Does childhood have a history? Are the experiences of children, and the relations between children and their elders, constants of human nature, universal through time and space, or are they social constructs, radically differing from culture to culture and from age to age? At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries William Wordsworth wrote of childhood and youth as a uniquely privileged time of innocence and insight—“Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” a paradisal state from which growing up was a progressive exile and disenchantment—“Shades of the prison- house begin to close/Upon the growing boy.” After Freud we cannot quite subscribe to so idealized an understanding of the dreaming innocence of youth. Nevertheless the distinctiveness of childhood as a state utterly different from adulthood is deeply ingrained in our culture, and encoded in icons of childhood as different as Peter Pan and Huckleberry Finn.
In 1960 the French demographic historian Philippe Ariès published a remarkable book, L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime, translated two years later as Centuries of Childhood, in which he advanced a dramatic hypothesis. Childhood did indeed have a history, he argued, but it was a short and comparatively recent one, for the very concept of childhood was a product of modern thought. Before the seventeenth century, though children existed, childhood did not: a child was regarded as a small and inadequate adult, and the concept of the “childish” as something distinct from adults was a creation of the modern world. Medieval children, Ariès claimed, lived in the margins of adult life, with little or no distinctive cultural identity of their own. Their clothes were miniaturized versions of adult wear, they had no special culture of play, no children’s literature, there was no Wordsworthian idealization of the innocence or carelessness of childhood.
The reasons for this absence, he thought, were complex. Many children died young, and so the bonds of affection between parents and children were of necessity looser than those in the modern West, where most children can be relied on to survive into adulthood. The consequent culture of detachment manifested itself from the very beginning of infancy, for every woman who could afford it sent her infant children to wet nurses to be breast-fed, thereby depriving them, and herself, of one of the most intimate bonding experiences between mother and child. For most people the home was also the workplace, not the center of the loving affective family, but a structure for toil, in which the immature adults we call children were part of the workforce. The children of the poor worked as soon as they were able to pick stones, glean corn, scare crows, or drive a flock of geese; the children of artisans were apprenticed and went to live with their masters long before puberty; the children of the well-to-do were sent away to school, or to other households to be fostered. And because there was little or no privacy within the pre-modern …
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