out in the first paragraph of his book: “The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused.” Not so very long ago I rashly offered a hostage to fortune by writing that “Freudian psychology has not been much use to the historian, who is usually unable to penetrate the bedroom, the bathroom, or the nursery. If Freud is right, and this is where the action is, there is not much that the historian can do about it.” In his editorial foreword to the first number of the challenging new journal The History of Childhood Quarterly, of which he is the editor, deMause used this quotation as a whipping boy, asserting that on the contrary, “an entirely new field of history is about to be born.”

Although three quarters of a century have passed since Freud first drew attention to the crucial effect of childhood events in determining adult character and behavior patterns, it was not until the 1950s that there appeared the first general history of childhood in the West. Of the four significant studies of this phenomenon, all have been written by non-historians, persons who with respect to the profession are marginal men.

In 1955 J. H. van den Berg, a Dutch psychologist, published Metabletica, of Leer der veranderingen (The Changing Nature of Man), a bold, overarching, psychohistorical study of parental relations to children, based mainly on philosophical sources like Rousseau. In 1960 Philippe Ariès, a French director of publications at the Institute for Applied Research for Tropical and Subtropical Fruits, published his now famous Centuries of Childhood. In 1970 David Hunt, an American psychologist working with disturbed children, reinterpreted some of Ariès’s French seventeenth-century material in Parents and Children in History, using a modified Eriksonian model of ego-development. And now Lloyd deMause, an American academic dropout, a successful businessman and self-taught psychohistorian, has produced a collective volume, The History of Childhood, the key essay in which is his own lengthy general survey of “The Evolution of Childhood” ranging from the Greeks and Romans to the present day.

The first problem in studying the history of childhood is how to choose the appropriate psychological model. Nothing in the historical record disproves Freud’s theory about how at different stages of infantile development different erogenous zones become the foci of sexual stimulation, thus providing a logical explanation for the later relationship between oral, anal, and genital pleasure. Nor does the historical record do anything to belittle the importance of sublimation, or of the unconscious operating with a secret dynamic of its own. What it does do, however, is to cast very great doubt upon the assumption that the particular kinds of infantile traumas upon which Freud laid so much stress have been suffered by the whole of the human race at all times and in all places. It is now fairly clear that four of the main traumas Freud looked for and found among his patients, and therefore assumed to be universal, are dependent on particular experiences which did not happen to the vast majority of people in most of the recorded past, but which were peculiar to middle-class urban culture of late Victorian Europe. Provided that it was carried out slowly, as it apparently was in many cases, the oral trauma of weaning can hardly have been a serious one when it occurred as late as fifteen to eighteen months after birth. The anal trauma of toilet training is unlikely to have existed in a population which lived amid its own excrement, which hardly ever washed, and whose women and children wore no underpants.

The only detailed historical example of toilet training in the past that we have is, unfortunately, that of a less than typical person, a future king, the young Louis XIII in the early years of the seventeenth century. His training apparently did not begin until he was sixteen months or so, and was not internalized before about three years. He at any rate cannot have been traumatized by pressure to control his sphincters at an early age. We just do not know about how other children were toilet trained, but there is the strong negative evidence that contemporary child-rearing manuals do not even discuss the matter.

Although children in the past, as we shall see, had to endure far worse things, the passage through the oral and anal stages of childhood, in the purely technical sense, does not seem to have been particularly traumatic. As for the genital stage, the one example we have—again that of Louis XIII—suggests that no one was bothered by infantile and childhood sexual autoeroticism, sexual display, or sexual curiosity. Louis could get courtiers to kiss his penis, and was allowed to poke his little fist up the vaginas of several ladies-in-waiting. We also know that most families slept in one room, while even if they did not, houses were poorly constructed with thin board partitions through which it was easy to see or hear—as Fanny Hill soon found out. Consequently, from a very early age most children must have witnessed their parents and others—to say nothing of animals—engaged in sexual intercourse.

There is also the negative evidence that childhood and adolescent masturbation was not regarded as a mortal sin in the eighteenth-century Catholic confession manuals (although it was in the Middle Ages), and that although the paranoid drive to suppress all hints of autoeroticism began in 1710, it did not catch on before the early nineteenth century. Finally, we know that half of all children would have lost one parent before completing adolescence, and that in England a majority of them left home anyway between the ages of seven and fourteen, to act as servants in other people’s houses, to serve apprenticeships, or to go to boarding school. Under such circumstances the conflict of wills between parents and their adolescent children, which rips apart so many modern homes today, can have had little opportunity to develop. The identity crisis of puberty was normally passed away from home.

It is now possible to provide alternatives to these historically inappropriate traumas advanced by Freud as self-sufficient explanations of adult personality problems. As David Riesman has put it, “There has been a tendency in current social research, influenced as it is by psychoanalysis, to over-emphasize and overgeneralize the importance of very early childhood in character formation. Even within this early period, an almost technological attention has sometimes been focused on what might be called the tricks of the child-rearing trade: feeding and toilet training schedules….” This “assumes that once the child has reached, say, the weaning stage, its character structure is so formed that, barring intensive psychiatric intervention, not much that happens afterward will do more than bring out tendencies already set.”1

No one doubts that child-rearing practices affect the adult personality, but acceptance of the theories of more recent ego-psychologists like Erikson and Hartmann opens up a new range of possibilities for the historian.2 These theories involve hypotheses about the continued plasticity of the ego far into adulthood as it responds, through a series of crises, to the twin challenges of maturation and the influences of the family, the culture, and the environment. Not only do these theories have a strong ring of truth about them in the light of common experience, but they have the enormous advantage to the historian that they admit ego-development into periods of the life cycle when historical data becomes more readily available.

Secondly, since these developmental theories admit the influence of the social and cultural environment in affecting the nature, timing, and resolution of the recurring crises, they allow the historian to view the problem of ego-development in a broad historical frame. Clear evidence of distinctive features of national character, and fundamental shifts in character over time, for example from the other-directed to the inner-directed personality, can be explained in broader terms than those internal to the family itself.

This does not mean, however, that childhood experience in the past was without its effects on the adult personality. On the contrary, the experiences of the average child were so damaging that I believe that a large number of adults, at any rate of the gentry class in the period with which I am most familiar, namely, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were emotionally stunted and found it extremely difficult to establish warm personal relationships with other people.

This was probably caused by four factors. The first was the frequency with which infants at that period were deprived of a single mothering and nurturing figure to whom they could relate during the first three or four years of life. Upper-class babies were mostly taken from their real mothers and put out to wet-nurse. These nurses were often cruel or neglectful, and they often ran out of milk, as a result of which the baby had to be passed from nipple to nipple, from one unloving mother-substitute to another. Even if it stayed with one nurse, to whom it became attached, the weaning process at about eighteen months inflicted the terrible psychological trauma of final separation from the substitute mother-figure and return to the alien world of the natural mother. This kind of experience is known to be psychologically and even physically damaging, leading to “deprivation dwarfism” and emotional atrophy in later life.

The second factor was the very high death rate. The constant threat and reality of the sudden loss of a parent, nurse, brother, sister, or friend soon taught the child to be wary of sinking too much emotional capital in any human being. Thirdly, the practice of tight swaddling in the first months or even year of life is believed to isolate the infant from its surroundings and to give it a sense of both frustrated rage and yet helpless acceptance of the cruelty and duplicity of the world. Thus there could be, and often was, a combination of sensory deprivation; motor deprivation, and emotional deprivation—to say nothing of oral deprivation—in the first critical months of life, of which the consequences upon the adult personality are now known to be very serious and long lasting in reducing the capacity for warm social relationships.

  1. 1

    David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (Yale, 1950), p. 38.

  2. 2

    Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (Norton, 1963); Erik Erikson, Identity and the Life Cycle: Selected Papers (International Universities Press, 1959); Heinz Hartmann, Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation (International Universities Press, 1964).

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