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The Massacre of the Innocents

Finally, there was the deliberate breaking of the young child’s will, first by the harshest physical beating and later by overwhelming psychological pressures, which were thought to be the key to successful child-rearing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These four factors all contributed to a “psychic numbing” which created an adult world of emotional cripples, whose primary responses to others were at best a calculating indifference and at worst a mixture of suspicion and hostility, tyranny and submission, alienation and rage.

Given the validity of “psychohistory” as a legitimate enterprise, which is the most profitable field in which this research can be pursued? In my opinion, it will not be in the application of this or that psychological theory to the analysis of some particular person in history—Luther or Leonardo da Vinci or Woodrow Wilson or Hitler or Gandhi. What can more fruitfully be done is to study changes in family patterns and structures of specific classes or status groups in particular places. These changes will include relations of the nuclear core to the kin and the community, and economic and social power and affective relations between both husbands and wives and parents and children.

In that sense van den Berg, Ariès, and deMause are pursuing a far more promising line of historical inquiry than those who have tried to use psychology to interpret the behavior of individual figures in the past. I just do not think that such things as the extermination of six million Jews can be explained by the alleged fact that Hitler’s mother was killed by treatment given her by a Jewish doctor in an attempt to cure her cancer of the breast; or that Luther’s defiance of the Roman church can be explained by the brutal way he was treated by his father or by his chronic constipation.

These things may perhaps be necessary causes, but they certainly are not sufficient, and the result of such work to date has been disappointing, partly because of the flimsiness of the evidence of childhood experience, partly because of the speculative nature of the causal links with adult behavior, partly because of the neglect of the influence of the great processes of historical change in religion, economics, politics, society, and so on. As Malinowski pointed out in 1927, “Man disposes of a body of material possessions, lives within a type of social organization, communicates by language, and is moved by systems of spiritual values.”3 Any explanation of his history which ignores these cultural facts is not likely to be very convincing.

The first general model of childhood development in the West was that of Philippe Ariès. It is a pessimistic one of degeneration from an era of freedom and sociability to an era of oppression and isolation. According to him the Middle Ages and the sixteenth century were a period of happy social polymorphism, in which there were no divisions of ranks or ages, no separation of the child from the adult, no privacy, no external pressures from the state or the needs of an industrial economy, no internalized work ethic. Children and adults mixed together easily and naturally, wearing the same clothes, playing the same games, and working together on the same jobs. They also shared from the beginning a common knowledge of both sex and death.

In the seventeenth century, as a result of the spread of new kinds of Christianity into both Protestant and Catholic regions, a new attitude toward children developed, an event he describes as “the discovery of childhood.” This was not the work of Renaissance humanists but of seventeenth-century clergy. There was a rising concern for the child, which took two forms. First, there was a tightening of family bonds, along with the isolation of the family from external influences and a growing concern by the parents for their children; and secondly, there was a growing fear of the inherent corruptibility of the child by sin, leading to severity toward him in the home and to his isolation in schools regimented by age groups and disciplined to suppress all signs of moral backsliding. Medieval sociability was replaced not by Enlightenment individualism but by the isolated child-centered family and by the school, in both of which the prime concern was the taming of the will.

The rise of the repressive boarding school is the significant feature of this development, involving as it did a progressive extension of the period of childhood into adolescence and even beyond: “The central event is quite obvious: the extension of school education.” This transformation of attitudes toward childhood preceded demographic change, and indeed became itself the cause of demographic change when in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it inspired a deliberate policy of contraception.

Ariès’s book has had a dazzling success and has been the primum mobile of the study of family history in the last decade. As a pioneer work, erudite, imaginative, and inventive, it deserves all the praise and attention it has received. It is the kind of path-breaking book no traditional historian could have written, and without it our culture would be the poorer. But for all its seminal brilliance, there remain unanswered certain basic questions: Is its methodology sound? Is its data reliable? Is its causal hypothesis valid? Are the alleged facts and alleged consequences true? In short, is the model correct, and if so, for what areas and for what classes?

In the first place, Ariès omits to point out the undeniable fact that between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century the institution of the family lost many of its older functions to a series of impersonal institutions, such as poorhouses for the indigent, alms houses for the old, hospitals for the sick, schools for the children, banks for credit, and insurance companies for protection against catastrophe. Its legal, political, and economic functions declined before the ever-encroaching march of the institutions of the modern state. This functional erosion enhanced the prominence of the last area of family concern, the nurturance and socialization of the infant and young child.

Furthermore, the power of the state undermined the influence of the kin, and thus increased the isolation and privacy of the nuclear family. This process can hardly be called the rise of the family, but rather its reorientation to serve a narrower, more specialized function. The rise of the school is best seen not as part of the same process as the growth of the child-oriented family, but as its very antithesis, the transfer to an impersonal institution of a socializing function previously performed by the family. Moreover, although the repressive school was based on the theory of original sin, it was only in its first stage, in the seventeenth century, that the more child-centered family was also repressive, and there is clear evidence that by the eighteenth century among the English upper classes it was loving, affectionate, and nurturant.

Thus Ariès’s model is broken-backed, for his two agents of change, the child-centered family and the repressive school, were pulling in different directions and were caused by different ideas and influences. It thus lacks explanatory cohesion, as both Hunt and deMause point out. Moreover, its use of evidence, particularly iconographic evidence from art, to prove that the “discovery of childhood” actually happened, is not very convincing. For example, we now know for certain that although the Florentine bourgeoisie of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries decorated their houses with painted and sculptured putti, they emptied them of flesh and blood babies, who were all sent out to wet nurses in the countryside. Putti, which Ariès uses as evidence of the discovery of childhood, are therefore really not evidence at all.

In addition, the thesis has a unilinear view of historical evolution which is contrary to the known facts. Children were more harshly treated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and again in the nineteenth century at the two peaks of religious zeal for moral reform than they were in the eighteenth or twentieth centuries, and perhaps also than in the fifteenth century. Ariès’s chronology is very vague. One can never be quite sure whether one is dealing with the sixteenth or the seventeenth or the eighteenth century, and the book dodges about from century to century in a most confusing and indeed ahistorical way.

It is as vague in its geography as it is in its chronology, ranging casually from Italy to France to England for its evidence. For example, the presence of effigies of long-dead babies on tombs was relatively rare in France, but extremely common in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—a distinction whose significance Ariès completely ignores. Flogging died out in French schools in the eighteenth century but persisted in English schools into the twentieth. Wet-nursing died out in eighteenth-century England but persisted well into the nineteenth century in France on a very large scale. Geography clearly matters.

There is also too little attention paid to the particular class which is being dealt with. Ariès deduces the attitude to infantile sexuality of the society as a whole from that of the entourage of the future Louis XIII. The development of the boarding school teaching the classics, which affected only a tiny minority of the population, becomes a key event in early modern history. And finally, the powerful historical forces that affected the family so profoundly, changes in religion, political power, industrialization, urbanization, and poverty, are virtually ignored. Ariès’s book is in fact a history of French schools, and of upper-class and middle-class parents and children, that lacks the necessary historical context of time, place, class, and culture. A fascinating pioneering book, it is now recognized to be badly flawed in both its methodology and its conclusions.

David Hunt’s book is a psychological gloss on that by Ariès. It begins with a brilliant critique of Eriksonian egopsychology, pointing out that the latter’s optimism is ill-founded, for generativity is a fragile cultural artifact, not an instinctive human response. Consequently, in reality children have often been neglected and abused. Hunt also criticizes Ariès’s historical model for its nostalgic, even reactionary, Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft Durkheimian view of change, and for its exaggerated stress on the school.

He then settles down to a detailed analysis of Dr. Héroard’s account of the upbringing of the infant Louis XIII. He stresses the child’s very close relation to his father, the all-powerful and virile Henry IV, and his very distant relations with his mother; and the way the child’s will was deliberately broken from the age of two by frequent whippings in order to instill the basic principle of obedience. He points to Louis’s later life as an unhappy, semi-impotent husband and, by a great leap of the imagination, attributes this to the experiences of his upbringing: knowing the physical facts of sex but not their psychological meaning, confused by contradictory signals about what was permitted and what was not, cowed by frequent whippings, and more or less isolated from his mother. Hunt further stresses the traumatic nature of the break at the age of seven, when he put on adult clothes, and was transferred from the control of women to that of men. His conclusion is that not sex, not anality, but “infantile autonomy was the major child-rearing problem in seventeenth century society,” and that this was linked to anxieties about status in a hierarchical law-and-order society.

  1. 3

    Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society (London, 1927), p. 18.

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